Thursday, October 22, 2009

Janet Kobobel Grant (Advice for Novelists, Part 107)

Here's another post in my Advice for Novelists series in which editors, authors, agents and publicists answer the question:

"If you could say one thing to aspiring novelists, what would you say?"

This time around, agent Janet Kobobel Grant gives us a poignant piece entitled "Begin at the Beginning".

I love that the Bible begins in just the right spot: “In the beginning God created.” Chaos succumbs to order. It’s the ultimate conflict! Genesis’s beginning makes so much sense to us; I can’t imagine a better opening.

Unfortunately, the choices aren’t so obvious when it comes to our own writing. I remember hosting a dinner table at the Writing for the Soul Conference a couple of years ago and asking each person what he or she was working on.

One woman recounted her novel’s storyline and then asked me if I thought she should cut the first couple of pages, which some of her critique partners had suggested. She was having trouble murdering those darling paragraphs that she had labored over for months.

I do believe a hush fell over the table as I said, “I think you should start the story in the middle of the manuscript. Everything before that point is backstory.”

Everyone at the table, including me, wondered how the writer would respond to such a radical concept. She chewed on the idea, and as she did, her expression lightened, and she exclaimed,
“That’s perfect! Why didn’t I see it before?” Then she rattled off how that would open up new vistas in the novel.

Now, I wish I could proclaim myself some sort of genius for having made the suggestion, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve read enough manuscripts that I know starting in the wrong place is a common malady.

I’ve been pondering why that’s the case, and I’ve come up with this premise: The writer is so immersed in the story, has done so much research, and knows the characters so well, that she is tempted to do a brain dump in the book’s opening. So much detail is clogging the writer’s mind that she wants to bring the reader up to speed right off.

What the novelist forgets is that the reader isn’t ready to discover the complex underlying motivations for the protagonist’s first actions. Rather than introducing the character to us, the author in essence pulls out the character’s entire psychological profile. I’m so not ready for that! Why, I’m not even on a first-name basis with the character yet. Ease me into the relationship with a gentle introduction.

I also don’t need the complete physical description. Don’t provide me with any until it naturally fits in the story.

In addition to wanting to provide too many details about the character (or characters), writers are tempted to start with the backstory. I just finished reading a manuscript in which the story began with a woman calling a restaurant to make a reservation. The next thing I knew, I was being told the restaurant owner’s life history. Totally backstory stuff. I didn’t care yet. I hadn’t even met that character; I’d only been introduced to the woman phoning the restaurant, which made the backstory material all the more confusing for me. I wasn’t sure who the novel’s key character was.

The more complex the story, the more tempting to provide too much information too soon. The political atmosphere, the setting, and the main characters all demand to be front and center on the first pages, which quickly turn into a traffic jam, with the poor reader overwhelmed by all the detail.

As a reader, what I look for are “anchors” that settle me into the story and keep me from being carried off by strong winds. I want to care about the protagonist; give me reason to do so. I want to know the elemental details about the story’s setting. And I want to know what conflict the character is facing right now. Drop the anchors in the middle of a pensive moment. Fill in details later.

How do you know where to start your novel? Often it’s in the middle of the story as you’ve outlined it. Go ahead, be daring, give it a try.

I’m currently reading Leif Enger’s
So Brave, Young and Handsome. The story had me from the get-go. The protagonist is sitting on the porch of his home, trying to write a novel. He hates his character. Then a man, standing up in his boat, rows past on the foggy river, and the author hears the Siren call of doing something besides write his novel. Two straightforward conflicts are introduced: the writing isn’t going well; the man in the boat refuses to stop and talk.

Every author’s challenge is to begin at the beginning, if he only can figure out where that is! The point to remember is that often the beginning isn’t where the writer wants to start. Therein lies the challenge.

--Janet Kobobel Grant understands the inside scoop on publishing both as an author, publishing insider, and literary agent. She has written numerous books, helped to launch Here's Life Publisher, managed her own imprint with Zondervan, and served as managing editor of books for Focus on the Family. She established Books & Such Literary Agency in 1996 after working in the book publishing industry for more than twenty years.


Gayle Gresham said...

Great insights! Thank you.

Kate said...

Thank you for sharing some important ideas ! These practical insights will help formulate and carry our writing efforts !

PatriciaW said...

Thanks for that insight. I often find myself backing up, writing whole chapters that precede what I initially thought the beginning was. From now on, I'll tell myself to RESIST!

Christina Adams said...

This post had raised several questions for me. I have heard that a writer should start the story in the middle before and I start my stories as late in the game as possible, but this past week a situation has occured in my story and I wonder if I have started the story too late. I'm not talking about backstory, but relationships between characters that the reader should have a deeper knowledge of. Is it even possible to start a story too late? Does this principle apply mainly for backstory and to keep unnecessary information from slowing the story down or is there another purpose? I welcome any insight! Thanks for the post!!

MaryAnn Diorio, Ph.D., CLC said...

Thanks for this excellent post. In classic literature, the concept to which Mrs. Grant refers is called "in medias res" whose literal meaning in Latin is "in the middle of the thing" or, as we now say, "in the middle of the action".