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April 2017
A Message from Kristin Nelson

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 7

Kristin Nelson

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#7) Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel. 

In the thousands and thousands of opening pages we’ve read over the years, we’ve discovered three problematic openers that fit this bill:

  1. Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.
  2. Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.
  3. Opening with heavy exposition, backstory, or world building that goes on for pages without anchoring the reader to a character situated in the story’s narrative time and place.

This type of opening becomes a problem when authors feel the need to fully explain their world before officially beginning the story—they’re afraid that readers will be lost without all the background information. A good intention, but a master writer knows how to layer in her world building and backstory at the same time she is introducing her characters, setting, and whatever situational conflict will launch the story’s momentum.

When I come across a submission like this, I’ll skip ahead to see where—or if—the story actually begins; however, I’m already on notice. This type of false start makes it that much harder for the writer to win me back. You don’t want an agent looking for a reason to say no.

Angie here! Let’s look at some examples.

  • Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations. Marge surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. They’d made great progress today.

Marge and her team had flown to Egypt six weeks prior. The university had finally managed to secure the funding for this dig, despite the dean’s oft-repeated assurances that the archeology department would never approve the sum Marge had requested. But over the summer, some anonymous donor had stepped forward and written a big, fat check. Marge couldn’t guess who the donor was, but she was too excited to care. She started calling her team and making travel arrangements…

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who’ve learned that it’s a best practice to start in scene. So they do. But the siren song of expository backstory is still too alluring, and they can’t resist. To see if you’ve fallen prey, check for past-perfect verbs in your opening scene (had managed, had requested, had stepped forward). If you see some, then—RED ALERT!—you’ve probably slipped into backstory.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.

Marge had learned two things during her seventeen years as a university professor. The first was never to take no for an answer, especially when it came from the dean during a conversation about funding. The second was never to question the motives of an anonymous donor who wanted to send you and your whole team to Egypt for three months on an exclusive dig. She was right about the first, but wrong about the second. She was about to find out just how wrong.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations…you know the rest.

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who want to provide an immediate insight into character before showing us that character in setting, motion, or conflict. Also note the prophetic “she was about to find out just how wrong.” As far as hooks go, this kind always feels a little too on-the-nose, like the writer is saying, Hey, isn’t that portentous and enticing? Most times, authors need to work a little harder than that to plant the hook that will keep readers genuinely intrigued.

To avoid this type of opening, recognize the difference between scene and exposition/backstory. Practice writing solely in scene. Only then, go back and layer in your exposition/backstory with subtle strokes that are relevant to the current scene.

Kristin here: Of course, like all the examples we’ve given in this article series, any opening can work in the hands of a master writer. My client Sherry Thomas is renowned for her ability to pull this off. Read the opening of her debut novel Private Arrangements to see how she breaks this rule but still manages to get away with it. Her masterful writing sweeps the reader away!

Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Is Your Manuscript Ready?

By Danielle Burby

You’ve done your research and know the basics of writing an excellent query letter, but what comes next? What happens when that query letter works and an agent requests your novel? At the end of the day, it all comes down to your manuscript. Are you and your manuscript ready for an agent? How do you know? The short answer: Ask yourself whether you’re treating this like a marathon or a sprint.

Once you’ve typed “The End,” you may be tempted to immediately go out and query every agent you can find, but keep in mind that, while it is a major accomplishment to finish writing a novel, even the most practiced authors need to take time to revise. The first draft is where the ideas form on the page, but it is only in subsequent revisions and rewrites that the actual story begins to emerge. Writing, like any other art, is a craft that takes skill and dedication. Keep in mind that you don’t have a deadline. There is all the time in the world for you to work and rework your novel until you have gotten it into the best shape you possibly can.

As you revise, remember that this is your world and you have full control over it. What a liberating superpower! Nothing in your novel is fixed in stone. This means you can have fun and play with everything from characterization to the rules of the world to the stakes and goals that drive the plot.

Some tips for revising:

  • Print out your draft and make notes in the margins to highlight moments that can be improved.
  • Map out the plot, point by point. Poke as many holes in the logic as possible. Re-map and revise.
  • Read the entire novel from start to finish several times, with a different focus each time—plot, character, language, copy editing.
  • Read out loud and listen to your words. Hearing can illuminate writer tics in need of eliminating or monotonous sentence structure. Revise with that in mind.
  • Share it with trusted readers who will push you even farther. If someone has a crazy suggestion, give it a shot! If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried it. Revise again. Repeat.

