Monday, September 12, 2011

Speed in your opening

My Journalism professors spoke a lot about leads. And speed. And how every single word in your first paragraph (or lead) should cost you a dollar.

Now, if you don't know the average salary of a newspaper reporter, let's just say this--it makes teachers look like they're rollin' in the dough. Paying a dollar for every word used would be akin to taking a pay cut.

But the point of my professors' logic wasn't to steal from poor starving students. Instead, it was to teach us to learn to GET TO THE POINT in our writing. News articles are measured in column inches, not pages, and a reporter has a very limited time to catch a reader's attention. Writing a novel is the same way.

If you've read any writing craft books (WHICH YOU FREAKING BETTER! YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER FOR GOODNESS SAKES!) you know that speed in your opening is of utmost importance. You have to catch the reader right away by introducing the problem, or conflict, or at the very least by alluding to some sort of change in the normal pace of life.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of writing for me. In fact, in every novel I've written so far, I end up chopping my first several chapters so that I can get to the point. (My critique partner can attest to this problem I have). I seem to think my readers need to know everything about a character before we can dive into the problem.

So, here's the point of my blog post: (Yes, I know, I didn't have much speed in getting to the point here) Why can some authors break this rule and still come out with a riveting book?

I am currently reading Anna Quindlen's EVERY LAST ONE. I love the book and can't put it down, so would you believe me when I say she didn't present the book's major problem until page 156? I kid you not! Page 156 out of a 330 page novel. This is definitely a character driven book, but still, how can she get away with breaking such an important rule and still come up with a best seller?

In my opinion, she does it by using these techniques:
1. Takes the American Dream to such heights that the fall will be unfathomable.
2. Creates such real characters that we read ourselves (or the "ourselves" we wish we were) in them.
3. Creates mini problems along the way to the BIG ONE. Now, the mini problems in this example weren't of much consequence: a depressed teenage son, a comfortable but not passionate marriage, a minor setback with the MC's landscaping company, etc.

I'm not suggesting any of us try these techniques and wait until our novel is half over to get to the point, I am just trying to work out in my mind how it works for Quindlen. I tend to believe you have to be quite masterful at the craft before you can blatantly and successfully break rules. If I am a rule breaker at this point, it's probably because I'm still learning.

Do you struggle with speed in your opening? OR, What books have you read where major rules are broken successfully? Are you a rule breaker?


Jolene Perry said...

I think that voice can trump speed. It definitely does for me.
I've read two books lately where the main conflict doesn't come in until around page 100, but I didn't mind because the language was so good.

I'm reading sloppy firsts by mccafferty right now, and I'm more than halfway through the book, and i'm still not sure what the MAIN conflict is. There are definitely conflicts, and I definitely want to keep reading, but if someone asked me to sum up the conflict, I'd have no idea where to start.

It's SO SO hard to know when it's okay, and when it's NOT okay to break rules.

Anonymous said...

Now you've really gone and made me want to read this! Great post Maggie!

I'm like you and my first drafts rarely start where they should. I'd rather have something to work with, be able to cut, etc. so I continue. But even then, I rework those first few paragraphs over and over, LOL.

Melanie Stanford said...

I have the same problem. I cut my beginnings, I rewrite them over and over, all to try and get right to the point but without it being too much. It's a hard thing to get right.

Kristin Baker Przybyla said...

I stopped reading a YA fantasy series by a successful author for this reason: The story dragged for 100 - 150 pages with each book before the reader even started to get a hint what the main conflict was about. The introducing chapters weren't even all that interesting.

I'm cutting some chapters and combining a lot of scenes in my MS for this very reason. And I need chocolate!!

Bonnie R. Paulson said...

Maggie, you do a great job introducing the characters - most authors do this for practice to get to know their characters. I do too, you just never see those chapters : )

I think you do a great job and are improving with everything I see. You go girl!

Angie Cothran said...

I do okay with a speedy opening. My problem seems to be that it is too fast, and I don't add enough personal information to connect to the MC. Great post :)

Kaylee Baldwin said...

I have the same problem. It's always hard to know where to start. I'm experimenting with cutting out the first two chapters in my book (the one you read) so that I can get right into the conflict. Its hard to know what to do--but it is hard when books drag at the begining. If I'm not caught by page 5, I'm done.

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