If I had a dollar for every time I’ve told a writer to not take the so-called rule to “Open with action” literally, I could probably buy a dinner for two in a very nice restaurant and have enough left over for a stay in a good hotel.
The problem of course is with the word action. The vast majority of writers, especially those new to the craft, interpret it as physical action like a street fight, or, if the genre is fantasy, a swordfight between two characters fresh to the page. Well, good luck with that: unless the writer is good enough to make us care about the outcome from the beginning—unlikely without any previous insight into the characters—the reader’s likely to just shrug and put the book down, possibly for good. I do that with at least 4 out of 5 “look insides” when picking a book on Amazon. Why? Because the author fails to give me any reason to care.
This problem is especially endemic in Fantasy books and shows. A band of riders is pursuing another pair of riders in a thunder of hooves under a lowering sky. They catch up with their quarry and, after the briefest exchange of completely opaque dialogue, hack them to bits or despatch them with a magical spell. Strangers killing strangers. Who cares? I don’t hang around to find out why, but simply close the book or turn off the show and look for something better.
What is needed of course is to open with character in action, thus giving us some understanding of the protagonist and a reason to immediately care and align with them, while at the same time raising questions which pique the reader’s interest and make them turn the page. It’s also vital to very quickly establish a setting which is vivid in the reader’s imagination.
None of this is rocket science.
The opening hook, therefore, needn’t be in-your-face drama. Anything that stirs the reader’s curiosity can work. Sometimes just a strong or unique enough narrative voice will do the trick. Take a powerful narrative voice and combine that with a couple of well-chosen question seeds, and you can craft a very compelling opening, such as the following from Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel, Isle of the Dead:
Life is a thing—if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I’m painting—that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay.
Now, it’s been centuries since I saw that Bay and those beaches, so I could be off quite a bit. But I’m told that it hasn’t changed much, except for the condoms, from the way that I remember it.
There follow two pages--two pages!—of descriptive reminiscence and philosophizing in which Zelazny slowly reinforces his metaphor, eventually tying it up with the narrator’s present predicament. This strategy of hijacking the reader at the get-go and taking them on a detour via two pages of descriptive matter after just two introductory paragraphs is a bold one, and it succeeds brilliantly.
Why does it work? Because in those two brief, introductory paras, Zelazny has both hit you with a first-person narrative voice as confident as any Greek tragedist, and planted a couple of hooks so powerful (a centuries-old narrator, and the sly but purposeful mention of condoms) that you’ll almost certainly stick around to hear him out.
A reader’s attention is a fragile thing in the first several pages of a story; once further into the book, by which time you’ll have hopefully convinced them that you know where you’re going and have the skills to make the trip worthwhile, the reader is less easily thrown and will cut you more slack for digression, picture-painting, windy philosophizing, and the like: but at the beginning, your job is simply to snag the reader’s attention and lead them unresisting into your world. And you don’t need physical action to do this.
At the same time, in the interest of helping the reader get oriented and smoothing their entry into the story, it helps to address all, or at least most, of what are commonly termed the “five journalistic questions”--who, what, where, how, and why—in the first scene.
In summary, then, your opening should do these things:
· Make the reader care
· Raise questions in the reader’s mind
· Begin to flesh out character
· Make the setting real and provide an anchor for the scene
· Answer the five journalistic questions (who, what, when, where, and why)
But, you might ask, how do you make a reader care for your protagonist? What qualities do they need to be likeable and relatable?
It’s a good question, and one we’ll get into in next week’s blog.
As indie publishing* matures, the need for new and affordable editing approaches has become apparent, with some freelance editors changing their protocols to accommodate indie authors looking for affordable editing and copyediting.
In traditional publishing, the standard process has always involved several steps, with the ms. (manuscript) being returned to the author for revision and corrections between steps; this is one reason a trad pubbed book takes between a year and two from acceptance to release. These stages are typically:
Edit (general); line edit; copyedit; proofread. There may even be a major developmental edit before the general edit.
Since each of these steps requires a careful and complete read of the ms. as well as annotation, the traditional process quickly becomes expensive: a simple line- or copyedit on a novel will easily take forty to fifty hours or more. It’s therefore obvious that the traditional sequence of editing tasks, costing upwards of $5,000 at a minimum, will be beyond the means of all but a very few indie authors and small presses.
And yet, most indie authors of even moderate experience are aware that the success of their book may well depend on it being properly edited and proofread: the days of just completing a novel and uploading it to Amazon full of errors and inconsistencies are (thankfully) long gone. For those who still do it, their book is likely to get poor reviews, if it gets any, and sink like a stone.
Before discussing solutions, let’s make sure we define our terms, because there’s a lot of confusion on what the various stages of editing are:
That’s the process in traditional publishing, and it’s still the way things are done in the big houses, although they’re starting to cut corners for new and even some midlist authors whose books aren’t expected to become big hits.
As a freelancer, I’ve worked to come up with a solution that offers the best possible value for the indie author on a tight budget. My goal here is to catch and correct as much as possible on a single pass through the ms. as well as providing some remedy for new errors that might be introduced (it happens) when the author implements some of the suggested fixes turned up by my edit.
