As a first time novelist trying to break in, what’s the worst thing that can happen to you?
You spend years of your life pursuing your dream of writing a novel. Years of pain, sacrifice, denial, tears, agonising self-doubt, and perhaps a lot more alcohol than is good for you.
You send off the first three chapters to an agent. You start praying. And the agent (or her reader) is so overwhelmed with manuscripts to read that she just skims the first few paragraphs looking for red flags that justify her rejecting your work.
And the damn thing gets rejected without even being read. All on account of a few rookie errors that in no way reflect the quality of the work as a whole. It’s too cruel for words. Worse still, you never find out about it.
In this article I am going to teach you three simple techniques to help you avoid that sad fate.
Who am I to tell you this?
Well, in 2009 Oxford University asked me to write and then teach their online ‘Writing Fiction’ course. Part of it required students to submit as an assignment the opening section to a novel.
Over the course of a decade I read a lot of opening sections. Many were good. A few were great. But all too many shared the same weakness. It’s one we acquire on the very threshold of life as children, when our writing careers are sabotaged by agents of the State called Teachers.
Don’t get me wrong, teachers are heroes and I doff my hat to them all. But the problem with teachers is they are paid to read everything the child writes. So children grow up with the mistaken belief that the act of writing automatically entails that someone will read it.
In truth, the situation beyond the school gates can perhaps best be expressed by the title of a book by screenwriter Steven Pressfield called Nobody wants to read your sh*t!
This isn’t meant to be a counsel of despair. Because once you understand the problem you can easily address it.
The solution is simple and can be summed up in two words.
You do that by adopting a technique developed by American vacuum cleaner salesmen in the 1950s, called the ‘Seven Steps to a Sale’ Strategy.
Step 1. You knock on the door.
Step 2. When the housewife opens, you wedge your foot in.
Step 3. When she steps back in surprise, you push your way in.
Step 4. You then whip out a bag of soot and empty it on the floor.
Step 5. Housewife screams.
Step 6. You take out your vacuum cleaner and clean it all up.
Step 7. Make the sale.
Nowadays there would be a Step 8. ‘Go to jail.’ But in the 1950s it worked. They sold a lot of vacuum cleaners this way. I suggest you deploy a metaphorical bag of soot when writing the opening to your novel.
Let’s start with the knock on the door. The title!
Difficult though it is to believe, many students on the Oxford course submitted the opening to their novel without a title. I don’t know why. Even when I posted requests in the digital common room asking them not to, some still did.
Would you open the door to a salesman who hadn’t even knocked?
The title is your first chance to intrigue. It is the one thing you can absolutely guarantee the agent will read. You can put it in the body of your cover letter. Why waste such an opportunity?
A letter from d’Artagnan
If you received two letters, one from John Smith and one from Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan, and you could only open one, which would it be?
I know what you are thinking. Loads of books in the shops have very boring titles. Indeed they do.
When you are an established writer you can write boring titles too, you can adopt an aristocratic disdain for flashy gimmicky titles. But while you are trying to break in why not try to find an interesting one?
If your novel is set in the desert and you want to call it Sands, that’s fine. But whilst you stand on the threshold knocking on the closed door, why not call it Confessions of a Camel Testicle Swallower?
You can always change it back to Sands later. Or do what I would do and write a Camel Testicle Swallower into the story. It doesn’t have to be a big part.
I submitted the manuscript of my second novel to my editor with only a working title. The first novel in the series was called Aberystwyth Mon Amour, and he suggested we call the second Last Tango in Aberystwyth. It was a great title but there were no tango dancers in the story.
Well, there are now.
Next comes the foot in the door: the opening line.
Readers and writers all love opening lines. They collect them in lists. Here’s a great one.
I like them too, but I’m possibly going against the grain here when I say I think they are overrated. Or at least the emphasis on them can lead the unwary into distorting the opening by trying to make it fit the great opening line.
This is the threshold, you want people to step over it and into the body of your story.
You don’t necessarily want them to stop and admire the step.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt if they do. And if you can write a piece of genius like the following, by all means do.
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. ‘Stop!’ cried the groaning old man at last, ‘Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.’ — Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans
But the crucial bit is what comes next. Or often doesn’t. The story.
The Hive with no Hum
The paramount requirement is to make sure there is something going on in your opening. It’s got to intrigue. It’s got to promise good things to come. There has to be something tangible afoot in story terms that one can sense. The absence is very easily detectable. It’s the hive with no hum.
But what exactly is story? To see what we mean, take a look at this opening to Richard Ford’s novel, Canada. It’s an object lesson in what you need to do.
The first few lines contain a humdinger.
The subsequent paragraphs are backstory. Because of the humdinger, we are hooked and happily read the backstory safe in the knowledge that there is a great story in the offing.
A lot of new writers would get this wrong and put the humdinger in later, thereby making us read the backstory first. Done that way, the first few paragraphs are dull and we might give up.
Next, having grabbed the reader by the lapel, your task is to make sure they can’t escape, to ensnare them in a web spun by their own curiosity.
The trick is to arouse their curiosity and then delay the gratification of it.
You do this by raising questions in the readers’ minds and not immediately answering them.
Don’t be Coy
Most writers understand that curiosity is the essence of storytelling, but often have a mistaken understanding of what that means. They often write with a certain coyness, withholding information in the mistaken belief that this will inveigle the reader into the text.
They hint at things, and allude in sketchy detail to events that mean nothing to the reader.
Rather than stating things boldly and emphatically, they talk obliquely.
But it doesn’t work that way, the aim is to intrigue not mystify. To understand the point, consider this famous opening line by Iain Banks:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Told coyly, that would have been, It was the day something amazing happened to my grandmother.
That is like an instruction to be amazed, whereas the original line literally amazes.
I have a feeling the tendency to be evasive derives from the mistaken belief that to come out and say what is going on will defuse the curiosity and let the cat out of the bag.
Paradoxically, the opposite is true. You get far more dramatic bang for your buck by giving the game away.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides five teenage daughters in the same family commit suicide. Oh dear, spoiler alert. I’ve ruined the story. But actually I haven’t. Jeffrey Eugenides tells us about the suicides on the first page. We know what’s going to happen and find ourselves helplessly in thrall, in an agony to know the full story.
So don’t be scared to let the cat out of the bag. Take that mangey old Tom with half an ear missing after a fight and let him have his hour of glory on the stage. Let him step out before us and aristocratically lick his testicles.
Let the reader see, too, from the strange movements coming from within the bag, that you have plenty of other cats still inside.
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