11 Ways not to start your novel

I’m about to read a lot of first pages from hopeful authors. I’ve done countless critiques over the years, and so I both look forward to and dread this job.

Opening up the pages of a book is a bit like opening up the front door for a blind date–except that it requires no effort on your part . . . such as doing your hair, or sucking in your stomach so you look thinner, or whatever else you do on your blind dates. (Really, it’s none of my business, and I don’t want to know.)

The point is, you’re hoping for something good and you’re often disappointed. In the gentle-hearted spirit that I am well known for (Oh, all right, Sarah Eden still refers to me as Attila the Hun because of a certain edit I did for her) I’m going to offer fellow writers a few tips.

Here are a few ways not to start your novel.

1) With your character waking up.

I wake up at least once a day. You could say I am a veteran at waking up. I never like it when I do it, and I probably won’t like it when your character does it either. Give me something more exciting.

2) With your character running away from someone or something.

One would think that this would nicely take care of my first objection, and it would–if I hadn’t already seen it about a hundred times. A good chase scene is nice, but not at the beginning of a book because A) I don’t know enough about your character to care if they get away and B)I’m pretty certain your main character won’t be killed off in the opening scene as that would make for a very short novel. So it isn’t really a high tension opening anyway.

3) With huge chunks of back-story.

Yeah, I know, Charles Dickens gave us character life sketches right off, but styles change and this sort of thing doesn’t work now. We also don’t wear top hats anymore. Go figure.

4) With action that is so confusing I don’t know what the heck is going on.

Sometimes an opening starts with people being bombed, or someone being attacked, or just people sitting around talking about other people. Whatever it is, it has to make sense. I’m already doing the brain-intensive job of transforming printed words into a lush and vivid landscape in my mind. Make it easy for me. This isn’t the place to be obscure or mysterious.

5) With so many characters I can’t keep them straight.

It’s always better to start with a limited amount of characters until the reader has time to get people straight. Opening with lots of characters feels like one of those parties where you meet fifteen people at once and you know that no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to remember any of their names tomorrow.

6) With a mean character.

Hey, if I’m going to step into a character’s skin and be that person for hours or days, I don’t want to be someone I don’t like. Ditto for stupid characters. And while you’re at it, please make me pretty too.

7) With a run-on sentence.

This is akin to getting your first glimpse of your blind date and noticing his shirt is dirty. If he didn’t take the time to fix that, the rest of him is probably not going to be much better.

8) With a statement that doesn’t have anything to do with anything else.

For example, if you start your first chapter with the sentence: Betty’s ghost was not the forgiving type. (Which, by the way, is a great first line. I should use it sometime.)You should let us know about the ghost and why it’s holding grudges fairly quickly. Don’t go on and on describing Veronica and her trip to the mall. Your reader will be gritting her teeth and thinking, “Who’s Betty? Did Veronica kill her? What is her part in all of this? Is this author trying to irritate me?”

Probably not, but the result is the same anyway.

9) With a bland sentence.

I have enough bland sentences in my life already. They’re sort of like dust and they settle on everything. If the first sentence isn’t good, what are the chances I’m going to find captivating ones later on?

10) With a flashback.

If you need to flashback in the first scene, you probably haven’t started your book in the right place. Plus, editors and agents tend to hate flashbacks. Many of them were bitten by flashbacks at some point in life, so you really can’t blame them for this prejudice.

11) With the phrase,”The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” (Apologies to Scott Westerfeld) Okay, it’s original, but I have a large supply of cats, and now any time one of them throws up, I think, “Um no . . . I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the sky that color . . . I wonder what Scott’s cats have been eating?”

You just don’t want to do that to your reader.


  1. Cassandra Day
    March 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Good thinking! I think that cat pus thing is funny! You alweays make me laugh-either blog or books.

    Just read MY FAIR GODMOTHER. I liked it! Are you coming out w/ a 3rd 1? the 2nd hinted about it…….. I’d like to see more stuff from the point of view from Chrissy.

  2. CJ Hill
    March 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Yes, there will be a third book when I’m done with the two other books I need to write first. And eventually, (in this book or a later one–I’m not sure how long this series should be) we’ll find out more about Chrissy.

  3. ~ Robin H ~
    March 19, 2012 at 12:10 am

    You just described most of the books I’ve read lately (some were double or triple offenders).

  4. Tiana Smith
    March 19, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I agree with ALL OF THESE. Amen. Also, I kinda wish top hats were in style, because they’re awesome.

  5. Amber
    March 19, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Thanks for all of your tips. I’m curious, what are you reading the first pages for?

    My current wip starts with the sound of glass breaking and my mc leaping out of bed, half asleep, and being tackled by his blankets, then it leads into the break in scene. I’ve thought about cutting the opening paragraph and open with my character in his room afraid because he hears the noise, simply because I’ve read so many comments lately about not opening with a wake up scene. I’m just torn because the one paragraph immediately shows how clumsy he is. I guess if I get a few rejections I will cut that opening paragraph and start with the next one 🙁

  6. Janette Rallison
    March 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Robin, ouch! Hope you find some better books.

