How Can I Make These Opening Chapters Better? An Experiment

I got the nicest rejection from an agent the other day.  And she said this:

“This is creative and full of promise… but it is too complicated and confusing in execution to succeed in today’s crowded urban fantasy market.  You’re trying to do too much and it shows:  urban fantasy should flow smoothly and read easily and this is as much work to read as an edgy SF novel. ”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Thing about it is, I’m generally happy with the plots of my novels.  You get five chapters into them, and the groove kicks in and people seem to read the rest in a gulp.  But the openings…

…I’m not good at starting novels.  There always seems to be too many balls that I want to fling into the air at once, since my novel-length stories are invariably about crazy worldbuilding and the ramifications thereof, and so I’m not just trying to explain characters but the rules of the place they live in.  And so all three of my attempts to create novels have had these clunky starts that my fellow authors have marked as not having enough of an emotional thoroughline.  Folks are so busy going, “Wait, what was that?” to actually fall in love with the characters the way I want them to.

And don’t get me wrong, science fiction is rife with starts like that.  Dune’s a classic, and I don’t think you can have more “Wait, what?”s per sentence than you do with Dune.  But today’s audience seems to want a clearer connection with their characters, and I’m so busy saying, “All right, here’s this knot of New Stuff” that it’s actually detracting from the point of any good novel – which is to say, these people who you’re going to follow through it.

And it’s not the worldbuilding.  Seanan McGuire’s Feed and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station all have complex worlds with their own rules, but they somehow managed it.  And since those first three chapters are so damn important, I’ve asked, “What do they do that I don’t?”

So I’ve been pondering, and what I intend to do is to read the opening chapters to twenty or so modern spec-fic novels that I loved.  And just the opening chapters.  Knowing what the rest of the book looks like and all the complexity that will unfold from there, I’ll see where they start, what’s the opening dilemma for the characters, how the characters are introduced, and – more importantly – what they chose to leave out of the opening, given all the stuff that I know happens down the road.  And we’ll see if I learn anything.

Those novels are:

Uglies Scott Westerfeld
Girl of Fire and Thorns Rae Carson
Hunger Games Suzanne Collins
American Elsewhere Robert Bennett
The Atrocity Archives Charlie Stross
Coldest Girl In Coldtown Holly Black
Harry Potter J.K. Rowling
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Feed Seanan McGuire
Who Fears Death Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Justice Anne Leckie
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
Throne of the Crescent Moon Saladin Ahmed
Tooth and Claw Jo Walton
Boneshaker Cherie Priest
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke
Perdido Street Station China Mieville
Dragon’s Path Daniel Abraham
Three Parts Dead Max Gladstone
Shadow Ops Myke Cole

And let me just say: thank you, Amazon Kindle Sample Chapters!  (Also, if you’re looking for a list of “Books that Ferrett would recommend in a heartbeat,” well, there you are.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll learn something by the time I’m done reading all of those.  I don’t know what it is, but I’ll share what I find.  And the good news is I’ve got a set of long trips to New York City, so I’ll have a lot of time to analyze.

Wish me luck.

1 Comment

  1. Beverly
    Feb 19, 2014

    Do you usually get other people to give these things a read to get input from a larger group? I would not be surprised if feedback from multiple sources were to help pinpoint issues.

    The strongest beginning I have read lately was Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase. I think the key was that I instantly identified with the character and it pounced on strong emotions right away.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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