Category Archives: lack of appeal to readers

How to begin a novel

Q:  How should a good novel begin, according to writing experts today?

  1. With backstory
  2. With an inciting event

A:  b.  With an inciting event, with action of some kind to grab the reader into the story.  Two hundred, one hundred, even fifty years ago this wasn’t the way writers started novels.  But times have changed, and so have readers who expect writers to grab them into their stories in the opening paragraphs.

Q:  If that’s true, then how should a novel introduce backstory?

  1.  By getting the story underway, pausing to fill in background details, and then resuming the forward action of the story.
  2. By weaving background details into a story as needed without ever pausing.

A:  b.  By weaving background details into a story as they are needed, without stopping or even slowing down the forward action, is the recommended way to include backstory today.

And yet,

This past week I read a novel which received high praise from a news source I respect.  As I turned from page 3 to page 4 to page 13 to page 24, I thought, C’mon, c’mon. When is this story going to take off?  It did around page 35, or so I thought for a couple of pages.  But I was wrong.  The scene described there turned out to be more backstory.  It wasn’t until about page 70 that the action really started.

70 unnecessary pages.  Or at least 70 pages which could have been reduced to two or three pages and tucked into the forward action part of the novel.  If not for the four-star review, I would have stopped reading by page 10. 

Q:  So how did this novel get published with such a laborious beginning?

A:  The author is an established writer with several best sellers, some of which have been turned into TV miniseries.  Editors are reluctant to ask such a writer to cut 35 pages, no matter how slowly they move the novel along.

Q:  What can we learn from this?

  1.  If you are a best-selling author, anything goes.
  2. Even if you are a best-selling author, some reviewers will pan your book if it has a slow, wordy start.
  3. Listen to writing experts and start with an inciting event until you become a best-selling author.

A:  a.  Yes.  b.  Yes.  I went online and found reviewers who liked the book and others who said it could have been improved by eliminating several dozen pages at the beginning.  c.  Yes.  Jump right in if you want to hook your readers.

“He’s just not that into you.”

If you have watched Sex and the City, you might remember a particular scene. Miranda has dated a man whom she likes, but he doesn’t phone to ask for another date.  She frets until the current boyfriend of Carrie says, “He’s just not that into you.”

“He’s just not that into me,” Miranda muses.  And like the snap of fingers, Miranda stops blaming herself for the relationship not progressing.  It’s not her fault.  He’s just not that into her.

That’s the same attitude we writers need when someone shrugs off our writing.    “She just doesn’t like my point of view.”  “He doesn’t get my humor.”  “She disagreed with what I say.”  “He thinks my story is too sad.”

And that’s okay.  Just because someone’s not into your writing doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  It means whatever you’re “selling,” they’re not “buying.”  Next!

Even writers who today are considered great have their critics.  Hemingway writes too plainly.  Shakespeare’s too hard to understand.  Henry James’s novels contain no action.  All Tolstoy’s women characters are either childlike or fallen.  Agatha Christie’s characters are one-dimensional.

The next time someone criticizes your writing, say to yourself,  “They’re just not that into me.”  And then move on.