I’m here today to bring you a guest post by the wonderful Kim Slater to celebrate the release of her newest book, A Seven-Letter Word. She’s written a post about beginnings. Hope you enjoy!
By Kim Slater
Anyone who has ever attended a creative writing course will know that a very popular and often valid piece of advice (especially for writing Young Adult fiction) is: Make your opening lines as exciting as possible.
This was certainly true for the first draft of my debut novel, ‘Smart’, in that an independent editor I commissioned advised me to skip Chapters One – Three and start the story at Chapter Four, where Kieran finds the body of a dead homeless man in the River Trent.
It worked well.
But when I had finished the penultimate draft of my new novel, ‘A Seven-Letter Word’, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not started the book with a scene of riveting excitement but with one of Finlay’s emotional private journal entries to his absent mum.
And the second chapter was a scene with Finlay and his dad having tea in their kitchen at home.
Although I hope these chapters are still interesting and intriguing for the reader, there is no real rising action until Chapter Three, when the reader meets Finlay’s nemesis, a loathsome bully called Oliver.
My very lovely but eagle-eyed editor at Macmillan, Rachel Kellehar, had not raised a concern about the beginning of the book at this point but I thought the issue was worth raising with her.
We had an interesting discussion.
Would I be better, I wondered to Rachel, beginning the book at Chapter Two which is a scene of rising action and unbearable tension for our hero, Finlay?
As Rachel pointed out, the journal entry and the scene in the kitchen give some really essential information to the reader about Finlay. The reader sees how lonely he is and garners a real understanding of how difficult it is for him to speak – essential as a backdrop to the whole story.
I saw that sticking with the beginning we already had, meant that by the time we got to Chapter Two, the scene is made even more tense and dramatic for the reader because they are already firmly inside Finlay’s head.
They are able to fully empathise and care about what happens to him at a very early stage and that is valuable to me, as an author who wants my reader to continue turning the pages.
So, I would advise debut writers to think carefully about their beginnings but not be a slave to the stock advice.
Starting your story in a place that is not edge-of-the-seat exciting for the reader is not necessarily a bad thing. But it isn’t an excuse for slow pace and dreary writing, either.
It must still be gripping. You must still entice the reader to want to know more by including a hint of the excitement and tension that is yet to come.
Experiment. Swap your beginning around a bit and see what feels right. Ask a few beta readers what they think.
Remember that agents, editors and indeed, readers are looking for strong character voices and a good hook. If these things are right, they’re often prepared to delay the opening excitement a touch.
As always with creative writing advice, there is no right or wrong way. There is just your way and it will probably be different for each and every book you write.
So really think your beginning through and above all, know why you made your decision.
That’s a very good place to start.
Opening lines of ‘A Seven-Letter Word’.
“Monday, 11th May
It’s me, Finlay.
I’ve had this brilliant idea to empty out all the words in my head, on to paper. That way, they might stop driving me bonkers, buzzing around with no way of getting out.”
Opening lines of ‘Smart’.
“It just looked like a pile of rags, floating on the water.
Jean sat on the bench with the brass plaque on. It said: In Memory of Norman Reeves who spent many happy hours here.
The plaque means Norman Reeves is dead, but it doesn’t actually say that.”
About the Book
Title: A Seven-Letter Word Author: Kim Slater Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books Published: 24th March 2016 Pages: 304 Format: Hardback Add It:Goodreads, Amazon UK, The Book Depository
Summary: ‘My name is Finlay McIntosh. I can see OK, can hear perfectly fine and I can write really, really well. But the thing is, I can’t speak. I’m a st-st-st-stutterer. Hilarious, isn’t it? It’s like the word is there in my mouth, fully formed and then, just as it’s ready to leave my lips . . . POP! It jumps and ricochets and bounces around my gob. Except it isn’t funny at all, because there’s not a thing I can do about it.’
Finlay’s mother vanished two years ago. And ever since then his stutter has become almost unbearable. Bullied at school and ignored by his father, the only way to get out the words which are bouncing around in his head is by writing long letters to his ma which he knows she will never read, and by playing Scrabble online. But when Finlay is befriended by an online Scrabble player called Alex, everything changes. Could it be his mother secretly trying to contact him? Or is there something more sinister going on?
A Seven-Letter Word is an evocative and heartfelt story from the multi-award-winning author of Smart, Kim Slater.