Episode 39: How to Start a Novel That Gets Attention
When you start a novel it can be tough. Today we talk about the proper way to start a novel. Everything from the first word to the first five pages, to the first five chapters. Find out how to make agents and publishers need your book. Learn how to make your story irresistible to everyone who picks it up.
You can listen to the episode right here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 39 Transcript
Note: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and humans, as such, it may contain errors. Please, double-check the audio file before quoting anything from this page.
00:00 [JT Pledger] Greetings again, kids! As we approach the holiday season, I thought it would be a good time to talk about your novels. Well, about starting your novels to be precise. I want to cover the importance of a great start to your book, what grabs attention and how to make sure you start off on the right foot. Buckle up, we have a lot to cover.
00:48 [JT] Let’s begin by talking about what is important about a book. As far as a reader goes, they want a story they can get sucked into. They want a hero to root for and a villain to despise (or the other way around). Each reader wants slightly different things, but it all boils down to these few basics. An agent or publisher, on the other hand, wants something different.
Two Rules for Starting Your Novel
01:20 While the story is important and the protagonist and antagonist need to be viable, the book needs to have mass-market appeal. You accomplish mass-market appeal based on a few factors. First, your story must hold up. It can’t be 2-dimensional and flat. It needs girth, structure, and of course, readability. For an agent or publisher, you also need to write in a way that is well researched, well-read and concise. Everything about your book either needs to already be perfect or show that you are serious about the craft, are teachable and willing to make changes.
02:13 Second, you have to have characters that are believable. I have covered character development a lot in previous episodes and blog posts. If the agent or publisher can’t find a reason to like your hero, they won’t like your book. Extrapolate that shit and they will think that no one will like your characters, ergo, no book sales.
02:42 So let’s start things off the right way and give ourselves a leg-up over the competition. Get your agent’s attention and make them drool over the prospect of working with you. How do we do that? We focus on starting the book the right way.
Be an Individual
03:04 First and foremost, you want to be enough of an individual that your story stands out. We don’t want tired old storylines that offer nothing new. While everything has been written before, as they say, it hasn’t been written your way. Make sure that your unique voice shines through. The first word of your story is crucial. Try hard not to start your book with the word “the.” While 99 percent of the population won’t even notice (including agents and publishers), it is a subconscious thing. “The” is boring. Boring is a bad way to start a book.
Check Your Mindset
04:02 Get yourself in the right mindset. Before you pen the first few pages and introduce your main character, sit back and picture the day or week your character has had up to the point you introduce them into the world. What have they done with their lives? What did they do with their time and day prior to when you opened their window and showed them to the world? Putting yourself in this mindset will help you write a relatable character. Even if on page seven your main character lifts a car over their head to save a baby, it will be much more believable, ironically, if, on page two, they were wearing sweatpants, watching old TV re-runs, and eating from a bag of Cheetos.
04:55 Being relatable makes the reader instantly connect with your hero. We want them to be boring to start out with, mundane if you will. The hope is that you can provide a kick in the ass to get them off the couch and to turn off I Love Lucy to go save the world.
05:18 Agents and publishers need to care about your hero. Moreover, they need a reason to care. So Becky is going to move from her shitty apartment to a shitty trailer park. Who fucking cares? No one. While this move may be the catalyst that kicks off your main plot, the reader needs to care first. If you can’t make your reader care about your hero from page one, you have already lost.
Constantly Check Your Work
05:53 After you pen the first few pages, read them over and ask yourself, who cares? If you need feedback, go get it. Of course, you are going to care, this is your creation. Right now, though, it isn’t about you. It is about your audience. Give them a reason to care. It can be simple, too. You don’t need a shit-ton of fireworks and hoopla. There can be a knock at the door and a mysterious envelope left, there can be a friend that calls and gets disconnected. It just has to be interesting enough that the average human would say to themselves “I need to find out what’s going on,” or even better, have them say “I would get off the couch myself for that reason.”
