I’ve been alpha and/or beta reading manuscripts for about four years. I read a mix of about fifty to sixty traditionally and indie published novels a year for pleasure. What do some indie novels have in common with not-yet-polished drafts I alpha and beta read? Bad beginnings. Info dumps. Lack of developmental editing.
The way you start your story is crucial to grabbing the readers attention. Therefore, your opening lines and first pages really have to pop. I’ve written a blog post about writing characters who readers identify with. https://tammydeschamps.com/2020/08/09/why-knowing-who-your-audience-is-and-writing-characters-that-those-readers-identify-with-is-the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-as-a-writer/ I also wrote a post about hooking the reader from the beginning. https://tammydeschamps.com/2020/08/14/writer-talk-hooking-a-reader-from-the-beginning/
Don’t Bog the Reader Down with Description:
I recently read an advanced reader copy of a newish author’s story and couldn’t get past the first page. They started with dialogue then went into describing an office and a character, then gave an info dump about the character’s career, childhood, and dating life.
I will not share with you the author or the story because I’m writing this to teach, not embarrass. But, I can give an example of how they should have began the story. (Names and characters have been changed.)
Julie chewed her lip as she watched Alphonso. The big man had been working hard all afternoon on the new delivery of books, and Julie had been there for the show, stealing glances every chance she got. It was torturous to see the two things she liked the most books and her boss, but the sweet kind.
His broad back rippled under his fitted dress-shirt as he cut open another box. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand before unpacking more books. No one said being a librarian would be this sexy, but she doubted other librarians had a boss that looked like Alphonso.
“I’m so pathetic,” she whispered to herself, but didn’t stop watching.
Watching her boss was risky, but about all the action she got these days. She’d keep watching and wishing. It was fine as long as he didn’t know, right?
Alphonso’s dark eyes met hers. Busted! He arched an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Um, I wanted to know if I could uh, break for lunch?”
Alphonso flashed a warm smile. “Sure, Julie.”
Her stomach flipped at the sound of his velvety voice uttering her name. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic. “Um. K, bye.” She rushed out of there before said or did something stupid.
It’s drafty because I wrote it on the fly, but we get that Julie is a lonely librarian and her boss is a forbidden fruit without going into pages and pages of exposition. Assume your readers are smart and can infer from scenarios rather than smothering them with details and back story. If the readers there to read erotica, they’ll relate to wanting someone and not being able to have them. When Julie does get that reward, it will be all the more satisfying.
An editor friend of mine recently shared something she was doing gratis. The author spent three, long paragraphs giving the reader an info dump of their mc’s military background. It read like a sixth grader was doing a book report on a resume. The editor assured me that yes, the information comes into play later, but no it was not necessary to begin the story. She redlined the first three paragraphs and marked the story to begin with the action.
Starting with action does not equate a good story. Several years back, I workshopped the first chapter of a science-fantasy novel I’d written. A literary agent and former editor for a big publishing house was the group’s leader. He pointed out that while the battle scene and the world building I set up was cool, he could care less about what happened because he didn’t know anything about the main character.
I introduced the story with no personal stakes. I realized I’d written a cardboard cutout that went through a series of events and no personal growth. No matter how “cool” of a world you build, the main character has a lesson to learn.
I rewrote the beginning with the personal stakes of my main character and the greater stakes for her team:
Not for the first time, I think that I am cursed as the vitals readout on my ocular indicates the dragonrider is still alive. Regulator Number Six is lying prone in a field stubbled with the stumps of harvested grains, something dark seeps from her midsection staining the rich loam. Her dragon, MIA.
Dread pools in my stomach as I scan the skies. Dragon Six circles so high above that he’s a grey speck in the sky, but does not land. His training is overriding his instinct to protect. I feel a modicum of relief.
I touch one of the invisible threads that connect me to all living beings from my species’ origin world. I follow the thread to examine the strength of the bond between dragon and rider. Threads are intangible things, yet I sense what ties me to everything else as much as the sun beating down on my back.
