The Worst Ways to Begin a Novel

We’ve all heard the advice about the best ways to begin a novel: grab the reader’s attention, shock the audience, throw the reader headfirst into the story, etc. And while we all agree those are probably good ideas, some writer still insist on going their own way and breaking convention, just to be different. Sometimes different works. Sometimes it’s code for “shooting yourself in the foot.”

Here is a great blog post about the worst ways to begin a novel, by folks who know and care: literary agents. These are the folks you’re trying to impress with your manuscript. It might be a good idea to listen and heed.

Writing the First Draft

Writers tend to be perfectionists. We hate mistakes. And we love to be clever, witty, poignant, current, relevant, funny, touching, exciting — the full range of emotions and storytelling. We also hate to edit and revise. But it’s part of the business. Yes, it’s a business, whether we think of it that way or not. In my “real job,” I write web content for a major shoe manufacturer. Most of what I write is headlines, email copy, and short sentences and phrases. The department lives and dies by the adage “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (Yes, we deliberately chose a shoe pun as our catch phrase. It’s how we roll.) Usually I have a strict character count or space I can fill, and it’s absolutely cannot be more or bigger. In my other writing career — books — I have no such restriction. However, many of the same rules apply about writing drafts and revisions, no matter your word count.

Writing resource Copyblogger.com created a terrific guide to writing the first draft of anything, from a short and pithy headline to the next great American novel. Check out their succinct 10 step process to explode your creativity!

10 Rules for Writing First Drafts
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A Tribute to Tom Clancy

Novelist Tom Clancy, who rose from obscurity as an insurance salesman in Frederick, Maryland, to become one of the bestselling authors of all time, passed away yesterday (October 2) at age 66 from what media sources call “a brief illness.” Clancy’s mark will not soon be forgotten, as he single-handedly forged a new niche in literature: the techno-thriller.

Throughout Clancy’s storied (pun intended) career, he always had a knack for both assisting the intelligence community and at the same time keeping it on edge with his all-too-realistic plots centered so tightly around current events that many readers wondered if Clancy himself had an inside track and access to information the public didn’t – and wasn’t supposed to – know.

Even seasoned editors and publishers were initially leery of printing his material because of its amazing detail and realism. Rumor has it that when Clancy first shopped The Hunt for Red October, all the major publishers turned him down, for fear they would have the CIA breathing down their necks. Finally, the Naval Institute Press, best known for their periodical Proceedings, in which Clancy had written an article on ICBMs, agreed to pick up the novel when they realized all of Clancy’s highly detailed and frighteningly accurate data on submarine warfare came from Jane’s Fighting Ships and other public sources. Clancy himself said his greatest source was his local library.

Of course, Red October launched his writing career and later became a blockbuster movie directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan and starring Sean Connery as the Red October’s captain and Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, a character Clancy would carry over into many of his later works.

One of Clancy’s most controversial plot lines appeared in 1994’s Debt of Honor, where the main villain crashes a 747 into the US Capitol building during the State of the Union Address, throwing the country into a state of terror and confusion as the President, Congress, and Supreme Court justices are wiped out in the explosion, essentially eliminating most of the US government in one fell swoop. This was the first time this sort of terror tactic had been part of a bestselling book, and many people wondered after September 11 if Clancy had simply been prescient in his awareness of the kind of harm such a thing could inflict or whether he should have kept it to himself.

I have a personal connection to Clancy that has lasted for decades. No, I never met the man, but I didn’t have to. His work is what got me interested in writing. The Hunt for Red October inspired me to become an avid reader, opening up a new world of opportunity I could never have imagined on my own. So it’s no coincidence that my first (and next) novel mimics much of Clancy’s eye for detail and believable plotting, to the point where I have enlisted experts in the field to help me get it right.

For all the criticism Clancy received over the years about stilted dialogue and “phoning in” his last few books, he was truly a literary pioneer, establishing a whole new genre that has taken the world by storm. His style inspired other bestselling authors, such as Vince Flynn (who also passed away this year), Brad Thor, Larry Bond, Dale Brown, and others. May he posthumously inspire many more!