Shame Levels Falling!

Time for an update on my Shame Unreads List of 2014! Here are six books that I will never again have to sheepishly admit I haven’t read. The books are listed in the order in which I read them.

  1. TFioS
    The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
    Reaction: Quality! Though I may have sprained a tear duct.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I don’t like crying. I don’t know how I’m going to handle the movie.
  2. delirium
    Delirium by Lauren Oliver
    Reaction: Really drew me in. I’m especially impressed by how well Oliver made a premise that I feel is highly unlikely (a future world in which love is seen as a terrible disease and people get “cured” with dangerous procedures to prevent it) seem more plausible.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I just hadn’t gotten around to it.
  3. wild magic
    Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
    Reaction: I like the world and all the cool, powerful women. Some of the writing just fell a little flat for me, though, especially in terms of emotional content. Would probably have loved it as a kid, but I found it hard to identify with the protagonist. Also, there are a lot (a LOT) of characters.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: Somehow I missed out on Tamora Pierce as a kid/teen, when I think a lot of fantasy fans get into her. Maybe my library didn’t have her books? Dunno.
  4. disreputable
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
    Reaction: Holy Awesome and Accessible Feminism, Batmanwoman! Plus, this is a really smart and funny book.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I only heard of it fairly recently. It came very highly recommended, though, so I put it on the list.
  5. curious
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
    Reaction: Smart and entertaining, and also the kind of book that makes me feel like I might become a more empathetic person because I’ve read it.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: As with Delirium, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I was pretty sure it would be good, though.
  6. outsiders
    (That little image cuts off in a weird way, doesn’t it?)
    The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
    Reaction: I’m surprised by how much I liked this! It’s universal and heartfelt, and Ponyboy is easy to empathize with. He makes even his gang – some of whom, let’s face it, are kind of thugs, stealing and getting into fights for fun – seem sympathetic and decent.
    I Hadn’t Already Read It Because: I was never assigned to read it, and I saw it as the kind of book you read because you’re assigned to. Also, I was afraid it would rub me the wrong way, like The Catcher in the Rye did, but it didn’t. Maybe because Ponyboy is less jaded than Holden. I don’t know.

I’ll have to pick up my pace on these, since there are nine more in the list! It’ll be fine, though. The reason I haven’t made more headway is that I’ve been reading lots and lots of other books in between, which is also a pretty great use of my time. Books forever!

A Hottie by Any Other Name

So I’m reading another YA paranormal romance. I’m frequently disappointed by these, mostly for reasons that fall under the “romantic interest is a jerk” and/or “protagonist is a dopey pushover” categories, but I am convinced that these problems are not inherent to the genre. Just, you know, frequent pitfalls. Plus, this one is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, and I am a sucker for some Alice in Wonderland, y’all.

However, in this book – I’ll go ahead and tell you that it is Splintered by A. G. Howard, since you could probably figure it out – I’ve encountered a completely unrelated issue. It’s one that I’ve seen before in different books of various genres. It is the saddling of characters who are supposed to be romantic/sexy/attractive with names that are none of the above.

Is it shallow that I have so much trouble taking seriously our protagonist’s attraction to a guy named Jeb? JEB, you guys. His name is JEBEDIAH. I’m fairly confident in saying that no name that ends with “diah” is going to be loaded with sex appeal. As to the question “is it shallow,” quite possibly. But I’m not the only one who has this problem.

Years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in which a romance author on one of the panels told a story. Some time before, she had had another romance novel in the works, and was auctioning off the right to name its male lead. The proceeds would go to charity. Here is where the awkward starts: the winner of the auction was her father. Here is where the awkward gets worse: he wanted to name the male lead after himself. Here is where the author put her foot down: his name was Melvin.

Because, unfair as it might be to the Melvins of the world, you cannot, in modern-day America, slap that name on a character who is supposed to be swoonworthy. Hey, fiction doesn’t always mirror real life, and it doesn’t have to. Romance authors rarely give their male leads bad teeth, or have them catch icky diseases, even those those things happen in reality. There are things that writers have reason to want to avoid.