Whichever revision style you choose (and you can choose more than one!), your goal should be to make your book better, stronger, more powerful.

My biggest piece of advice to new authors is this:

  • Set the bar high and take the time needed to get to a masterful final draft.

Too often we get requests from agent-seeking writers asking for a chance to resubmit a now-revised manuscript. Occasionally we may say yes, but more often we have to say no because of time constraints. You might only have one shot at an agent read. Spend it wisely. Remember that each and every draft will make you better at what you do. Keep creating and writing and challenging yourself. Keep running this marathon.

Kristin's Book Club

Want to Meet Kristin's Book club?

You’ve been reading about Kristin’s book club for 10 years. Literally. It’s been a decade since we launched the NLA newsletter. Do you want to meet the smart, dedicated readers of this 19-years-and-going-strong book club?

You can if you live in Denver. Come join Liz, Carrie, Angela, Laura, and Becky at BookBar April 23, 2017, to celebrate NLA client Kimberly Reid’s Colorado Book Award nomination for PERFECT LIARS. All finalists in the young adult and juvenile fiction categories will be reading from their nominated works.

We will also be tackling a discussion of the Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH. I only have 10 more audio hours to go! Truly, one of the longest audiobooks I’ve read in recent years.

“Dazzling…A glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all Ms. Tartt’s remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.” New York Times

I did laugh at the “stay up all night” part. That would either be one extremely long night or you’d have to set the audio at 2x the regular speed to finish that read in so short a timeframe.

And get a jump on our next nonfiction title, MAKERS & TAKERS: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar.

New Releases

Eddie Red #3: Doom at Grant's Tomb

by Marcia Wells

Trade Paperback release.

Eddie Red, the NYPD’s youngest crime-solving hero, smells trouble. Could he be the target of the elusive art thief Lars Heinrich, whose last robbery he ruined? If so, why won’t the police let Eddie help on the case? What are they hiding from him?

In the thrilling third installment of the Eddie Red Undercover series, Eddie will need some luck of the Irish as he races against the clock (and bombs and runaway subway cars) to stop what could be one of the greatest heists in history.

Companion to Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on the Musuem Mile and Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery in Mayan Mexico.

Buy It Here:

       

Outrun the Moon

by Stacey Lee

San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty of Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. Now she’s forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Buy It Here:

       

Forgotten

by Sierra Kincade

The second in the scorching hot Deep Connection trilogy from the author of Forsaken.

Cole Talent never had to go looking for trouble. It always had a way of finding him. After his father’s arrest, the family money is gone, their name is in the mud, and both of Cole’s sisters, Elaina and Marsella, are missing. In search of answers, Cole leaves Reno for the last place he heard from Marsella—Ambrose, Ohio—and instead finds MacKenzie Sharp, the beautiful owner of the diner where Marsella once worked.

But others have followed Cole from Reno, intent on bringing the family down for good. When MacKenzie gets caught in the crossfire, the only chance she has at safety is to go into hiding with the one man who put her in danger. From Reno to Ohio and now Vegas, trouble keeps finding Cole. But with MacKenzie in danger, it’s time to stop running and face it head on.

Buy It Here:

     

The Darkest Corner

by Liliana Hart

Deacon Tucker is a dead man walking. A former black ops agent, he was disavowed and stripped of all honor before being recruited as a Gravedigger. But his honor and good name no longer matter, because no one knows he’s alive, and he’ll never get the recognition he deserves. His mission is simple: save the world or die trying. And for God’s sake, don’t ever fall in love. That’s a rule punishable by death. The kind of death a man can’t be brought back from.

Tess Sherman is the only mortician in Last Stop, Texas. She has no idea how Deacon Tucker ended up in her funeral home, but she’ll eat her hat if he’s only a funeral home assistant. Deacon is dangerous, deadly, and gorgeous. And she knows her attraction to him can only end in heartache.

Deacon is on a mission to stop the most fatal terror attack the world has ever known—what’s known as The Day of Destiny—a terrorist’s dream. But when he discovers Tess has skills he can use to stop them, he has to decide if he can trust her with secrets worth dying for. And, most important, he has to decide if he can trust her with his heart.

Buy It Here:

       
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