If you’re like me, this busy time of year can cause a dip in your creative energy. So, how best to use your time as a writer? ‘Tis the season for revisions! Whether you are just wrapping up NaNoWriMo or heading into your thirteenth draft, December is a great time to put on your editor’s hat. Most agents take a break from reading submissions over the holidays, so this will help ensure you have your novel polished and ready to go when they reopen in January.
Since your opening chapters are often what make or break your submission (or hook a reader if you indie publish), it’s worth focusing some extra attention on them. Based on my six years in the writing industry, I’ve compiled a bank of potential pitfalls for the beginning of a novel. Here, I’ll boil it down to four of the most common.
Four Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Opening Pages:
(1) Backstory overload. Also known as the “data dump,” this is one of the most common problems seen in first drafts by both new and seasoned writers. It consists of several paragraphs or pages at the beginning of a story with no purpose except to “clue the reader in” about the main character’s history or past events. It often happens when a writer confuses what she needs to know (in order to write the character and story), versus what the reader needs to know at this moment (which is usually much less). Fixing it means trimming material, or finding ways to weave in the essentials gradually, as the plot moves forward.
(2) Lack of physical grounding in the setting and the main character. Have you ever read a fellow writer’s first draft where your prevailing emotion was confusion? It was probably due to this problem. It occurs when there is not enough “grounding” information to help the reader picture the characters clearly and situate them in time and place. (How does the character see herself? How old is she? Is the scene happening in the kitchen or on the balcony?) The result is that the story feels disembodied, causing the reader’s attention to stray from the action as he tries to tackle those unanswered questions. [Notice I didn’t ask What does the character look like? Some authors give detailed physical descriptions, while others prefer to let readers fill in the blanks. The important thing is to give readers something–is she a teenager or a twenty-something; does she have physical attributes she is self-conscious of, etc.).
(3) Too much musing, ruminating, or psychoanalyzing by the main character/narrator. This is also known as introspection or inner monologue. A healthy dose is necessary for character development, but too much can spell doom for your opening pages. If nothing happens because your protagonist is too busy thinking and philosophizing, the tension fizzles and you quickly lose readers.
(4) No sign of the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the spark that sets in motion your plot arc. Without it, you end up with a story that never gets off the ground. It also plays a key role in your pacing and tension; a good inciting incident sets the tempo that those two elements must maintain. A common problem in early drafts is that the inciting incident shows up much too late. If it is not present within the first 25-30 pages (ideally, even sooner), you’ll have a very hard time getting your audience to read further. Often, this happens because a story starts in the wrong place due to backstory overload or improper sequencing.
As you get ready for your next revision, keep an eye out for these potential culprits. Better yet, have your writing partner or critique group do a diagnostic for you. Happy revising!