How to Write an Excellent Opening for your Novel

Susan DeFCreative Writing, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

When I help my clients prepare the pitch materials for their novel, it’s not just the query and synopsis we focus on—it’s their opening pages. 

Because it doesn’t matter how snappy that query letter is, or how promising that synopsis reads: If the opening pages of the story itself don’t suck the agent or editor in, those pages won’t have the desired effect on readers, which means the book won’t sell.

Needless to say, books that don’t sell are not the type of books agents and editors are interested in.

I’ve written elsewhere about the basics that pros are looking for in the opening pages of a novel: A clear point of view, a compelling voice, compelling characters, specific details, and tension of some type.

I’ve also noted the less obvious things: an internal struggle/vulnerability/weakness that signals the beginning of a character arc; one or more story elements that raise questions, thereby stimulating the reader’s curiosity; and well-integrated backstory.

But none of that answers a burning question so many of us have: How do I know if I’m actually starting in the right place?

Read about the three key elements of crafting an excellent opening in the blog post I wrote for Jane Friedman, here.

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5 Signs You’re Ready to Pitch Your Work

Susan DeFCreative Writing, Hot Season, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

Apparently, it was Hippocrates who first said something to the effect of “Life is short, art is long”–but it could just as easily have been a fiction writer.

Chances are, if you’re writing fiction now, this art form got a hold of you when you were just a kid, swept up in the magic of books that transported you to other worlds, touching your heart even and expanding your mind.

I know I was One Hundred Percent That Kid. (Famously, my dad could barely get my head out of a book to look at the Rocky Mountains on a road trip one summer.)

Because that magic feels so easy to experience, many people think it should be easy to create.

In fact, I’ve had many clients over the years who always wanted to write fiction, but chose other career paths, becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers instead (you know, probably because they liked the idea of having a steady paycheck)–and these clients are almost always shocked to discover how much time and effort it actually takes to write a 300-page story that someone who is not related to them will actually want to read.

I don’t love being the bearer of bad news that way. But I do love this art form, and I love helping people to get over the finish line with their first published book.

It was certainly a long road for me to publication with my first novel, Hot Season–and it’s been quite a process with my current work-in-progress, a collection of short stories called Dream Studies.

But I’ve been around the block a time or two, and at this point, I recognize the signs that I’m close to lift-off this next project.

Wondering how close you are to that with your own WIP?

Here are 5 signs that indicate you’re nearing the finish line with your book:

1. You’ve received enthusiastic feedback

The number one mistake I see writers make is not getting feedback on their work–which can lead to a sense of shock when that story you thought was so dialed in proves nigh-on incomprehensible to your readers.

Or when the protagonist you love is one that many readers just don’t understand or can’t connect with.

Or when readers point out some basic flaw in your story logic or world building that you were just too close to the story to see.

Not all feedback is created equal, and it’s easy to get burned. But finding a reliable source of qualified feedback, whether it’s a critique group, a beta reader, or someone like me, really does tend to be critical in the process of bringing a book to market.

And when you’ve gotten enthusiastic feedback from those type of folks? There’s a good chance publishing pros will feel the same.

2. You no longer have the urge to rewrite your opening every time you read it

When a story is still in flux, it’s normal to want to rewrite–and rewrite, and rewrite–your opening. Because every time you return to that opening, you know more about the story, and you can see that opening’s flaws in the hard light of day.

That process is oftentimes necessary, in terms of creating smooth, clear, intriguing point of entry for your story. (And FYI, that really is the aim with an opening–not getting everything but the kitchen sink on the page.)

But when you’re nearing the finish line with a WIP, that urge to rewrite the opening tends to dissipate–not in terms of the urge to tighten up the language (that never goes away) but in terms of the urge to find a different or better point of entry.

And often, that’s really just the product of trial and error: You’ve tried other options, and this is the strongest.

3. You’re just futzing

One of my early mentors used to say you knew it was time to send a piece out on submission when instead of revising you were really just “adding and subtracting the same commas.”

I think the same is true with little bits and pieces of language: If you’ve cut it, read over the piece, and then decided to add that little piece right back in, it might be time to stage an intervention.

Which is to say: It might be time to stop futzing and start pitching.

4. Another project is starting to knock on your door

You know that point where you hit some tough slog in the midst of your WIP and start to daydream about the new (better, smarter, sparklier) other book idea you’ve had? The one that’s so much better, because you don’t yet know what will be hard about actually trying to write it?