At the same time, I monitor the battle still raging in the background through the chatter from my unit in my earpiece. As a unit leader, with fifteen years of service under my belt, I have learned to multitask magic and tech.
With a mental nod from me through our bond, my own dragon has already taken off and rejoined the unit. One of us should stay in the fight.
Proceeding forward, I zoom my ocular in on the rider. Her arms are close to her body and legs are not spread out. That combined with no evident parachute deployed indicates the hit that knocked her from the back of her dragon had rendered her unconscious.
As I draw closer, I see her ocular is gone, likely in the field somewhere. I curse under my breath as I scan the empty field for the tech. Recovering the ocular is nearly as important as what I must do. In the hands of the rebels…
A boom and subsequent whistle divert my attention to the forest west of me. I turn and watch as a missile pierces the sky, exploding midair. My unit’s five remaining dragons fly high enough to avoid the shrapnel. The unit dives while the rebels are likely busy loading another missile. They retaliate with equally heavy firepower. Literal firepower. Blasting the patch of forest.
A retaliatory whine comes from another part of the wood and the missile explodes. That was too fast. The rebs couldn’t have run that far and reloaded. My mind reels that they got a hold of not one but two anti-dragon missile launchers and launched a surprise attack without my intelligence network catching wind of it. My spies were good. My main source loyal.
I push those thoughts and my alarm aside to count dragons to see if anyone in my unit got hit. Still five, including Phime. She is a splash of red in the clear blue skies among her grey brethren and bigger than the rest of the dragons. I want to rejoin them, to end this, but I let myself be satisfied with my dragon taking my stead.
A gravelly voice comes over my earpiece on a direct comm.. “Number One, Dragon One is riderless…Where are you?” To anyone else, Urduhk, my second in command, sounds pissed. To me, who’s known him my whole life, he sounds terrified.
So nice of you to notice.
“Number Six is down. Fatally wounded. I must,” I pause searching for the right words and take a deep breath. “…do what’s necessary. Dragon One will follow your dragon’s lead.” I’m disobeying protocol, leaving my dragon riderless, but under heavy fire, my unit needs Phime more than I do.
“Got it. Number one–” The air whooshes from his lungs into the mic in preparation to say something he doesn’t want to, I’m sure. “We can’t open the gate until we’ve neutralized the enemy. If the bond between the dragon and rider breaks, you’re on your own.”
I lift my gaze to the sky again.
Number Six’s dragon is small, no bigger than a commune draft horse, yet the most dangerous creature in the galaxy unbound. Next to the Rhimacord, I think bitterly. I never lose my sense that either species will kill me if I don’t mind my back when they are present.
So far, the dragon is only circling the area, watching for threats. Their bond mate trusts me, therefore, I am not one.
My gut churns. I don’t want to do what I have to do. But, that is exactly why I am here. No one else cares about the humans in the commune or the fallen dragon rider, only securing the gate home. The gates remaining in the Rhimacord Empire’s control is our number one priority. It is drilled into us from the day we step into the Regulator Academy halls to our very last flight.
“I’m aware. I can handle it. I am a Vasphil after all.” I break protocol again by revealing my identity for the sake of a joke only funny between us.
In my earpiece, Urduhk grunts, then switches to the unit-wide link, giving orders that relay what I’m doing without actually saying it. His gravelly voice is neutral and calm. I know him well enough to know he is anything but calm. Under his hard-ass exterior, he fears for me and the unit. That we’ll never go home.
I am not calm, either.
There’s a lot of world building interwoven with the action, but it is all part of how it relates to the MC’s personal stakes. She’s fighting a war she doesn’t believe in, but she’s there and doing it for her people. She mistakenly believes if she serves an evil empire, she can protect her people from being like the oppressed. Hmm….you can guess how well that will go for her.
If you’re having trouble with your beginning and finding that right balance of show vs tell, action vs character building, open up your favorite stories and reread the beginning, take notes. You’ll start learning very quickly where you need to improve and this will lead to writing more salable stories.
Written material ©Tammy Deschamps
Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash