Friday, January 23, 2009


I've read that there are four ways you should never begin a novel:

1. With the character sitting around ruminating
2. With a flashback
3. With a dream
4. With a scene pulled from the middle of the book to compensate for starting with 1, 2 or 3.

I read that just as I was finishing my previous novel, which is still making the rounds. That novel originally began with the character sitting around ruminating. So I rethought the plot but could not come up with a way to start the book closer to the action. It's a mystery/thriller, where the heroine is drawn in gradually, so nothing astonishing (meaning scenes involving the spilling of blood) happens until later in the story. Starting off with some killing would mean 80% of the book would be a flashback.

So, having already broken rule number 1, I committed a number 4 and pulled a scene from later in the book that was, incredibly, both a dream and a flashback. This means, in a single novel, I managed to make every single mistake you can in regards to the first chapter.

Does that mean it's a crap book? In my view, no.

The Rules are all fine and good, but take a look at a few current or past bestsellers and you will find these rules broken on a routine basis. So breaking them does not, in and of itself, result in a crap book. A crap story and poor craftsmanship results in a crap book.

For example, “The First Casualty” by Ben Elton, starts off with a scene so obviously ripped from the later portions of the book, and which really had no bearing on the story, that I felt cheated by it. But I don't blame him, I can only envision his publisher saying, "Look, Ben, no one is going to buy this book unless someone dies on page one."

The book itself is a murder mystery, but it requires a bit of set up before the killing begins. Apparently publishers regard readers as ADD sufferers who cannot stretch their attention span for ten pages, even if the story is interesting, which that one was.

Right now, I'm reading "The Mermaids Singing" by Val McDermid, which begins with at least three of the principle characters sitting around ruminating. There may be more, I haven't gotten to the action yet. This book, too, contains a preface that hints at future action and looks as out of place as Ben Elton's preface and probably for the same reason.

I have tried, but I simply can't fit a murder into the first chapter of my book. Without an entire reworking of the plot, which would essentially make it a different book, it just is not possible to have anyone killed any earlier.

But should I? Does a story really need to revolve around the perceived shortcomings of the reading public? These previous examples seem to suggest that authors don't think so, but publishers do. That said, starting out with some action is very likely a good idea, but not all stories require it and, as a reader, I find the notion that I can't be intrigued by nuances insulting.

So I have to accept the idea that my novel may never be published, as it appears my only options are to break Rule Number 1 or Rules 2, 3 and 4. Despite this recklessness, I believe it is a good book, so I have no plans to change it at this time.

My current novel, however, starts off with a bang.


  1. Very interesting blog. Who makes these rules up I wonder. Went to two writing groups and learnt only that I should be at home writing.
    The beginning of a novel I have been writing for years. I suppose it breaks all the rules.

    Sorry to take up too much of your space.

    The congregation sat and fidgeted; the Southgate contingent whispered amongst themselves; Mr Jenkins, in his dark blue suit, observed his shoes, wondered about his tea, and idly contemplated the hymn list displayed on the mahogany, or was it oak board at the chapel front. Henry's mother dabbed a tear from her eye, comforted by the reassuring hand of Uncle Ernest on her arm.
    The parson coughed, expectantly, glancing almost nervously towards the rear of the chapel.
    A murmur, slight yet perceptible ran through the chapel. The congregation adopted solemn, respectful poses. The bearers, suitably sombre faced, appeared in the chapel doorway. Mr Jenkins adjusted his tie; the NALGO representative, Mr Avery selected a suitable expression; Mrs Hudston nervously clutched Uncle Ernest's arm.
    `Non of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself; for whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's'
    The parson's voice, with just the right amount of dignity, yet not so quiet as to pass unheard, hovered and passed over the heads, in more ways than one, of the assembled congregation.

  2. Ken, that's a good beginning. Did you keep going?

  3. Hi
    You asked if I continued it. have done 189 kb words, whatever that means. Keep going back to it but got a bit stuck at the moment. Have done over 60,000 re an autobiographical work.

  4. Ken, just keep kicking at it, that's wth only way to get to the end.