    Tiana, I wish any sort of hat was still in style as then I wouldn’t have to do my hair.

    Amber, what you’ve written is probably okay because you’re starting with action . . . but yeah, if it gets rejected, try the change.

  7. Janette Rallison
    March 19, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Oh, and I forgot to add that I’m reading first chapters for a writing contest a conference is having. So far, I’ve read twelve and only a few have broken the rules. I’m pleasantly surprised.

  8. i'm erin.
    March 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Ok, I’m going to need to keep all that in mind and START OVER! ha ha…Just kidding. I hope by now I’ve learned all that.

  9. Theresa Small Sneed
    March 19, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Love it! You’re so awesome Janette!

  10. Janette Rallison
    March 19, 2012 at 9:56 am

    You are awesome, Erin! I have photographic proof of this fact.

    Thanks, Theresa!

  11. Cassandra Day
    March 19, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Oh dear. I just realized 1 of my stories starts out with a chase. But the character doesn’t die or anything.

    See, she’s a princess who’s confined by her drunk father and she’s trying to escape from the castle grounds to freedom, but is caught and brought back to her father. Oh, I forgot to mention she finds a dragon egg while running away, thinks its a stone, and it hatches back at the castle.

    So, do you think that’d be OK?

  12. Cassandra Day
    March 19, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Janette, just noticed on your post “In Which I Attempt to Bribe You”, you said you’d tell us the Council’s decision, which they made on 2/23/12. You haven’t told us if it stays or goes. Is that historic building still there?

  13. Dena
    March 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Well it looks like I have a lot of revising to do 🙂

  14. Judy
    March 19, 2012 at 11:57 am

    I’ve downloaded a couple of your books to my Kindle, and am anxious to read them – – seeing as my husband was your first kiss and all 🙂

  15. Janette Rallison
    March 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Cassandra, your chase scene might be okay, but then again, you might want to start it a little earlier–and make sure it doesn’t have a lot of resemblance to Eragon’s finding the dragon egg.

    The council decided against changing the zoning–which means the chateau’s future is very uncertain. My friends had to put it up for sale so who knows what will end up happening to it.

    Dena, good luck with your rewrites.

    Judy, you’re a lucky woman! Hope you enjoy the books.

  16. Valerie Ipson
    March 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Love all the great tips and the laughs, too!!

  17. Britney Gulbrandsen
    March 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    These are great tips! And thanks for giving me something to laugh about 🙂

  18. Susan G. Haws
    March 20, 2012 at 12:51 am

    Advice and humor in one package. Thanks.

  19. Susan
    March 20, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Those are great, and I think I’m not guilty. But I heard a very eminent agent say at a writers’ conference that he never reads a manuscript if the first sentence is dialogue. How hard it is to get published these days!

  20. Tanya Parker Mills
    March 20, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Funny and on target. Each one. BTW, are you willing to Atilla the Hun my Guardians manuscript when it’s done?

  21. Writers
    March 20, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Wow! I definitely need to cut and revise some beginnings.
    Thanks for all the sage advice and helping me start my day with a smile.
    Margaret Turley

  22. Connie
    March 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Loved this, thanks so much. Not only enjoyable to read but great tips! Connie

  23. Cassandra Day
    March 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Thx Janette! I’m gonna go back over that once I’m done with the first draft. Can’t copy Eragon.

  24. Betsy Love
    March 21, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Great blog! I’m guilty of at least one, Ms. Hunn. BTW, you’re in my acknowledgments in Soulfire. Just thought you should know!

  25. Jessie Clark
    March 21, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I was laughing out loud, trying to figure out which of Scott’s books begins with the cat vomit sky, and realizing my cat must not be eating the same things either. Thanks!

  26. The Editor Devil
    March 23, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Yup, I always say you must avoid 1) the weather, 2) dreams, 3) waking up, and 4) talking heads (dialogue without a character having been introduced).

    Thanks for this great and lively post and comment session!
    Christine M. Fairchild
    The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue (http://amzn.com/B007K1PZZC)

  27. Donna McNeil Gonzales
    April 3, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Excellent posting. Thankfully I didn’t use any of those in my book. The waking up comment reminds me of an old Inspired Romance I once borrowed. It took the whole first chapter for the heroine to wake up, get into her buttercup yellow dressing gown, and and walk to the top of the stairs.

  28. Susan Thrasher
    April 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I like the cat line. Made me laugh out loud.

  29. Michelle
    April 13, 2012 at 8:30 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Flo
    April 17, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I love this! I’ve just started reading your blog, and, as a writer myself I really like it! Very funny (:

  31. Nandeche
    April 19, 2012 at 6:06 am

    I found that piece helpful. Thanks.

  32. Joana
    April 21, 2012 at 4:50 am

    Lovely piece of advice!I find your blog both helpful and interesting.I would really appreciate if you could spare some time to stop by my blog. Thank you!

  33. Brook Mathews
    April 24, 2012 at 10:12 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  34. Sherri Nicholas
    April 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm


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