I call this one-pass edit the Single Edit Solution, and it comprises full copyediting plus selective line editing as well as some limited general editing/developmental guidance where needed; examples of this would be a character behaving inconsistently, logical errors, flat scenes, continuity issues, etc. In the case of novels, I include a provision for post-edit checking of up to 2,000 words of rewritten material at no additional cost. This last is aimed at solving the problem of new errors being introduced post-edit.
“I’m delighted at each opportunity to work with Dario Ciriello, who vastly improves my story and writing with every editing pass. He works with warmth and compassion to boot, supporting me as a writer and a person as we puzzle out thorny writing issues that would otherwise be demoralizing to tackle on my own. Dario has edited three of my novels so far, and I look forward to a long-term working relationship together.”
– William Hertling, author of the highly-acclaimed 2016 tech thriller “Kill Process” and the hit “Avogadro Corp.” series of SF/tech thrillers. http://www.williamhertling.com
* For this purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to include self-published authors
One of the things a good copyeditor will do, beyond dealing with infelicities of grammar, syntax, style, composition, and general meaning, is cover your back. And I mean totally cover it.
In my experience, what most indie authors require is actually a combination of line, copy, and general editing*, not least because the cost of the numerous editing passes a big publishing house would do (general/developmental edit, line edit, copyedit) can add up to several thousand dollars, a prohibitive sum for the vast majority of indies.
When I’m copyediting a manuscript for a client, I’m in a watchful mode, consciously noting and monitoring a broad swath of detail and information. The characters’ physical characteristics, the revealed details of their backstories, geographical locations, dates and times events take place, even character names—all these are prone to inconsistency and slippage over the course of a long work and revisions, and it’s the copyeditor’s job to spot these errors and fix them. But that’s just the beginning.
A copyeditor takes little for granted. If, say, I find a reference to a (real) company called Datavision in the text, my first instinct is to wonder if it might not be styled DataVision, or Data Vision, and I’ll google it right away to see if a correction is needed. If I’m working on a science fiction novel and the author states that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, I’ll check that this figure is current and correct—science and tech are especially tricky, since our knowledge is increasing at such a rate that “facts” are constantly changing.
Or let’s say the author has used a Latin or French phrase, like non plus ultra (nothing beyond compare, as far as you can go) or cherchez la femme (look for the woman). A good copyeditor will, if not familiar with it, check both the spelling and the meaning of the phrase to ensure the author has used it correctly. German words like schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) are especially hazardous. It’s terribly easy to make mistakes in this area.
Firearms present notorious problems for writers, many of whom have little or no firsthand knowledge of them. I’ve come across more than one hero flicking the safety catch off a revolver…but revolvers don’t come with safeties. Whenever a gun is used in a story, details need checking. Is that brand made in that caliber? How many rounds does the standard magazine fit? And so on. As to the actual use of firearms in fiction, it’s the copyeditor’s business to know and alert the writer that anyone who isn’t an experienced shooter is very unlikely to hit a person at more than fifteen yards with a pistol, especially a snubnose or a large caliber model with heavy recoil.
It helps if the copyeditor has a good memory and a large store of general knowledge. Just recently, I was going through a manuscript where the author invoked the European terrorist group of the 1970s and 1980s, naming them the Red Brigade. Fortunately, I was around then, and know that they styled themselves, and were known as, the Red Brigades (plural). A small error, but these add up.
Then there are the logical and physical errors and impossibilities. If the author has a terrorist at Dulles airport notice “a group of heavily-armed cops in the distance, maybe a thousand feet away,” the copyeditor should be thinking, wow, that’s a fifth of a mile…and go googling for maps of Dulles airport to see if there really are sightlines that long, as well as adding an inline comment for the author. In another recent manuscript I worked on, the author has a fellow chopping a line of cocaine on the railing of a ship at sea, which is a great way to prevent any actual drug use: better to find a more sheltered spot well out of the wind.
Sex presents a lot of fun for the copyeditor, and fortunately, most writers have a sense of humor when it comes to edits on the subject. I once had to point out to an author that the words vibrator and dildo aren’t interchangeable, the two devices being functionally different in significant ways. No, please don’t ask.
In summary, a good copyeditor working with indies usually does a lot more than check grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Though some of the above falls into the grey area between copyediting, line editing and developmental or substantive editing, it’s my belief that the copyeditor’s job is to protect the writer from every possible circumstance that may cause embarrassment, criticism, scathing reviews, or ridicule. No editor or proofreader is perfect: we all miss things. But the manuscript needs to leave the copyeditor’s hands in a condition such that even if errors remain, they are so minor that no harm will come to the author’s sales or reputation.
So go on, create awesome fiction and don’t worry about taking risks. The copyeditor has your back.
*I call this the “single edit solution.” Details of my editing services can be found here.
Note: This post was originally published as part of the Indie Author Series at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, 8/11/2016