Guest Post: Great Expectations: Starting your story in the right place

In the days leading up to Query Kombat, I’ll be featuring guest posts from the judges on a variety of writing topics, from ways to polish your writing to common openings. Check back and follow me on Twitter to stay updated. Today’s post is from Kelly DeVos.

Great Expectations: Starting your story in the right place
As a writer, one of the most difficult things to do can be to decide on the right moment to begin your story. Crafting a great first page is really tough. For me personally, the first ten pages or so are the pages I tend to edit the most as I revise.
In order to help get ready for Query Kombat, let’s talk a bit about great beginnings.
Why It Matters
The first page is the writer’s chance to really hook the reader. Ideally, the opening paragraphs make the reader want to keep going, keep reading and buy the book. For a writer seeking an agent, the stakes are even higher. For agents, the first 5-10 pages might be all they read before deciding to pass. Agents actively accepting submissions can receive around 3,000 queries per month, so the pressure is really on to make your opening special and unique.
What NOT to do
Ideally, querying writers should try to avoid common, overdone scenarios in their opening pages. In Young Adult literature, very common openers include:
–       Moving day (characters saying goodbye to friends, leaving home, etc.)
–       Summer of Hell (all the MC’s friends are doing cool things, MC is massaging Grandma’s bunions)
–       Character Catalogue (a rundown of the cast of characters at the MC’s school or an introduction to the MC’s family). I’d also note that many of these scenes begin in the school lunch room.
–       New Kid or First Day in a New Place
–       Dead parents (parents immediately die or the MC is adjusting to their death)
In Adult Literature, I’d definitely recommend avoiding a few things:
–       Info dumping intros. This is probably the most commonplace issue with unpublished manuscripts I’ve personally read. Here, the writer directly tells the reader a bunch of information at the start of the story.
–       A character waking up or starting the day
–       A character thinking about their own appearance or looking in the mirror
–       Dialogue that’s difficult to follow
–       False beginnings (character is in a dream or dead, etc.)
–       Ungrounded action (things happening that the reader doesn’t yet care about)
Now, this is not to say that you absolutely can’t open your story with a common scenario. I recently read ONE OF US IS LYING by Karen McManus. It has a Breakfast Club-type opening that would qualify as a bit of a Character Catalog in that it presents its full cast as they meet in detention during the first chapter. But it’s done in such a way that it hooked me and made me want to solve the novel’s main mystery. Likewise, THE LOVELY BONES is an epically good book that has a dead narrator. Sarah Dessen’s WHAT HAPPENED TO GOODBYE opens with the main character, McLean, arriving in a new town following her family’s move.
But making the choice to use a common opener can really be a competitive disadvantage. I think of agents a lot like ice skating judges who score all the different parts of a skater’s program. I imagine agents judging manuscripts and assigning points based on things like originality, voice, characterization, etc. When you start with a type of opening scene that has been done to death, you essentially get a zero score for originality and then you are relying on other elements of the MS to carry you to a full request. Your rather cliché starter could also lead agents to conclude that you haven’t widely read within your category or genre and aren’t up to date on current books.
To Prologue or not to Prologue
For the sake of contests, like Query Kombat or PitchWars, I would recommend against including a prologue. Online contests are typically every limited in the number of words you can have as part of your entry and using them to show a judge or agent something that may or may not advance the main narrative is not the best idea. At conferences and in online interviews, I very often see agents say that they dislike prologues which they have come to associate with unpolished writing. Overall, I would again worry that using a prologue puts you at a competitive disadvantage. If you have your heart set on one, make it both the best ever and utterly essential to the hooking the reader.
Consider This
The best advice I ever received on starting in the right place was from my creative writing professor who said to think a lot about how people tell stories and communicate in person. He had a prompt that was something like, “Last night my roommate drove her car into a swimming pool,” and then had the class ask follow up questions. People asked stuff like, “Is your roommate okay?” or “Was the car destroyed?” or “Why did she do that?” Nobody asked for details like how long the two people had been living together, where the roommate was from, how old she was, what she was wearing, etc. Yet this same professor was constantly pointing out that, when writing, we were often dumping that kind of information into the opening pages of our work. The right approach, he said, was to introduce details and backstory when they became necessary, interesting and relevant.
How you know you got it right
Send a small sample of your MS, ideally the first chapter or first 10 pages, to a couple of honest critique partners or good readers. Do they ask to see more? Do they want to know what happens next? Did you hook them? If so, then chances are, your opening is pretty strong.
But make sure your full manuscript is as polished as your opening pages
This is a big one because I know from my own past experience that there were times when I had worked on the first 30 pages of a manuscripts until I almost couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore but didn’t spend as much time on the rest of the book. Nothing is more heartbreaking than getting lots of requests, thanks to strong opening pages, and then having the requests turn to rejections. If you have the funds, I definitely recommend investing in a good developmental editor. If not, find great critique partners and polish up those full drafts.
Good luck with those first pages and may the Query Kombat odds be ever in your favor!
About Kelly deVos
A third generation native Arizonan, Kelly deVos can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cactus, cattle and climate. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her debut novel, FAT GIRL ON A PLANE, will be published in 2018 by Harlequin Teen and her work has been featured in Normal Noise and 202 Magazine.

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