Thursday, July 14, 2016

Slush Pile Reader -- Let Us Begin

Taking off my writer hat for a moment and putting on the one I wear as a slush pile reader for a literary agent, I want to talk about beginnings. At this point, I've been reading submissions for about two years and have looked at about 1,100 query letters and opening pages as well as read a significant number of full manuscripts. It means I've seen a lot of openings that just don't work, and I want to share with you some of the common pitfalls I see in the slush pile.

First, though, I want to talk about what an opening should do.

A novel's opening pages are how you introduce the reader to the world of the novel -- its characters, setting, conflicts, premise, themes, hopefully even the imagery and voice. These elements are the vocabulary you are going to use to tell your story and you need to have them on the page from the first word. In addition, the opening pages should capture some essential moment in the narrative arc, the moment when things are poised on the brink of explosion, a moment beyond which things are never going to be the same again. There should be tension and something should definitely be at stake even if it is not the grand stakes for which the characters are playing, something needs to matter in the opening pages.

While I've heard a lot of writers complain that contemporary publishing favors the quick start, the high stakes, flash and fire over substance, the fact is you can look at almost any classic work and see the same elements. Even Tolstoy, who is not the most succinct of writers, gets a heck of a lot of information into the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina:

ALL happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the house of the Oblonskys. The wife had discovered that her husband was having an intrigue with a French governess who had been in their employ, and she declared that she could not live in the same house with him. This condition of things had lasted now three days, and was causing deep discomfort, not only to the husband and wife, but also to all the members of the family and the domestics. All the members of the family and the domestics felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that in any hotel people meeting casually had more mutual interests than they, the members of the family and the domestics of the house of Oblonsky. The wife did not come out of her own rooms; the husband had not been at home for two days. The children were running over the whole house as if they were crazy ; the English maid was angry with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend begging her to find her a new place. The head cook had departed the evening before just at dinner-time; the kitchen-maid and the coachman demanded their wages.

The novel opens at a moment of high tension and discord brought about by the discovery of a husband's affair. It affects not only the married couple, the Oblonskys, but the family and their servants, and is so explosive that household staff are seeking employment elsewhere. And look at the movement of the narrative -- Tolstoy begins with a grand, sweeping statement of his entire book's premise. Then he immediately brings it to the family level, "All was confusion in the house of the Oblonskys...The wife did not come out of her own rooms; the husband had not been at home for two days." A quick summation of the current state of affairs that reveals the stakes (the future of the household) and is specific to this family and how the situation is affecting the individuals -- not only the upper class Oblonskys, but their children and their servants - the English maid, the housekeeper, the head cook, the coachman. The scope of this novel is global -- here, in the opening paragraph, Tolstoy is giving the reader notice of his intentions.

In the paragraph that follows this one, Tolstoy focuses on Oblonsky and, bam, we're in the story, and the looming conflict because Oblonsky is looking forward to the arrival of his sister, Anna Karenina, who will set all things to right in his household because Anna is dependable and steady and always knows what to do. Given the opening line of the novel, the reader should have a pretty good clue that Anna's arrival is not going to make things better.

So what are some of the common problems I see in the slush pile?

1. Starting in the wrong place -- it seems like it should be pretty easy to figure out where to start the story. It starts at the beginning, right? Not necessarily. There's a difference between where the novel starts and where the story starts. If you look at the opening paragraph from Anna Karenina, you'll see that the story starts three days before the novel, at the point where Countess Oblonsky discovers her husband's affair and locks herself in her room. Many writers would start with the fight (it's dramatic, right?) and use that fight to give a great deal of backstory about this couple (more on backstory in a moment), but the problem is that fight is not where things are about to change. And that's what's at the crux of a dynamic opening: the situation is dire, the stakes are high, and something is about to change.

2. Flashbacks and core dumps of backstory -- you would not believe the number of submissions I see where the writer gives a sentence, maybe a paragraph, of story and immediately goes into flashback or a core dump of backstory.

