Saturday, March 19, 2016

Where do I start?

I've received two requests for fulls (woo hoo!) from my first round of querying about 20 agents. Yes, you were in that round and sent me a polite no. Before I started querying, I worked with an editor who has a literary bent. She was fabulous and strongly believed I should start my book with Chapter A, which is something of an "intro" but squarely puts the deeper drama of the story in the reader's hands by the third paragraph.

My main beta reader is a successful commercial thriller writer - and boy, does he know how to start a book. He disagreed with literary editor and suggested I flip the order of my first two chapters, following instead the rule of starting "in scene" in a tense moment, then inserting the "intro" into Chapter 2.

My book is a crime family saga that is more literary than commercial, but it's not exactly literary enough to win prizes. So I followed Thriller Writer's suggestion.

My first requested full came from a query only, no sample pages. The second requested full came today from a kind agent who flat out told me she didn't connect with the first chapter (that was all she requested with the query), but she was intrigued enough by the premise that she wanted to read the rest. Most agents won't give me such benefit of the doubt. I'm wondering, should I now flip the chapters for the next round of queries to see if a different first chapter connects better?

Or does it matter? I'm sure all agents are savvy enough to discern from the query and the writing style when it's possible the writer just hasn't started in the right place, but they don't have time or interest to grant the leeway I was so graciously given today.

If you had any idea about how we chew over stuff like this here, you'd feel right at home. This week I worked on a pitch letter--17 revisions later I think we have the final version. And that's small potatotes compared to a novel.

But what those two things have in common is that in the end, you have to have confidence in that final draft.

So, you'll read it over. You'll get some opinions, and then you'll fret some more.

There is no right or wrong answer to this because every reader comes to a book with different tastes. I love starting in the middle of action, but it drives me bat shit crazy to then LEAVE the action and start filling in the backstory.

Keep a log of which "first chapter" garners the most requests. Use that info to refocus/revise as needed.


LynnRodz said...

How do I start? Let me count the ways.

Gee, I hope when I begin to query my problem will be, do I get more offers starting with chapter one or chapter two. Janet's advice is spot on, get more opinions. Ask your CPs, beta readers, family, friends...strangers to read the first two chapters and weigh in on which is better to start with. I would give half starting with one chapter and the other half starting with the other and see what they think before asking them their advice if you had reversed the order.

Sometimes it's hard to get people to read your entire manuscript in a short amount of time (they do have lives, you know) but they should be able to do two chapters rather quickly. If you're still undecided, send out 5 or 10 queries with each and see which one gives you better results. Fingers crossed for you, Opie.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie, congrats on receiving 2 requests with just 20 queries. (I'm still in the trenches putting skin on my novel's muscles and tendons, only to find out I forgot to put ligaments in the knees.) I like Janet's statement "you have to have confidence in that final draft."

Which chapter do you prefer first?

Or, perhaps it depends upon which agent you send it to. If you send it to an agent representing literary novels do it as your editor recommended. If you're sending the ms to an agent who represents thrillers, do as your beta reader suggested. If it's an agent who represents both (would there be?) then perhaps an email explaining your dilemma?

Keep a log, as the Shark suggested and also add whether the agent is literary or thriller.

Just more food for thought.

BJ Muntain said...

Something that might help, with agents who have interviews online, is to see if they're ever asked what they prefer, and if they are, what they say. You may find some who want to connect with the reader before finding themselves in action, and you may find others who want to start in media res.

I do that for prologues. I'll send the first pages with or without the prologue, as the agent prefers. When I send the full, I of course include the prologue.

Maybe I should do that for beginnings, too. I've had critique partners in different groups giving me conflicting advice. Last year, I put my work in front of a group of authors in a workshop, and was told by the workshop leader to start the novel a few pages in. I've been going back and forth, trying to find the best beginning anyway, so I changed it. At a conference last summer, I did a blue pencil with an editor, and while he didn't know what I'd cut at the beginning, he basically said that I needed to add in what those cut pages had.

I believe that if you're getting conflictng advice - especially from industry professionals, as these the workshop leader and editor were - then it's possible you're at the point where it's a matter of taste, more than skill. While you can do something about skill, you can't please every reader's taste. If your beginning reaches this point, then it might be time to stop worrying as much (you'll never stop) about the beginning, until you get an agent or editor willing to work with you to get it published.

Congrats on the requests!

BJ Muntain said...

Sorry. I need another coffee. "You may find some who want to connect with the reader" should be "connect with the character".


