Beginnings are a Bitch
The response to our first call for submissions has been excellent so far. We were incredibly impressed with the quality of manuscripts submitted and that just goes to reinforce our decision to launch Parvus Press. There are some amazing stories out there, sitting on hard drives and ready for a publisher to put some muscle behind them.
As we’ve read through the submissions, we noticed a few common areas for improvement and I thought we should share them out for everyone’s benefit. These are just the low hanging fruit that cut across most of the submissions we received. All of the examples used here are solely for illustrative purposes and are not direct quotes from any submission. We’ll share out a new observation every week or so. If you have any questions, please feel free to join the conversation with us on Twitter:
This week, we’ll start off with two boat anchors for your openings. Nailing the opening to your story is HARD. You have to get the reader’s attention while, at the same time, feeding them background information about the world so that they can understand the action to come. Two ways that authors try and address this is by starting us right in the center of a conversation or by following a POV character as they move through the world, making observations. Both are workable, but I’d like to point out pitfalls to avoid in both approaches.
First up, the multi-character opening.
1) Who said what?
Dialogue can be tricky for a lot of writers, but it’s a real challenge for readers when they lose the thread of who is speaking. Ask your patient beta readers to note any parts of the story where they are losing the thread of who is speaking. This usually occurs in high action sequences or when introducing multiple characters at the same time. If there are three men and two women in a scene, using “he said” will likely lead to confusion, at least until we’re deep enough into the story that we know the cadence and voice of each of the characters by heart. Make sure your dialogue tags are clear markers to the readers and they won’t have to slow down during your fast-paced scenes or get bogged down in the opening paragraphs of your novel.
The other common pitfall here is when the author refers to one character in multiple ways. “Thomas”, “The Captain of the Guard”, and “The Grizzled Veteran” may clearly all indicate the same character to you, but they confuse your readers. Remember, you’ve spent hundreds of hours, if not thousands, these characters. Your readers are just getting to know them. Let “Thomas” be “Thomas” and, instead of telling us he’s the grizzled veteran, paint us that picture with his actions and demeanor. He may well be the Captain of the Guard, but he would still think of himself as “Thomas”. Keep consistent! In dialogue tags, stick to referring to your characters by their proper names.
If you have Thomas’ men refer to him as “Captain”, keep it consistent. They will always refer to him by “Captain” unless there is a significant reason for them to use the familiar. Don’t wobble back and forth or your readers will wonder why everyone is talking to the Captain and ignoring Thomas.
Thomas grunted and wiped his boot on the cloak of the man who lay dead at his feet. The Captain was having a bad day. He nodded to his companion, Frederick. “Clean this mess up, would you?” The Grizzled veteran shook his head and slid his blade into its scabbard.
Thomas grunted and wiped his boot on the cloak of the man who lay dead at his feet. He was having a bad day. He nodded to his companion, Frederick. “Clean this mess up, would you?” Thomas asked as he shook his head and slid his blade into its scabbard.
While I think we can all agree that this isn’t a fantasic bit of story, it’s a whole lot clearer as to what is going on.
Let’s move on to our second topic this week, the walking opening.
2) Strolling into the story.
You’re writing speculative fiction. You’ve created a world with laws and mechanics different than our own. You will be tempted to explain the key mechanics, roles, etc. to the reader right out of the gate. Often, this is presented as the point of view character strolling through a setting and mentally remarking on the various persons, events, or special technological or magical mechanics on offer in the scene.
This is a trap! Your reader is a grizzled veteran of speculative fiction. They are expecting things to be different from their own real world experiences and they want to observe those differences naturally. Introduce those concepts in a way that is organic to a story that has forward momentum! The conclusion of your story, when the hero returns home and reflects on all that they have learned, is the time for a stroll. The start of the story is the time for a sprint (or at least a brisk jog). Touch on key concepts that are going to be important, but move past those light touches. Trust your reader to intuit much of what is important and develop the more obscure parts later.