The names that do and don’t work for a sexy character (or a scary character, or a cute character, etc.) vary from person to person and era to era. Some names may work or not work for a specific reader for reasons that have to do with that reader’s experiences. (“Jebediah” might just be a problem for me because I grew up in a small town in the South and didn’t really like the redneck culture I often encountered. To me, “Jeb” is a guy in dirty overalls who takes potshots at ‘possums.) Other names, however, have pretty broadly-held associations, at least for a given time period or a given culture. Which brings us to LIST TIME!

  1. Just Getting Older with Age – A name that was very popular a generation or two ago but isn’t now will feel like an “old” name – a “mom” name or a “grandparent” name – and probably not be sexy. Think Doris, Mildred, Clarence, or Lloyd, all common baby names in the 1920s. When Jane Eyre came out (slight spoilers maybe, but you’ve had since 1847 to read it), “Bertha” was a sexy foreign name. How many sexy Berthas do you read about now?
  2. Nobody Names Their Daughter Jezebel – Some names are strongly associated with specific people. Even if your male lead is German, you might think twice about naming him Adolf. The associations don’t necessarily even have to be negative. I once read a thriller in which the heroine’s supposedly sexy tough-guy husband was named Mickey. I just . . . Mickey is a mouse. He’s a mouse.
  3. “Bond. Jimmy Bond.” – Doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Sometimes it’s not the name itself, but what the character goes by. I can easily see a Robert as a romantic interest, but Bob? Not so much. And it’s not just about whether a name is attractive or not: there are other implications. If you want to write someone snooty, would he go by Lawrence or Larry? Augustin or Gus? What if you want to write someone very laid-back and casual?

I don’t intend this post to be mean! I feel the pain of real-life people who have these names. I myself have a first name that peaked in popularity between 1950 and 1955, over thirty years before I was born, so it always felt like a name for people my mom’s age. That’s part of why I go by an unrelated nickname. If I were writing a book set in the present, with a character my age, I probably wouldn’t give her a name like mine unless it was a plot point. Certainly my name does not evoke a “twentysomething” image, any more than Melvin evokes a “smoldering hottie” image.

You can, of course, give a character a contradictory name if you mean to play around with expectations or otherwise make a point with it. (See “plot point” in the paragraph above.) Maybe it’s an old family name. Maybe your character hates it – or loves it. Maybe she goes by something else, and her real name is an embarrassing secret.

Or maybe you just want to play it for laughs. I must take this opportunity to recommend the awesome Dickens-spoof radio series “Bleak Expectations,” which includes such wonderful names as Mr. Skinflint Parsimonius (“who was, ironically, the most generous of men”) and Mr. Gently Benevolent (“who was, ironically, a complete bastard”).

None of this is to say that real people can’t be sexy or silly or serious or anything else regardless of their names. It’s just one of the many things to consider when you’re putting together a fictional character. Names are neat! There’s so much you can do with them! They can really pull their weight, making readers assume or feel things about a character the moment she’s introduced. Just make sure you aren’t giving her a name that pulls its weight in the opposite direction of what you intend.

Favorite/least favorite names, fictional or otherwise? Other thoughts?

Here’s to a Shame-Free 2014!

. . . or at least, you know, low-shame. Let’s be realistic here.

Happy New Year! I’m all excited and energized about writerly things, and also about readery things. In particular, I am excited about the 2014 reading challenge I came up with. I’ve made a list of fifteen Books I’m Kind of Ashamed I Haven’t Read Already. And this year, I’m going to read them! Then I will NEVER AGAIN have to admit that I’m a Teen Services librarian who has read nothing by John Green. Or that, even though I suspect I’ll love it, I’ve never quite gotten around to Ender’s Game. Or look, my school never assigned The Giver, okay? I tried to keep it to books that I think I’ll actually enjoy. Different titles make the list for different reasons: it’s a classic, teens at my library devour it, I’ve heard a million times that it’s great, it’s something I’m obviously going to love and it’s absurd that I haven’t read it already.

It’s a pretty doable challenge, I think, and I’m psyched about it. My coworker Nori (of the book review blog Nori’s Closet) liked the idea, too, and ended up making her own list of embarrassing unreads to be finally read in 2014.

Want to see my list? (You know that’s a trick question on this blog, because you will always see the list.) Here, in alphabetical order but not necessarily reading order, are fifteen books that will soon no longer shame me with their unreadness!

  1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  2. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  3. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  4. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
  5. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (This was the first one to go. I just finished it! And might have sprained a tear duct. WHY, JOHN GREEN, WHY?)
  7. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  8. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  9. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  10. Matched by Ally Condie
  11. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  12. The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
  13. Sabriel by Garth Nix (I loved his Keys to the Kingdom series)
  15. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Probability of crying while reading some of these books: high.
Probability of going, “Why didn’t I read this years ago?”: high.
Probability of being glad I read these books: skywriter high.

Anyone else want in? Or just want to share a book or two that you’re kind of embarrassed not to have read yet?

On Love Triangles and Fictional Gal Pals

I recently decided to have another go at reading some YA paranormal romance. There’s so much of it, and it’s so popular, that I thought there must be more of it I would like than I have thus far discovered. I do have luck sometimes – I enjoyed Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, and I loved the sequel, Magic Under Stone. (I even drew fanart of the main characters – click the image twice to get the full size.) But otherwise, I’ve been largely unimpressed by most of the YA paranormal romance I’ve read, despite having the book suggestions of my coworker, who has read approximately every YA paranormal romance ever written.

This does relate to the title of the post! One thing I frequently notice in paranormal romance is that the protagonist either has no female friends or has female friends who are so awful that I wish the author had left them out. I get it: an intense romance (as these romances typically are) plus the worldbuilding required for the paranormal stuff takes a lot of space in a book. Most of the character development goes into the protagonist and the love interest. Oh, and maybe another love interest to form the third point of your standard-issue love triangle.

As an aside, some YA authors’ views on love triangles were recently compiled and discussed here. I generally fall into the “not a fan” category, though partly because I’m bitter that the guy I like is never the one the girl chooses. What’s wrong with a guy who’s sweet and not mysterious and arrogant? My favorite views presented here for and against love triangles:

Speaking for the prosecution, Gayle Forman, who has a lot to say on the topic, but I especially like this bit: “When you fall in love, you know who you love.” She admits that love triangles are a good way to build tension, but doesn’t think they are realistic.

Speaking for the defense, Carrie Ryan: “To me, a love triangle done right isn’t about a female character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her.” So, it’s not about choosing who you want to be with, it’s about choosing who you want to be.

Anyway, back to the female friends of these triangulatin’ fiends. (Or fiend-daters, as the case sometimes is.) They’re often one-dimensional, largely due to how little page time they receive. They’re frequently unaware of the whole paranormal thing going on around their friends, which typically relegates them to even less story time. Indeed, they often serve little purpose aside from providing a chorus of praise for the main love interest’s hotness.

What really burns my cookies is when the female protagonist has friends who have, and encourage the protagonist to have, an unhealthy take on relationships. In one book I recently read, the girl was avoiding the supernatural guy. She was highly vocal about being uninterested in him. In fact, he seriously scared her! Yet her crowd of girlfriends, none of whom was differentiated enough for me to remember any names, constantly pushed her at him because he was (A) hot, and (B) interested in her. They invited the guy to eat lunch at their table, told the girl she was crazy for rejecting him, and even told the guy – in front of the girl! – “don’t worry, we’ll help you wear her down.” They just met this guy! He makes their friend uncomfortable, and not in a “strange new feelings awakening” way. Taking his side and pushing her to give him a chance is rotten friend behavior!

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen this from female supporting characters. In another paranormal romance, the protagonist’s mother asks why she won’t go ahead and date the arrogant, pushy vampire who’s pursuing her. After all, Mommy Dearest reasons, “he is attractive.” Then there’s my least favorite line from a paranormal romance that I’ve read so far: in response to Protagonist Girl asking whether Mysterious Paranormal Guy is always such a jerk, a girl who’s friends with Mysterious Paranormal Guy says yes, he is, “But that’s what makes him so damn sexy.” NO! No! Bad friends and relations!

Now, to draw out some kind of lesson that will make this a constructive post rather than just a rant. I guess what I’d say is, make the protagonist’s friends be her friends. Not cheerleaders for the romantic interest. Make them take, or at least attempt to understand, her side. If possible, it’s nice for the protagonist to have at least one friend who knows about the paranormal stuff, whether because she discovered it (think Willow from Buffy) or because she was part of the paranormal scene all along. Otherwise, their relationship is going to have a lot of holes and dishonesty. Or, more typically, the friend will simply be phased out of the book as the paranormal stuff and the romance get more important.

While I don’t want to name names with the books that made me mad, I will mention one YA paranormal romance that I think did a pretty good job with the female-friend thing: Warped by Maurissa Guibord. Protagonist Tessa has a close friend, Opal. When weird stuff starts happening to Tessa, she (here’s a novel idea) tells Opal about it. Opal thinks she’s crazy or joking at first, but is willing to at least humor her. So when fantastical things start happening, Opal realizes that Tessa was right – and becomes someone who can help out and support Tessa in the midst of freaky unicorn time-travel adventures.

Note: In theory, a platonic male friend could fill this role, but I have never ever ever seen this happen in a YA paranormal romance. The protagonist’s “platonic” male friend always turns out to be in love with her and become the third (and losing) point on the love triangle.

Any other examples of YA paranormal that doesn’t include friend fail? Other ideas about what makes or breaks a good gal pal in the genre?

What I Want to Know Is . . .

So, when you talk about events that take place in a book, you use present tense, right? As in, “Howl throws a magical hissy fit and there’s green slime everywhere.” But what is the protocol for describing your reaction to a book’s event? Sometimes, it works okay to put your reaction in present tense: “It cracks me up when Howl throws that magical hissy fit.” (Though is it me, or does that sound slightly weird? As if I’m saying I crack up every time it happens, when it only happens once in the book? Although, of course, I’ve read Howl’s Moving Castle like twelve times, so I guess that “gets me every time” could be appropriate.)

In other situations, though, it comes out very strangely: “I’m startled when the guitar explodes.” That makes it sound like I’m startled now. But if I’m reviewing or talking about a book, and I describe the book’s events in the present tense, it doesn’t seem right to suddenly shift to past tense for a sentence to avoid this: “They rush back into the castle. Then the guitar exploded, which startled me.” It’s maybe even worse to shift within a single sentence: “They rush back into the castle. Then the guitar explodes, which startled me.”

I suppose a simple solution would be to put everything into past tense – “They rushed back into the castle. Then the guitar exploded, which startled me” – but I remember learning at some point that this was Not the Done Thing for describing events in books/movies/etc.

How do you handle this? Am I weird for wondering about it? I guess I write a lot of book reviews . . .

All According to Plan

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of SCBWI the other day, and we workshopped a number of pieces different people had brought. One was a chapter from the middle of a longer work, ending with the protagonist forming a plan of action. I mentioned that, for the next chapter, the author would want to remember: only explain the plan to the reader if it isn’t going to work. The other members were all like, “Oh yeah! That’s true, but I hadn’t thought of it as an actual rule before!” So I thought it might be worth sharing with you lovely peoples.

(Note: I can’t take credit for coming up with this “rule.” I’ve seen it before, though I can’t think where, or I would credit the source. Possibly on TV Tropes somewhere?)

The inverse relationship between how successful a plan will be and how much readers should know about it beforehand makes a lot of sense. If the plan is going to fail, you want it explained first so that readers will see it failing. They’ll understand what’s going on, and they’ll want to read on as they anticipate the trouble this will mean for the architects of this failed strategy. If, on the other hand, the plan is going to work – well, in a movie, you might have the team leader say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do . . .” and then CUT AWAY, straight to the plan’s implementation. Either that, or the person who comes up with the scheme doesn’t share it with anyone in the first place. The reasoning here, as I see it, is twofold: you want to avoid repetition, and you don’t want to steal the thunder from the actual events when the strategy is put into action.

Basically, you want to avoid either of the following situations:

  • Someone explains, either to other characters or to the reader via the description of her thought process, that she is going to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion. She then borrows her sister’s car, robs a bank, drives to Vegas, bribes a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnaps a white lion.
  • Someone is planning to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion, but never informs the reader, so the reader doesn’t see the significance of the situation when her sister’s car won’t start.

(Of course, this all assumes that the strategizing party is either the POV character or someone who would communicate her scheme to the POV character. We don’t get to be privy to everyone’s plans all the time.)

This can, of course, lead to a funny meta situation when you’re reading or watching a movie and someone starts laying out a detailed plan. You can assume with some confidence that things are not going to shake out that way.

Exceptions? Thoughts? Diabolical schemes?

Do Your Parents Know You’re Saving the World?

That’s right, I mean you, character in a YA or middle-grade novel. Do your parents know you’re out fighting evil at this time of night? And/or solving mysteries, and/or romancing and being romanced?

Of course they don’t. Because they’re either dead or wholly irresponsible.

These are sentiments you’ve probably seen before: the pitiful plight of parents in a lot of YA and MG books. My sense is that parental survival rates are up in these stories, but this means that authors have had to come up with other ways to keep those pesky adults out of their kids’ hair. Because a present, responsible parent is unlikely to allow a kid or teen to do dangerous and exciting – or especially romantic – things. Plus, if our protagonist has an adult to back her or him up in difficult situations, that drains a lot of tension. This isn’t to say that NOBODY in the realm of YA and MG has an active, non-clueless (clueful?) parent. It’s just saying that parents like this are approximately as common as two-headed snakes. Which are a thing, you know, but not a thing you see every day.

What struck me recently is that many writers seem to use different professions as shorthand for the ways in which their characters’ parents aren’t there for them. It’s always stood out to me when characters have artist parents, for example, because they tend to behave in a certain way that does not tally with my own experience having two parents who are both visual artists and extremely down-to-earth and practical. Then, I noticed that artists weren’t the only ones being picked on. So without further ado, let’s decode a few parental professions!

Artist – Extremely common. The Artist parent is basically an adult child. She wafts dreamily through life with paint smudges on her face. She loves her child and will occasionally offer emotional support and valuable, if flaky-sounding, insight, but she also relies on others to do basic things for her. You get the impression that, if left alone for too long, the Artist parent might forget to eat. Then, when her hunger became intense enough to prompt her notice, she would discover that the only thing in the refrigerator is a pair of high heels because some fleeting, forgotten impulse inspired her to put them there last week on a bed of now-wilted lettuce. She would consider going to the store for more food, but be unable to find the car keys. Things would not end well. Example: Grace’s mother in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.

(Note that this is true only for artist parents. An artist love interest will not be flaky, but deep. He will see the world in ways no one else does and have a beautiful soul. Example: Wes in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Noah in Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan.)

Blue-Collar Worker – This parent is typically a tough-love type when around and awake, but that’s not often, since he works long hours at a menial job and then falls asleep fast on returning home. The book’s protagonist will be grateful and feel guilty that the Blue-Collar – usually a single parent – is working so hard to support them, but is also likely to sometimes be embarrassed about him, and feel ashamed for feeling that way. Example: Thom’s dad in Hero by Perry Moore.

Businessperson – Ah, the classic. Realistic, yet vague. This parent will have an office or, if rich, a study, in the home and also one outside of the home, and will only be seen outside of these two places when traveling from one to the other. The home office will likely be forbidden to others, especially when the parent is not there. If so, it will contain important information that the kid or teen featured in the story will need.

Doctor – Much like the Businessperson, but this parent will either be more sympathetic (if she works long hours because she just care so much about helping people, leading her to come home mentally and physically exhausted) or evil (if she is evil). Either way, she will not be supervising her offspring effectively.

Lawyer – Again, like the Businessperson, only in addition to the home office and work office, he will sometimes appear in court. The case itself is unlikely to actually be covered in the novel, but the Lawyer will be even less available to his child or children immediately before going to court, because he will have to pull all-nighters to prepare.

Politician – This parent is the political leader, or wannabe political leader, of a country, kingdom, or large community of some kind. For this reason, she will be too busy overseeing affairs of state and/or clinging to power and/or running for office to spend much one-on-one time with a kid. She will be aloof and unapproachable. She may also see her child as a pawn. Side effects of having this parent include a desperate need to prove oneself. Examples: Cleopatra in Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Shecter, Claudia’s dad in Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Samantha’s mom in My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. (Incidentally, how great a name is “Huntley Fitzpatrick”?)

Trophy Wife – I do not remember ever reading a YA or MG book that included a trophy husband as a father, so for now will assume this is a women-only gig. This parent is shallow and self-absorbed, and may be manipulating her husband. She is quite likely to actually be a stepparent, one who kind of sketches out the book’s protagonist, who is likely closer to her age than her husband is. If she is into charity work, there will be a slightly bitter contrast between her involvement with her charity of choice and her lack of involvement with any kids or teens living under her roof. Examples: Cassel’s mom in Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy, Suzume’s mother in Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott.