Coffee ho!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OP, I know how you feel. I have an outstanding full from a pitch and a pending R&R. The agent requesting the full told me if she stopped reading the full, she would let me know exactly where and why she stopped. That will be great except I don't want her to stop. Another agent asked for a partial after I started my R&R- I told her I was doing a revision and did she want me to send what I had or the revised version. She said always send my best work. So I am filled with all sorts of angst.

I sent my revised manuscript back to a particularly harsh and honest beta reader and am waiting that feedback, and all the while, I want to keep moving forward. Good luck, OP. This is not a process for the feint of heart to be sure.

Lance said...

Congratulations! Two out of 20? Outstanding. James Michener wrote sagas. His first chapter was in the Paleozoic or some other geologic period. Patrick Lee doesn't write sagas; he starts in the action. His second chapter builds on the momentum from his first chapter. Have you written a saga or a thriller?

With all due respect, I think polling others on how to start will not be helpful until you answer that question.

You obviously have a great story. Decide what it is and go for it.

Sherry Howard said...

First pages are the devil that flicks flames at our feet throughout the months of writing and querying. Every writer must connect with this conflict.

As long as it's clearly a matter of taste, and not confusion, there's really no answer, and JR's suggestion should help clarify that. But, confusion for the reader in the opening is instant death.

I just beta read a friend's work and the first chapter was terrible, although the rest of it was decent. It was terrible because it left me confused until the second page. And then I read another MS, in the same week, that did the same thing. Each writer created the confusion in different ways. Please don't try to be so creative with first pages that the hook/mystery/action leave the reader so frustrated they won't read on. Sprinkle a few raindrops of story questions but don't start with a tsunami.

Colin Smith said...

Here's my take--and this kind of goes along with what Janet said about having confidence in the final draft: Which do you love? It's your novel. Clearly opinion is divided, and you won't be able to please all agents, editors, and readers. But you have to go with what you think best tells your story, and best represents you as a writer if you're going to be able to persuade others to read it. It's your name on the cover. You have to own every editorial decision.

Read the opening chapters again Opie, first one way, then the other. One of them will speak to you more than the other. That's the one you go with. It's no different than when you get conflicting beta reader/cp feedback. You weigh each comment, go with what makes sense to you, and reject what doesn't.

But for goodness sake, don't sacrifice your artistic integrity just to please an agent. You don't want to be a prima donna. But you don't want to be a doormat either. Rememeber: it's your name on the cover.

Craig F said...

Yes OP, very much congratulations on your journey so far.

Every reader has a different idea of what they want at the start of a story. If you have an established brand you can do weird shit because most of your readers are already comfortable with your protagonist.

For a debut writer it is harder. I feel that you need to ground your characters a little so the reader begins to feel that comfort. I then like to toss in a twist of some sort to make a bang. I like to blindside my characters to start some tension.

Unknown said...

I was about to say something like what Colin said, though probably not as well. Echoing others, congratulations on the great story you have!

For me, the challenge of incorporating beta reader comments is to open myself up as fully as possible so the feedback can work in beautiful and unexpected ways on my story and characters. And then ultimately to figure out what I believe works. The most fun part for me is discovering new connections among the characters and thinking, "Of course!"

I did a major revision to the manuscript that I currently have out for query in response to some very insightful beta reader suggestions. I like the new version many times better. But one of my best beta readers, my brother, while liking some of the new modifications, thought they had made the story too complex. For now, I'm keeping it as is, but we'll see if I change my mind in the future. (I expect that feedback from queries/fulls will provide some additional data points!)

This afternoon I have a phone call with another of my outstanding betas to give me the first feedback I have received on my newest project. Exciting/terrifying!

Lennon Faris said...

Ah congrats OP! that is awesome to have 2 requests for fulls.

Not seeing it I can't say for sure, but I think if your 'literary' chapter is compelling enough it can be even more powerful to lead right into action in the 2nd chapter.

I do this same thing (switching things around, seeing which one is more successful) with my query.

Donnaeve said...

I like that QOTKU said there is no right or wrong answer here. And so, to use our favorite word (in writing anyway), this is because it's all so subjective.

I actually don't mind starting in the action and then establishing some backstory, but what I can't stand is if the action takes place and then I get dropped into a gray office, with a bunch of guys dressed in suits, and there's some boring conversation going on, or the characters are busy being snarky with each other. Or there's the action scene and when I get to Chapter Two, sort of the same thing, we're now in a restaurant (or pick anywhere) and the backstory begins.

