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.