06:49 Once you have your inciting incident the book begins to take off. This is where your character development and scene building will come into play. If you have a great starting line or two, a reason for the zero-soon-to-be-hero to get off their lazy ass and a scene for them to live in, we need to turn our focus to the first five pages.
The First Five Pages
07:15 For many of you, everything I just mentioned will take up the first five pages. It should. Your first five pages are the most important ones your book will ever have. If you can’t get the agent, publisher, or reader to want more after the first five pages, you will lose almost all of them. Now, in my 5-Draft Method, I put a lot of focus on various aspects of the novel-writing process. Many of which often go overlooked. The first five pages are one such aspect.
07:56 Let me break it down for you. The first five pages need to be spectacular. Think fireworks going off over a theme park on your birthday that light up the night sky enough for you to see the formation of fighter jets flying overhead spelling your name in colored smoke. Spectacular. You must give your audience a reason to want to turn the page and continue reading. They have to want to, they have to care enough to continue. Make them want more.
The First Five Chapters
08:37 The second installment, at least as far as agents and publishers are concerned, is the first five chapters. If you have nailed your first five pages, most agents and publishing houses will continue to read through at least the first five chapters. If you manage to make them read the 6th chapter, you pretty much have them.
09:03 So what needs to happen in the first five chapters? The story needs to start, that’s what. I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, JT, I wrote words on paper, my story did start!” No, you started telling your story, and there is a difference. If you are familiar with the chain of events a story needs, the story arc, if you will, you know that after the inciting incident we need to thrust the reader into the rising action.
09:39 You introduce your main characters. You provide the problem they need to solve and you give them a reason to get off their ass and go solve it. This is all well and good. You are beginning to tell your story and you have gained interest from your readers along the way. Now, you have to add the stakes. What happens if Becky keeps watching Lucy re-runs and never moves? Will she die? Again, why should the reader care?
High Stakes or No Steaks
10:18 When you provide the stakes, they have to be high. Death is pretty cliche, but it still works. However, think bigger than that. There are a lot of readers out there that could give two-shits about your main character’s death. What could make them care even more? This is the answer they are looking for. Your readers want a reason to care. They want to root for, or against, your main character. You must provide a compelling reason for them to do so.
10:51 This, then, is the goal of your first five chapters. The rising incident starts when Becky gets up and gets dressed. It continues when she heads out the door. The reason she is going out the door has to be compelling. It is your job as a writer to make the reader identify with Becky, to put themselves in her shoes and say, “Yup, I’d leave the house for that, too. Alright, Becky, I’m with you, let’s go kick some ass.”
11:28 Long before you introduce the plot of the villain, long before the secondary characters come into focus, your reader must be head-over-heels involved in your plotline. Your fist five chapters are the only chance you have to do that.
Piece it Together to Start Your Novel
11:49 Make your first word interesting. Then, spend a great deal of time working on making the first five pages so enthralling no one can put it down. Make them ask questions and then seek the answers because they have to know. SPend the next 4 and a half chapters giving your readers, agents, and publishers a reason to care, something to bite into and even more pitfalls and shocks than a new Conjuring movie.
12:25 Now, take all of that advice and wrap it up into a nice little bow. You have five chapters written that pull your reader so far in they get lost. Your first chapter is so exciting, intriguing and wrought with questions your reader can’t put it down. What do you do now?
A Word of Advice
12:44 Remember this line. Write it down if you have to. Ready? Write every chapter from then on as if it is the first chapter.
13:00 That’s it. It isn’t easy. Writing never is. If you want compelling, un-put-down-able, give me all your money type of story, then you write every chapter with as much inflection as you did the first one. If you manage to do that, you will be a best seller in no time.
Leave Your Comments Below
13:25 If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or just want to know if your first few pages are worthy, then stop by ExtraDraft.com, find the link to this podcast episode in the show notes and leave us a comment. I’d love to hear from you all. Let’s write some magic today!
13:48 Until Next week, have fun; write words.