In other words, going 100 mph, to 0 mph. If the backstory is as good as the action, it might slow things down to, say 50 mph, but picks back up pretty quick. It's like Russian Roulette with writing, though, isn't it? You will likely wear yourself out wondering, if I had put it this way, would they have taken me on, or if I had changed it to the other chapter, would they have offered then? Maybe switch it back to the way the literary editor liked it, and try a few that way. The story has to start in the right place, so, IDK, maybe try flipping it around. See what happens.

Whichever you choose to do, congrats on your success so far!

Theresa said...

OP, that's great about the fulls.

Yes, all that fretting over what is largely subjective. What I know after years of experience is that when I decide what I like and what I think works, I do the opposite. That's what actually works.

Unknown said...

Congratulations Opie! Oh how high are the ups! Pinnacles! Unless they're fuck-ups, but requested fulls are certainly not that. Good luck with them, sounds like the kind of book I'd like to read.

I have no advice. Worrying mine into oblivion, at the moment.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Congrats on the requests OP; that's really wonderful! Personally, I'm okay with prologues that are high-action that lead into slower action first chapters, as long as the prologue isn't a cliff hanger. Think of it this way:

If a reader lets out a deep breath after the prologue, that's fine.
If a reader is still holding their breath after the prologue, that's cheap. No one wants to hold their breath for 50 pages.

Of course, that's still entirely subjective. A lot of people might disagree with me. That said, I don't think I've ever stopped reading a book after the first chapter/prologue for either reason.

At any rate, good luck with your continued querying, and congrats on doing so well so far!

Cindy C said...

Echoing the congratulations of getting two requests for fulls out of 20 queries!

I feel your pain about the beginning. Several industry professionals have looked at my first few pages in workshops and conferences over the last couple of years. Some love the beginning and basically said, "Keep going!" Some hated the beginning and said, "Start over." I got the same mixed results from beta readers.

I can see the points each camp is making, and like you I've been torn between two beginnings. For now I'm trying to follow Janet's advice and go with what I think is best. The only probably is I think different things are best on different days! This is why I eat too much chocolate . . .

Dena Pawling said...

In my opinion, this is where you start –

>>My book is a crime family saga that is more literary than commercial

Last year, a very nice literary agent who knew me well enough to be reasonably assured I wouldn't turn into her number one fan a la Annie Wilkes, read my first five pages and told me something I'd read in many craft books but it didn't sink in until I heard it from this agent.

What do your readers expect?

I loved my opening, but it wasn't what a reader of my genre would expect. It didn't set the tone for the entire rest of the book. It actually sounded like a different genre entirely. So a reader browsing in a bookstore or on Amazon would read my first sentence/paragraph/page, and put the book back because it wouldn't meet her expectations as something she would want to read.

Aforementioned agent instead told me, based on my first five pages, where my story should start. I played with that a bit, read more craft books, and found my new opening. Although I miss my old opening and will use it later in the book as a chapter opening when the book's tone and genre are firmly established, my manuscript is MUCH better with this change.

Here's what you wrote about the two recommendations you have –

>>Chapter A, which is something of an "intro" but squarely puts the deeper drama of the story in the reader's hands by the third paragraph.

>>following instead the rule of starting "in scene" in a tense moment, then inserting the "intro" into Chapter 2.

You wrote that your book is a crime family saga that's more literary in tone. Do you expect your readers to be literary readers? Or crime/thriller readers? What will your readers expect? If you expect the book to appeal to readers who enjoy a more literary book, then start with chapter A, to set the tone and genre more literary. If you expect the book to appeal to readers of crime/thriller books, then start with chapter B, making it read like a crime/thriller.

Or, like me, write an entirely new chapter that starts with an entirely new first sentence, that sets the tone and genre best.

Congrats on two interested agents! Good luck.

Mark Ellis said...

I attended a weekend retreat which featured a semi-famous mystery writer years ago, the focus of which was to craft the perfect first pages. After a day of everyone trying to outdo one another with dangling children, vehicles moving swiftly through rainstorms, and piles of dead honeybees, I said to my roomate (a more experienced writer who had received a number of prestigious grants), "Don't all these hyped beginnings become tiresome after awhile?" I was longing for a more literary, compelling slow crawl into the action.

He thought about it for a moment, and said, "Yes."

Related: my editor just suggested I dump the word epilogue at the end of my novel, and just make it the last chapter.

Joseph S. said...

Sherry wrote

“First pages are the devil that flicks flames at our feet throughout the months of writing and querying.”