Writer – You’d think they’d get off easy in novels, wouldn’t you? After all, studies show that nearly one hundred percent of novelists are writers. But no. The Writer parent – a very common parent type – is a combination of the Artist parent and the Businessperson. He has only one office, which is at home, and rarely ventures outside of it. He cares about his progeny, but doesn’t often put in an appearance to prove it, and is likely to be more than a little whimsical and impractical. Example: Auden’s father in Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. And, come to think of it, Remy’s mother in This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. It’s like Sarah Dessen hates writers or something.

I would love to see some kind of study on the most popular parental professions in YA and MG books. Do you have any others to add to the list?

In the Beginning

I’ve read a lot of articles, blog posts, and rants about how to begin – and, perhaps more common, how not to begin – a novel. Beginnings are more broadly relevant to writers than many other topics. After all, we do not yet have the technology to create novels without them. So I’ve been browsing a few of the aforementioned articles, found some common ground, and made some conclusions. So let’s have them! With liberal bolding of text! Because it’s the weekend!

But before we get to a list – you didn’t think I was going to do this without a list, did you? – I’ll mention a tip I got from a creative writing professor once. She said to never start a story with your protagonist alone. I don’t think she meant “never” in the sense of actually never, Taylor Swiftian never-ever-ever-ever, so much as “never start a story with your protagonist alone without considering whether things would be more interesting with a little interaction or conflict between her/him and someone else.” Certainly the presence of another character lends itself to dialog, and, as author Chuck Wendig says in his post on novel beginnings, “Dialog is sugar. Dialog is sweet.”

So, on to the list! Things I’ve seen or heard time and again about that tricky art, starting your novel out right:

  1. Thou shalt not start with thy protagonist waking up. Most especially waking up from a dream, waking up and looking in the mirror, or waking up on some particularly exciting day. (In the case of the latter, start with the part of the day that’s actually exciting.) Waking up from a dream and brushing her long wavy auburn hair in the mirror while reassuring herself about the first day of space academy is right out. This is largely because people mostly wake up roughly the same way and do roughly the same things in the morning. There are exceptions, of course. If your character is awakened at midnight because her house is on fire, that’s different. If she wakes up in a strange place, that’s different. But if she wakes up to her mom calling her for breakfast, that’s a foul.
  2. Beware prologues. There are good uses for them, but, as author K. M. Weiland points out in a nice article detailing four pitfalls of starting a novel, a prologue typically requires readers to invest in your story twice, often with different characters and/or taking place at very different times. Is the reader going to get attached to characters in the prologue only to lose track of them in Chapter One? Will the prologue hint at interesting events that are then skipped over as the first chapter begins ten years later? It may also be full of backstory that you would do better to work into the novel in other ways.
  3. Don’t be so set on starting in media res that you skimp on important details. Your reader should get a feel for the protagonist – not her waves of auburn hair, necessarily, but her general age, species, and societal status – and the setting, all pretty early on. Conflict is good, but jumping directly into a battle is no good if we have no idea what the battle is about or who any of the people fighting are. If you start with action, be careful to give the reader an understanding of the stakes and a reason to care.
  4. Conversely, don’t start by describing weather.
  5. Make sure your beginning conveys your voice. If it’s a funny story, start funny. If it’s gothic, start gothic. (Just don’t, according to literary agent Darley Anderson, start with a description of the moon. This oddly specific, but apparently very common, opener is number three on her ongoing list of “11 Ways Not to Start Your Novel”.)

There are exceptions to all of these. The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up. This post by author Kristin Lamb about the good and evil in prologuing points out that, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t actually begin with a prologue, it easily could have: that would have been a good way to separate baby Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ from the continuation of the story years later. (I don’t think many readers would be frustrated at the skipped time – I, for one, am okay with missing out on the adventures of infant Harry, which presumably involve sleeping and crying.) But, as with any writing “rules,” you should know the reasons they’re there and what you’re doing before you break one.

For my own part, I would add, “Don’t have a gimmicky ‘hook’ as your first line.” Your story has to live up to – ideally, surpass – its beginning. To me, a first sentence that punches me with shock value tends to read “trying too hard.” It’s also a gamble: while you deserve major props if you can fulfill the promise of a crazy first line, it’s easy to fall short, and that means that you disappoint your reader, which is probably not your goal. Probably.

A couple more posts on the topic:

Know any more good tips or posts on the topic? Got any ways that you particularly like, or don’t like, to see a story begin?