Monday, September 9, 2013

Novel Openings With Katie L. Carroll

Today  Katie L. Carroll, author of YA book, Elixir Bound, is going to tell us the do's and don't of good novel openings. Take it away, Katie!
When I started writing my first YA novel, which eventually turned into Elixir Bound, I really had no idea what it meant to write a good novel at all, never mind one with a good opening. To land a publisher or agent, though, a great—not good—opening is crucial.

Over the course of the nine years until my first book was published, I’ve learned a lot about how to write a solid opening, mostly by learning what not to do.

Don't Open with an Adult POV

One of my first professional critiques by an editor from a big house taught me this important lesson. It may seem pretty obvious now, but at the time I felt justified starting from the point of view of the main character’s father. He was passing the torch of the Elixir’s guardianship to his daughter, so shouldn’t the story start from his point of view? Umm…no. Start with the character you most want your reader to care about.

Don’t Open with a Cliché                                  

Some things have been done so frequently, readers (and editors) are tired of them. Avoid opening with weather (“It was a dark and stormy night”), having a character look in the mirror and describe herself, or having a character waking up.
Don't Open with Backstory

You’ve spent months developing an intricate fantasy world, complete with magical creatures, evil villains, and full languages J.R.R. Tolkien style. Awesome! All the details will help enrich the story and immerse the reader in your world. Just don’t throw all of it into the beginning. Weave it in gradually as it pertains to the main character and the conflict. Even in contemporary novels, you have to be careful of too much backstory. The reader doesn’t need to know what your main character was like growing up, her whole family history, or what she had for breakfast.

Don't Open with Gratuitous Action
In an attempt to grab the reader’s attention right, you open with your main character into a dark forest at midnight with an animal chasing her. The reader’s probably thinking What a great start to this paranormal romance. I wonder if she’s going to fall in love with the creature. If it turns out your story is actually about a high school senior who has one more chance to score high on the SATs to get into college, you’ve got the wrong beginning. Only start with action that pertains to the main conflict.

Don't Open with Generalities
An ideological rant or a general statement about life isn't a good place to start a novel. Openings like this can sound preachy (a huge no-no in YA); they are often somewhat obvious; and when it comes to divisive issues, they can alienate a reader who may have the opposite opinion. Long narrative descriptions fall into the generality category as well. You can paint the most beautiful scene with your words, but if a reader doesn’t have an emotional connection to latch on to, you might lose them right from the start.

Setting It Up Right
So now that you know what not to do, you’re probably asking, “What should I do?” My advice is to try out a few different openings. Work on fleshing out the voice of the character, establishing the main conflict of the story, and setting the tone of the piece. Have a professional critique done (if you can afford it) or have other writers look at it to. Then look deep inside yourself and see if the opening feels right to you. Does it accomplish what you’ve set out to do?

Admittedly, I didn’t follow all these rules with Elixir Bound, but it was a long process of critical thinking and compromise that got me to a point where the story landed a publisher. After revising it to start with the main character’s point of view instead of her father’s, I had another professional critique done of it. The editor thought it was too heavy on backstory and description. She was right: I had this long passage with a snowstorm and descriptions of two different forests.

So I cut all that and started right in with action from the main character. I read both the old beginning and the new one to several other writers during an impromptu critique session at a conference. They agreed the new opening was too abrupt and had lost some of the dark tone the descriptive beginning had provided.
I didn’t scrap either one but combined them. I included one strong descriptive image of the trees and the snow, and then got right down to the action of the character. The snowstorm, a possible weather cliché, was important to keep because it was the inciting incident of the story.

My Favorite Openings
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” from Feed by M.T. Anderson
“Gram is worried about me. It’s not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I can think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.” from The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
“When he grabs Mama’s wrists and yanks her toward the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt. Mama doesn’t cry out. She tries to hide her pain from him, but she looks back at me, and in her face, she shows me everything she feels.” from Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
“I greeted his tombstone the way I always did—with a swift kick.” from Colors Like Memories by Meradeth Houston

Elixir Bound blurb:

Katora Kase is next in line to take over as guardian to a secret and powerful healing Elixir. Now she must journey into the wilds of Faway Forest to find the ingredient that gives the Elixir its potency. Even though she has her sister and brother, an old family friend, and the handsome son of a mapmaker as companions, she feels alone.

It is her decision alone whether or not to bind herself to the Elixir to serve and protect it until it chooses a new guardian. The forest hosts many dangers, including wicked beings that will stop at nothing to gain power, but the biggest danger Katora may face is whether or not to open up her heart to love.

Buy Links:

Author Bio:

Katie L. Carroll began writing at a very sad time in her life after her 16-year-old sister, Kylene, unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote Elixir Bound and the forthcoming Elixir Saved so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the picture app The Bedtime Knight and an editor for MuseItUp Publishing. She lives not too far from the beach in a small Connecticut city with her husband and son. For more about Katie, visit her website at, friend her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter (@KatieLCarroll).

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  1. Thanks so much for having me and Elixir Bound today, Stuart!

  2. Of course you're welcome, Katie. Gang, pick up Elixer Bound. It's awesome. Katora's a heroine well worth rooting for.

    1. Thanks, Stuart! Big smiles over here for your kind words about Katora!

  3. I feel like I've broken every one of these rules during the revision process of my novels. But it takes a while for an author to truly understand their character and the journey they are on before they can find the right place to start their story. Great post, Katie.

    1. Thanks, Kai! It usually takes me more than a few tries to get the right opening. I've still got one book I'm not sure has the right opening, but at some point you've got to throw it out there and see if it sticks.

  4. Hey, that's my opening! LOL! I have a thing about openings--they're one of my favorite things to write. Katie, your advice is spot-on (as always!).

    1. Why, yes, it is Meradeth! :) You sure do have a way with openings.

  5. Hi Katie. A great post as always. How true, and how much we learn the more we write. It's a never ending process. I often wonder if a reader realizes just how much does go into the process, or how much time we spend learning and editing. We should run a poll.

    1. Hi, Lorrie! I think the goal is to make the story and writing so seamless the reader never does have any idea how much work went into it. :)

  6. Openings are the hardest. Maybe second only to endings. : ) As you say, the openings set the tone for everything that follows. I find with short stories, I either get it right the first go or, more often, I rewrite and rewrite the first paragraphs. I loved your opening with the snow and forest. Maybe it's because I love to walk through woods covered in snow, all crisp, cold, and quiet.

    1. Yeah, openings are so tough! I actually really like writing endings. I think because I always have the ending of the story in mind the whole time I writing a piece. So glad you liked the beginning of Elixir went through so many drafts before I settled on that beginning.