Brilliantly said. Put that on a plaque and hang it on a wall. It struck home.

No matter what I’ve written—fiction or nonfiction—the hardest part has the beginning. I’ve tried writing it first, writing it last, reorganizing the whole work, you name it. I’ve starting by setting the scene, introducing characters, action first, backstory first, funny, disgusting, with prologue, without prologue, and a few other ways, too. It seems no matter how I start, somebody will say I should have started another way.

Matt Adams said...

The one mantra I've come to believe through this process is this: Go fast.

Whichever has more action in the first chapter, use that one. You may only have two graphs to get an agent interested, so if the second option puts more at stake earlier, then use that one.

The Sleepy One said...

My question for the Opie: what feels right to you? And which starts feels best for your novel? Because while it sounds like both the editor and thriller writer made good recommendations, it's your novel. Maybe go with the beginning that speaks most to you for the next round of queries.

Good luck.

Steve Stubbs said...

Here is a perspective from a reader that may be helpful. I think your thriller writer and Ms. Reid are right, and here is why:

I am terribly difficult to please where novels are concerned. If a book does not grab me by the end of the second page, in the recycle bin it goes. The first novel I ever read that met the recycle bin test was THE PELICAN BRIEF, by John Grisham. Yes, this was years ago Someone recommended it, so I got it, expecting to toss it in the can the way I had done so many others. Imagine my surprise when two hours later I was sitting like a moron, compulsively turning pages to see what happened next. Grisham’s ability to grab readers by the throat and compel them, against their will, to read until his books fell apart about 75% of the way through may have something to do with the fact that he became the best selling novelist in the world. The last part of THE PELICAN BRIEF was a real disappointment, but until that point it was one hell of a ride.

Years ago I read a review by some English professor of a novel called GRESHAM’S GAME. The prof admitted he was a little on the snobby side and disdained the author. He read the book just to collect a modest reviewer’s fee. His intention was to read a few pages each night before going to sleep and chip away at it that way. He invited his readers to imagine HIS surprise when he stayed up all night turning pages instead. It didn’t surprise me because Steven King is a master storyteller.

To achieve that effect I suspect Ms. Reid is right. The book must start with Something Interesting happening. That can be action or something else, but it must be compelling from the get go. If you can compel the reader to read enough pages to find out what that is, and persuade the reader in the meantime Something Else Interesting is going to happen later, people will read it. There are specific techniques for doing this. If people are powerless to not read it, you will certainly make a sale. Maybe even have a bestseller.

BJ Muntain said...

I think we're assuming two things here: 1) That the 'tense moment' is action, and 2) That the 'deeper drama' isn't full of attention-gripping tension. Action does not equal tension, especially if the reader hasn't connected with the character in some way.

I'm always reminded of M*A*S*H: when the characters were watching Westerns, they would often cheer for the bad guys. It wasn't so much because they were being politically correct, even if the bad guys were often the Indians. It was because they didn't connect to the hero that you were supposed to connect to: the strong, silent reluctant gunslinger. In westerns, you're supposed to connect to the hero because he is the hero, and they just didn't care about him.

I don't get to see a lot of movies, but one movie started with a scene that got me instantly feeling for the character, before we see him blasting away a la Western. It was Guardians of the Galaxy, and the dramatic moment that made you really care for StarLord was the death of his mother right at the beginning, in a hospital room where she died of cancer. No shoot-em-up, no action, just emotion. And we were reminded of that emotion every time the 80s music she'd taped for him played in the score.

Whether you liked the movie or not, you can't say it wasn't action-filled. But it wasn't the action scenes that got us caring about the characters enough that, when they all risked their lives to save the people on that planet, every person in that theatre held their breath.

In media res doesn't work if you can't get us caring about the character in those first paragraphs. And in media res doesn't always mean full-out action.

We haven't seen the two beginnings of this novel. We can't give advice on the beginning without doing so. As someone above said, Opie needs to decide which way works better for the story they want to tell. Having two industry professionals saying two completely different things can be frustrating, but as Donna said, it's all subjective. And when your choice comes down to 'these people like it', 'these people don't', and NOT because, 'these people think it's badly done' and 'these people think I did that wrong', then there's not much you can fix. You have to figure out your own goals, your own vision, and stick to that.

And even if, somewhere down the line, someone wants you to change what you've done, make sure that a) it's for the money, and b) you make the changes that make the story better fit your vision.

AJ Blythe said...

OP, well done on the 2 full requests after 20 queries!

I understand your angst about which advice to follow regarding chapter 1 and 2. You don't want to put a foot wrong! But you have to remember this is your book, and what works for one person, doesn't for another.

My 2c, for what it's worth (which these days isn't much), would be to read the first 3 chaps of each version. Which one do you like best? Which one represents the book you want to write? Because that's the one you need to submit.

Timothy Lowe said...

The hardest questions are the ones you need multiple readers to answer. Writing is like cooking, except reading takes time and is not as universally embraced as eating. Good luck with it. There's no answer. That's the hard part about writing.

I would like to point out that Station Eleven (which I read after raves on this blog gave me the second push - Time magazine's review in a waiting room in the dentist's gave me the first) begins with about the most captivating opening page I can imagine. From there it catapults through time in all sorts of crazy directions, so much I can't even tell who the MC is (although I think it's the guy who dies on the first page).

Point is, a captivating opening counts. People will forgive a story's structure if they're forced to read all of it because it's just so damn gripping. They can bitch about it later. They've read the damn thing. That's more than most of us can hope for.

Good luck, everyone - all the reminders that this damn thing ain't easy are always appreciated!

Timothy Lowe said...

BTW, just pre-ordered your book, Donnaeave. I can't wait to read it - and I hope it sells bonkers!

John Frain said...


Fantastic that you have requests for two fulls. That's outstanding. I was all set to give you the logic to use the second opening, in media res. But I've read through all the responses and changed my mind six times. Kinda like you, right?

So sure, do the A/B testing and see which pulls better. But while I favor that advice, your audience might be too small for statistically accurate results. So in the end, like many have said, go with your gut.

One possible solution: Start with your thriller writer's advice, but instead of putting the "intro" in as chapter 2, maybe you sprinkle that info throughout the first dozen chapters and you jump into chapter 3 to keep the action going. Only a thought.

OT: Wow, it's great to be back in the neighborhood. I spent the week on Eastern Time and I was so excited I might be able to comment at a reasonable hour, but it turned out we were up in the mountains and had no access to cell phones or Internet. Grrrrr. But oh, hiking through those mountains has given me the motivation to write, write, write. I'm flipping Julie's hour glass -- twice tonight! (After I read some flash results first. Shhhhhhhh, don't tell my sand timer.)

Steve Stubbs said...

Blogger BJ Muntain said...
“I think we're assuming two things here: 1) That the 'tense moment' is action, and 2) That the 'deeper drama' isn't full of attention-gripping tension. Action does not equal tension,

I feel compelled to comment. This is a mob story, so try this:

“When you’re in the Mob and the Boss calls, you have to come no matter what you’re doing. It’s always scary. But when you know you’ve screwed up, it could be deadly.”

There is no action here, but it creates anticipation.. No back story or 20 page prologue required. My guess is, you’d read on;

Another way of hinting at something to come would be:

“It always worried me whenever I had to kill a man. But the fellow I was going to kill tonight needed it in the worst way.”

A technique for hinting at the past could go something like this:

“I did not realize how hungry I was until after I finished cutting his throat. Fortunately he drove up and delivered the large deep pan pepperoni pizza I ordered just before he died.”

You don’t need a 300 page set up to know who is talking here.

If it’s a thriller you might use the Ticking Clock technique:

“I knew I was allotted only twenty-four hours to save the world. And because I over slept there was only one hour left.”

It took me maybe five minutes to dream up all those lines. It’s not that hard to do.

If it is a literary novel, the first line should SING. I am not a genius so let me quote someone who was. My favorite opening line is:

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”

I mean, really. Would you want to read that?

Or this, from A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Of course unless you are an extraordinary genius, thrillers are probably a better bet than literary fiction.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If I had a viable comment it would be based on my experience regarding title pages. I have many bylines, no title pages, therefore I have little to add to the previous comments.
Try this.
Read the last two chapters. Ask yourself, where should they have been born.

BJ Muntain said...

Umm... Okay. Maybe I wasn't clear. I meant that we *shouldn't* be assuming those things. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to comment because, not having read the chapters, any advice I have would be fairly worthless. Plus, I think what happens in the third chapter has more bearing on this decision than merely comparing the first two.

But Carolynn's advice is so very wise, I have to echo it. The payoff of the ending should follow naturally from the setup at the beginning. I think I first heard this advice from Bob Mayer: when you finish reading a novel, especially one you found compelling or well-written, immediately go back and re-read the first chapter. Such a simple thing, but so very educational.

Donnaeve said...

Thanks, Timothy Lowe - much appreciated!