It’s important for us to know that Frederick is a mage, but it might not be the right time to tell us that his wife’s name is Esmerelda, he grew up over in Thurston, and Cynthia, by the way, is also a mage. Stick to what’s important and push us through. Plot drives story, exposition drags on it. Lace the exposition into the plot and your story will cruise along. Hit us up front with the action, the tension to be resolved, and fill us in on the backstory as we go.
Thomas paused at the doorway to the great hall and examined the scene. He saw Frederick there, by the fire. The mage had been a good friend for many years, back to their days together as youths in Thurston. Back before they were Mage Royal and Captain of the Guard here in Gilbrand. They had been good days. But the good days were behind them, it seemed. He pushed off the door frame and gave a smile to Cynthia, Frederick’s wife, who wore the eastern style veil over her face not because she came from that place but because she suffered from the Dragon’s Touch.
He continued past that pair and looked up at the banner of his house, which he would always think of as his father’s banner. The boar, charging on an argent field. He touched the back of the chair on his right, a chair carved by his brother Amon before Amon lost his hand in the war. The war which brought them all here, together, to plan their response to the army which even now approached the gates of the capital.
War was coming for them. The Brazen Lord’s armies were less than a day from the city gates and Thomas didn’t yet have a clue as to how they would hold the city. As Gilbrand’s Captain of the Guard, he was charged with defending the capital, but the city was bursting at the seams with refugees. The Brazen Lord didn’t have to take the city. He just had to wait a week or so and the starving masses would throw open the gates and beg him to send in his soldiers, so long as they brought food with them.
He held out hope, however, that the Mage Royal would see a path to victory where he did not. The insolvable problems facing him seemed to quiet a bit as he hurried into the familiar comfort of the great hall and spotted Frederick sitting by the fire. “Fred. You dusty old goat of a wizard. Do you have a solution to our problems, yet?”
There was laughter in his voice, beneath the strain, as he embraced Frederick.
“Thomas. As ever, I will remind you that you and I are the same age. And sharing beds with goats is more the army’s thing, not the Learned Academy.” Frederick Replied.
Thomas snorted and settled into the chair across from Frederick. “Worst part of survival training, that is. How’s Esmerelda?”
“She’s stable. The spread of the Dragon’s Touch has halted, for now. It’s kind of you to ask, but let’s get to the matter at hand. I’ve a plan. We’re going to kill The Brazen Lord.”
My example improved version is longer, sure, but it gives you more characterization, builds more of a sense of tension around the coming war, and moves the story forward. I don’t have to TELL the reader that Frederick and Thomas are friends, I SHOW it with their banter. Esmerelda is important to illustrate that the relationship with Thomas and Frederick is deep enough that Thomas knows Frederick’s wife, knows her well enough to ask about her health, and that he is a close enough friend that Frederick shares more than just surface details about her health.
Esmerelda doesn’t need to be in the scene, however, to convey any of this. We can introduce her later. Similarly, we don’t YET need to show Thomas’ personal connection to the costs of the war. The scene has enough at stake by dealing with his role as Captain of the Guard. We can add in Amon and his lost hand later. Similarly, Thomas’ daddy issues are absent. They may be a great seed to plant at the end of this chapter as Frederick leaves and Thomas is left in the great hall to contemplate his worthiness to be the hero and take up this call to action.
In short, present us an immediate problem and then walk us through the important details first, adding in background flavor as an aside. If you can show us a relationship, do that, instead of just telling us how two characters relate to each other. It will build a stronger story every time.
We want to give a big thank you to everyone who has submitted a manuscript so far. We genuinely appreciate the trust you’ve demonstrated in offering us the opportunity to see your work. I hope that, by sharing some of these general observations, we can start a dialogue that’s going to benefit everyone; writers, readers, and publishers alike.
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Thanks much, and I’ll see you next week!