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about here is when you genuinely are starting to tire of the process of revising and polishing old work, and starting to feel the pull of a new idea–the urge to sit down and begin that nervy, exciting, anything-can-happen process of creating a fresh draft of a new idea.

This tends to be a good indicator that your current WIP is nearly ready to pitch.

5. You’re starting to imagine where your book fits in the marketplace

When clients are still in the early stages with a book, I often advise them not to think too much about the market for it, because they’re often still very much in the process of discovering what that book actually is.

But there comes a time when you know what your WIP is and what it isn’t. You’ve gotten a good sense of what other kinds of books it’s in conversation with. And you have a realistic idea what sort of publisher might want to publish such a book.

That too is a key indicator tends to be a good indicator that you’re ready to start sending that book out on submission.

Regardless of where you are in the journey with your current WIP, I hope this post has helped you to get clear on the signs that it’s time to starting thinking about querying.

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What Character Arc Isn’t

Susan DeFCreative Writing, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

I write a lot about character arc, and I talk a lot about it with my clients.

Because if there’s a magic bullet for creating a novel that sucks the reader in, holds her attention, and ultimately makes her feel like it was worth the 6+ hours it took to read that book, character arc is it.

Many writers are clueless about the importance of a character arc for their protagonist, but I find that even those who do understand how important it is often still don’t know what it takes to actually make one work in practice.

Basically, there’s one key mistake they’re making: When it comes to the major events of the plot, they’re focusing on how their protagonist feels in the moment, based on different issues in their past, rather than on how that emotional reaction connects with their character arc.

To see how this works in practice, head over to Jane Friedman’s site to read the full blog post and how I build a little story, starting with just the plot.

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Why can it be so difficult to improve old work?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

If you’ve been with me a while, you know that I’m revising a collection of short fiction, with the goal of getting it ready to submit by the end of the year.

Some of the stories in this collection are new, and some are old–and right now, I’m revising an old one, set at the boarding school for the arts I attended as a teen.

In doing so, I’ve been struck by how hard it can be sometimes to revise old work. And I’ve been thinking about why that is.

Because I know it’s not just me: Clients come to me all the time looking for help with a novel that they’ve worked hard on, that they believe in, that they set aside for one reason or another and are now having a tough time revising.

So: Why can it be so difficult to improve old work?

Sometimes it’s just that “the thrill is gone”–so much time has passed that we are different people now than we were when we wrote that story.

Sometimes it’s just that those sentences have fit together in exactly that way for so long it’s hard to change them (and hard not to revert to previous phrasing even when we do).

Sometimes it’s the story itself that feels set in stone, to the point where it’s unthinkable that we would jettison any of it (even when we know the story as a whole is not working).

But sometimes, I think, it’s just that we put so much into our early work, and try to cram so much into it, that it’s difficult to narrow the focus in revision.

That’s what I think is the case for me with this short story I’ve been wrestling with.

Because this story is set in such a potent period of my own life, there is so much emotion here, so many things I wanted to say with this story–so many moods and images and moments and threads, about art, about friendship, about life, that I really just overstuffed the thing (FYI, it’s a 10K-word short story–not exactly short!).

Which is really just a variation on an issue that tends to plague memoir writers: When you’re drawing on the truth of your own life, it can be hard to narrow the focus to just what’s important to the story.

And yet, that’s exactly what you have to do, in most cases, to get that manuscript back on track, and headed toward publication.

Because as you narrow the focus, you deepen the effect. This gives the story a clearer sense of being about something–something important.

That takes some bravery, if you’ve worked on a piece forever, and this was really brought home to me recently by a coaching client who was having trouble letting go of elements of her current draft–even though she knew that draft wasn’t working.

When I dug a little deeper on this, she confessed, “I just don’t know if I could ever write that well again.”

Which I honestly found just a bit heartbreaking. Because how can we ever move forward, if that is true?

I told her the same thing I tell myself when I feel that way–when I feel that sense of preciousness about old language, and old story, even when I know it’s not working:

“Your best work is never behind you.”

And that, my friends, is always true–whether that work lies in revising an old manuscript or in letting it go and starting something new.

PS. Have an old manuscript you could use some fresh eyes on? My next spot for a full manuscript evaluation opens up on September 1st; you can fill out my client-interest form here.

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