Knowing When to Follow the Rules and When to Break ’Em

I hope you enjoy this guest post by Lori A. Goldstein. I first discovered her novel, BECOMING JINN, when she and I both entered the same competition. Needless to say, she did a little better than I did. So you should listen to her advice. :p

Hi, my name is Lori.

Hi Lori.

I’m a fiction writer, and I’m addicted to starting novels with a character waking up.

Nods, awkward smiles.

For those of you who are unaware, this is a no-no. Maybe the no-no. But I am not alone. Apparently, so many of us have this particular addiction that we’re the ones who’ve made it a no-no. Not necessarily for readers. My small, informal, highly unscientific poll shows that readers have no idea this is a common way of starting a novel, let alone so common that it has become an on-the-books writing “don’t”.

But agents know. And agents care. For many agents, starting with a character waking up is an instant turnoff. Rejection based on that very first yawn, stretch, or tossing off of a blanket.

Sure, The Hunger Games starts with Katniss stretching across the bed for Prim. The Road opens with the protagonist reaching for his sleeping child. Every Day begins with the words “I wake up”.

Again, readers aren’t aware of this. They don’t remember exactly how a novel starts by the time they finish it. Most don’t remember how it starts by the time they hit Chapter 3. All they know is they were sucked in.

As for why other authors “get” to start with their characters waking up and I don’t? The answer is simple.

You are no Suzanne Collins. You are no Cormac McCarthy. You are no David Levithan.

But that’s not the whole answer. Novels need to begin in the right spot. And whether it’s taboo or not, the truth is, sometimes that jackpot moment is the instant a character’s eyelids flutter open.

Yeah, yeah, defend it all you want but don’t expect to win.

When writing my first manuscript, I had no idea that this “rule” existed. The finished novel I queried ultimately did not begin with that character waking up, but not because I discovered the list of novel-opening gaffes. It changed during revision because it should have changed. Waking up was not the right place for that story to start.

I have no excuses for my second novel. I was well aware of the rule. Still, I wrote the opening with my character waking up and looking in a mirror. Double no-no. Before you shake the house with your shuddering, this made sense for my character and her story. Plus, I liked it. And maybe, just maybe, I wanted to defy the odds. I entered two contests and did not get chosen for the next round in either one.

I caved. I rewrote the start. I tried so many versions of my opening page and opening chapter that I had to create a second folder on my computer just to keep some semblance of organization.

Eventually, with a little help from my friends, more than a little patience from my husband, and a concession to myself (my character no longer wakes up on page one, but a mirror still worms its way in on page two), I had a new opening.

With my rule-following page one, I entered several contests. And you know what? My work started gaining traction. It got amazing feedback. It won contests where there were fifty entries and contests were there were five-hundred entries. It was the same character and the same story and the same voice, but it followed the rules. It led to me finding my agent.

So am I converted? Am I law-abiding writer? The answer is a resounding no. Because my rebellious tendencies do not just violate the rules of beginnings but they stomp all over the laws of endings too.

The advice I was given from other writers, websites and craft books was this: novels in a series should be standalone. Do not end with a cliffhanger. This too is a no-no. But apparently, it’s not the no-no. If that’s what’s best for your story, if it completes your character arc, if you have a fantastic rebel of an agent like I do, then breaking that rule can be a big yes-yes!

I guess if someone, reader or agent, has gone on the entire ride with you, ending with a bang can actually be a turn-on.

But to ensure you get there, don’t start with that character waking up. Yawn.

Lori A. Goldstein is a fiction writer whose YA novel BECOMING JINN is currently under representation. She is a freelance copy editor and can be found on Twitter.

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3 Comments on “Knowing When to Follow the Rules and When to Break ’Em”

  1. Learnt a lot… thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, I never thought of that. I never started a story with a character waking up yawning. The story started inside of a vicious nightmare, and protagonist woke up sweating, panting, and standing. I know there’s a rule about dreams too. I guess after I conquer the grammar rules, I’ll get right on those story starting rules.


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