Sunday, 23 January 2011

Is your novel hard to get into?

How many times have you said of a book ‘It wasn’t easy to get into, but I really enjoyed it once I did’? I know I’ve said something like that on numerous occasions, though I must admit, if a book takes more than 60 pages to let me in, I’m liable to abandon it.

So what does ‘difficult to get into’ actually mean?

That the characters and/or their motivation aren’t easy to understand?

That it’s not clear where the plot is going?

That it’s too ‘literary’ (whatever that means)?

That you’re given insufficient information to understand what’s actually happening?

OK, I have to admit that I’ve got more than a passing interest in the answers to these questions. I find the openings of novels the most difficult thing of the whole project to crack. As we speak (OK, as I type and you read) I am rewriting the beginning of The Black and The White for at least the sixth time, in my quest for an agent. (Agent No 1, by the way, hasn’t declined to represent me, he’s just too busy to read anything new at this point so I have asked if he minds me submitting it elsewhere.)

I think the problem with beginnings lies in making sure that your characters’ motivation is clear (so as to avoid the first gripe above). Readers need to know what has possessed characters to do what they see them doing and, to do that, the writer needs to show their readers how their characters have got to this point. But of course, the business of getting to the point of crisis isn’t half as interesting as the point of crisis itself and the actions it sets in train. So, you don’t want to delay getting there too much. On the other hand, if you just present people with your central character falling off his metaphorical cliff and say ‘watch what happens now’ without giving them any kind of context for what is going to happen they’re likely to flounder around and abandon your book for at least two of the three reasons above, if not all of them.

I’ve never been particularly happy with the opening of TB&TW, which is why it’s been re-written so many times. But now, after a lay-off of three months whilst waiting for a decision from Agent No 1, I’m able to read the book with the necessary degree of detachment to see what works and what doesn’t. And I think I’m finally getting to somewhere like the ideal beginning for the book. I’ve hacked and stripped and cut until I think we’re just left with what’s necessary to get the reader into the book without throwing them into the deep end.

So, the first 10 000 words or so will now go out to an agent this week and the process of waiting will begin again.

Watch this space.


Tim Stretton said...

Alis, for me it's withholding information in a way which obscures rather than tantalises. In The Dog of the North, I deliberately withheld from the reader anything about Beauceron's motivation until well into the novel - the intention being that wanting to know *why* would be one of the things keeping you reading.

Although some people found The Dog difficult to get into, so maybe that's not the best answer...

Frances Garrood said...

Alis, I think that for a novel to draw its readers in, it needs to have either a sympathetic character with (probably) some kind of problem/dilemma/exciting event. Or there might be a mystery. Whatever it is, it needs to arouse curiosity (after all, if the reader isn't curious about what's going to happen there's no point in reading on). Failing either of those, it needs to be very witty or very well-written. I tend to dive straight in with my novels - start in media res - but my track record isn't a particularly good advertisement for that approach! (Maybe that's my trouble, My books are too easy to get into...). However it's done, it's not easy, and I sympathise!

Like you, I now give up if I'm not involved by about page 50. There simply isnt'the time, and there are too many other books to read. I suppose another reason might be that the book has such a marvellous reputation that I simply can't believe it's going to go on being so dull, tedious or whatever. It's for that reason that I persevered with The Finkler Question (last year's Booker winner), and thus wasted rather a lot of time (but that's another story). I think the opening paragraph is vital; that's what the browser looks at, and that's what hooks him (or me, anyway) in.

None of this makes a lot of sense - just had a boozy supper with friends - but I'll post it anyway, with apologies. Good luck with the re-writes. I've still got everything crossed for you!

Akasha Savage. said...

I tend to abandon novels if the first chapter doesn't grab me, sometimes I'll give the second chapter a try too...but not very often. With this in mind I have tried very hard to make the opening scenes of Bathory as 'hooky' as possible. Whether I've achieved this, who knows? I have re-written my beginning about six or seven times. I have just posted the 'new' prologue on my blog to get some feed back.

Let me know what you think, and be honest. I can take it.......

Alis said...

Tim - your strategy worked!

Frances - the rewrites to the first 10 000 words are done. I was going to send the results off yesterday but, obviously, events supervened...

Akasha - Hi! I may not get around to reading anything until I'm home but I'd love to see where you've got to with Bathory so don't worry, it will be read!