Bad Beginnings

As some of you might know, I’m a reviewer for a few different blog tour organizers. In exchange for my honest opinion, I receive books for free. It occurred to me the other day that some of these books I’ve reviewed and enjoyed might never have made it on my reading list if it hadn’t been for the blog tour I signed up for. It’s the same with books I read for our local book club–these books are selected by other members, thus obligating me to read something I otherwise would ignore. This is a good thing for me because it’s expanded my horizons  (and my reading list), but it’s also a good thing for the author. If it wasn’t for a feeling of obligation, I wouldn’t read past the first couple of pages on some of these books. I’ve had to force myself to stumble through some pretty rough beginnings in order to get to the good stuff.

Why so many bad beginnings in so many books? If you’re an author, you know beginnings are tough. They are for me. My first drafts always have stupid, boring, or lame beginnings, and therefore I have to do tons and tons of editing. I’m never happy with the beginnings. There’s lots of advice out there about how to craft a perfect beginning. Here’s just some of the advice I’ve read on agents’ blogs:

  • Don’t start your book with a move or the first day of school.
  • Don’t start your book with a character gazing into a mirror.
  • Don’t start your book with a dream sequence or a nightmare.
  • Don’t start in the middle of a high speed chase or a battle.
  • Don’t start your book with your main character in danger because the reader won’t be invested enough in the character to care about their fate.
  • Don’t use a prologue.
  • Don’t start by describing the landscape or weather.
  • Don’t start too fast.
  • Don’t start too slow.

This is quite a list, isn’t it? Reading it would make any author wonder, “Where the hell DO I start?” Good question. I’ve read and enjoyed books that break these rules. (Twilight started with a prologue before launching into a move across the country) I’ve written books that break these rules. (The Claiming Words starts on the first day of school.) There’s no easy way to start a book, but I think we can all agree it’s quite a challenge to hook the reader early on.

And, that brings me back to the point of this blog post–lots of books out there have bad beginnings, and if it wasn’t for my commitment to review them, I wouldn’t make it past the bad beginning. So, what happens when a reader hasn’t made a commitment to read and never makes it past that bad beginning to get to the heart of the story? What happens if an agents asks for the first thirty pages of your manuscript to review? A bad beginning can ensure they won’t request a full manuscript. Or, if a reader decides to check out a sample of your book on Amazon before deciding whether or not to buy? A bad beginning will ensure they choose not to make that purchase. A bad beginning can destroy your chances of publishing your manuscript or selling your published book.

There’s lots of advice about what NOT to do when starting your book, but not nearly as much advice about what we should be doing. There’s an elusive SOMETHING that’s hard to describe. We have to engage the reader, and this can be done in different ways. What works for one reader might not hook the next. All those rules I listed above can be broken–they should be broken if that’s what it takes to tell your story and grip the reader. I don’t care what the ‘rules’ are–if the reader can’t put your book down, you’ve done something right.

Writers… Do any of you have problems crafting the perfect beginning?

Readers… What are your pet peeves? What do you like to see in a beginning? What do you hate?


9 thoughts on “Bad Beginnings

  1. I’ve seen all those on what not to do as well, and to be honest, it makes one wonder what agents and editors actually do like. I’ve read traditionally published books with these beginnings,and to be honest, as a reader, was not turned off. I couldn’t imagine the story with their “bad beginnings”.

    And why does it have to be considered a “bad beginning”? I can understand high speed chases or the character being in danger,as you wont be invested in the character, but I’ve never seen what’s wrong with a prologue or starting a character out on their first day of something. Dream and nightmare sequences I dont get either, as as the reader, it makes me wonder what leads up to having that dream. Are characters only supposed to interact with people the entire story? If a story features a person with a etchy past or even forgotten one, I dont see why they wouldn’t dream about it, especially if it were suppressed.

    Im on the fence with what agents and publishers want =/


    • As a writer, it’s hard to find that perfect beginning, but as a reader, I can identify a bad beginning immediately. In one book, the two main characters argued for 15 pages, making them both unlikable. I’m glad I continued to read the book because I really enjoyed it, but I image there were many readers who gave up. In another book, the main character was slaughtering a demon in the first scene. Beginnings that introduce too many characters in the first chapter always confuse me. It’s much easier to list elements that don’t work than it is to nail down what does. Writing is hard work, isn’t it?


  2. As a reader, I like a beginning that immediately tells me about the main character. I learn something about him or her and feel a connection right away to that person. I need to care to go past the first few chapters.


    • I agree. I don’t need action right away, just a reason to connect with the character. I don’t mind a slow beginning as long as I get some insight into the main character and find a reason to like him or her. Very good point, Christy!


  3. Teeheehee. You’re right! All the advice out there is about how NOT to start a novel. 🙂

    I struggle with beginnings too. The main thing I try to do (partially, because I like books that do this) is to set up a problem for the POV character within the first two pages. Even if it’s not the “main” problem for the character, it can act as a bridge to the main problem.


  4. sometimes I think its better not to read all the tips on writing until after you’ve put your story down on paper and are ready for the editing process.. it can be so crippling


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