What this looks like:
Janet stood by the window of her corner office and stared at the people on the street below, so tiny they looked like ants. It had been a long hard fight to the top for her, starting in the mail room fresh out of college, studying for her MBA on the subway from Queens when she was living in a fifth floor walk up with no heat and five roommates (not counting the cockroaches)....etc etc etc

Why this doesn't work: it stops the forward momentum of the story dead in its tracks. In fact, there is no forward momentum to the story for the simple reason that no story has started. In simplest terms, story can be defined as a person in a place with a problem. While we've got Janet in an office, there's no problem, there's not even a situation. Think of the novel like a car trip. You get everyone in the car, turn on the engine, back out of the garage, and someone says, "I have to go to the bathroom." So you put the car in park, turn off the engine, and wait.

In a lot of cases, I think this happens because the writer hasn't found a way to fully integrate what he or she knows about the character yet.

So let's put Janet back in that corner office. She's standing by the window, staring at the street where the corporate limo is waiting to take her to the airport for the most important client meeting of her life, and she's picking at her carefully manicured nails, frustrated because she's just ruined a $200 manicure, a month's rent on her first apartment out of school, she notes dryly. She tugs at the her suit and tries to square her shoulders in it, but she can't get it to settle quite right, wishes she could imitate the ease with which her colleagues inhabit their Brooks Brothers and Brionis and Armanis. And in walks Arthur, the CEO, who plops a folder onto her desk and says, "I've decided to give the account to Allison. You're going to be working on the Podunk account."

And then you don't stop to add in all the stuff about Janet's night school MBA and the 5th floor walk up, you go on with how she copes with this change in plans and how all that other stuff informs her reactions to what has happened.

3. Withholding information -- it seems like holding something back from the reader would build suspense. The strange thing is it rarely does. I think this is because tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the thing, how they cope with it, what it does to them, not the thing itself. When you name the thing that has happened at the beginning, you create the space for the character to react, and you give the reader the satisfaction of knowing why the character is doing what he or she is doing. Another reason why this does not produce a dynamic opening is....

4. No stakes -- stakes are about risk, about what's on the line for your character if she does or does not do something. Stakes don't have to be life or death, but they do have to be important to your character. For example, while getting a bad grade on a test seems pretty low stakes, what happens if this grade is the difference between the character being able to play in a particular football game, which could be the difference between receiving a scholarship and going to college or ending up working in a fast food restaurant. And what if the character is trying to do the right thing and study hard, his friends convince him to go out and party the night before the test or, even better, give him the answers to the test so he faces a moral dilemma. Study on his own and possibly fail and ruin his life OR cheat and virtually guarantee his success.

While the stakes don't have to be sky high in the opening pages of your novel, something has to be at risk. In Anna Karenina, the household is falling apart. It's been three days, the children are running amok, the household staff is leaving, and the parents still aren't talking.

5. Cattle call of character introductions -- You need to get a story going, and stories need characters. One of the most delicate things a writer has to do is let the reader know which characters are important to the story, which characters they need to pay attention to, and who's expendable. One of the ways a writer does this is by how characters are introduced. Generally, more important characters are given more detailed introductions. We find out more about them, get a move vivid description of them, have lines of dialogue or interactions with other characters so we learn who they are. When you give readers an entire room full of characters, it's a little like being at a party where everyone goes around the room and tells you their name. Hi, I'm Alice. Jim. Samantha. Rupert. Stephen. Bob. Helen. And two seconds after you shake hands, you have no idea who you're talking to.

This doesn't mean you have to take things slowly. If you're opening scene is a party, by all means, make sure there's a roomful of people. Just make sure you introduce me to the ones it's important for me to know in a way that tells me this.

I think the most important thing to remember about your novel's opening pages is that this is the most important real estate in your entire book. The words need to be working hard, doing more than one thing at a time. Character introductions need to establish conflict and stakes, details need to provide imagery and theme, descriptions and exposition need to establish voice, setting sets tone, dialogue needs to provide characterization, and everything, everything, everything has to move the story forward. 

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