Author’s Corner: Don’t Sink Your Novel

Is your opening just a floating voice?

While you may not want to (and probably shouldn’t) bog down the narrative with nitty-gritty details of where your main character is standing at any given moment, you do want to give your reader some idea where he is.

The opening pages of a novel are probably the most important pages you’ll write. They need to strike a balance between information and intrigue.

Herron sits at a table with his books displayed
Author R.L. Herron

By that I mean, you certainly don’t describe every flower on a china cup sitting on the table in a scene but, at the same time, don’t let the thoughts of your characters run rampant without a sense of place.

I think most writers know this one by now, but it’s worth repeating. Here’s the cold hard truth about the first few pages of a novel: unless you’re already a world-renowned best-selling author, no one cares about your world … YET.

Your goal is to get them to care, so they will root for your characters and laugh and cry alongside them. The thing is, you need to earn that.

So, think of your world-building more like the journal you found under your sister’s mattress. If you open that book, you might not always know what she’s talking about, but you don’t need basic, worldly things explained to you. Odds are, you’ll piece it together as you read (if your sister doesn’t discover you and conk you on the head).

I enjoy writing in the first-person. First-person narrative, however, is tough. If you try it, do yourself a favor and avoid the mirror bit. You know the one … your character needlessly describes every detail of his appearance, right down to the dandruff on his shoulder.

Even if you manage to do it well, you’re bound to get an eye roll from the reader.

Another easy cop-out is making other people spend pages describing the character to the character himself. Tell me, in what world does your best friend spend time describing your own hair color to you?

Don’t Open with a Cliché

You probably know the one everyone uses to describe this. It was a dark and stormy night. C’mon, you know better than that.

If you don’t, think up some other line of work. Fast.

Similarly, a sleepy character trying to put pants on, one leg at a time, is no way to engage a new reader. Likewise, setting it up as if what previously transpired was all a dream. It’s a cheap way to get attention without building real character interest.

A gimmicky bait-and-switch doesn’t add to the plot. They can serve their purpose, especially if you’re luring your reader into believing something different to protect the truth.

For example, you have the main character confronting a bully in a moment of tension. However, in the next scene, we find out it was a skit for school.

Totally lame.

Honestly, there will always be an exception to the rule, if done well. Most readers, however, would be turned off, because your first intro was a ruse, and the last thing you want a reader to do is stop reading.  

Do You Have a Writing Crutch?

We all have writing crutches we lean on. Maybe we’ve formed them to help us “show” instead of “tell.”

But, think about it. Does everyone frown or smirk or shrug all the time? Maybe you’re overusing a certain word. Worse, maybe your narrative voice asks open-ended questions at every turn. Anything done too often loses its effect. More often than not, if you can say pretty much the same thing with fewer words, the result is a stronger sentence. 

End Chapters with a Cliff-Hanger

If your novel ends the first chapter in the middle of a tea party, unless something of interest is happening, that’s a one-way ticket to Snoozeville. Of course, not every chapter should have an explosive close, because (once more from the top) it will lose its effect. But the end of every chapter in your book should propel the plot forward and dangle some kind of carrot to keep the reader turning pages.

If you’re trying to attract an agent, they’re going to ask you for the first three chapters, so they can see how you handle the progression. 

A Parting Thought

Before you publish, read your work aloud. There is something about forcing every word through your mouth that is less forgiving than skimming the pages with your eye. This will help you catch awkward phrases or character dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true.

Happy writing!

About R.L. Herron

R.L. Herron, the author of multiple works of fiction, including several Readers' Favorite medal winners, lives and writes in Michigan with his lovely wife, a finally-paid mortgage, and one extremely large cat. His books are all available on Amazon and online with Barnes & Noble. Visit Author R.L. Herron's Website, Broken Glass.

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