Saturday, October 21, 2006

Devils and Details

In my assiduous pursuit of clue sticks ( TM/pp - Miss Snark) have been happily reading Evil Editor every day.
Particularly his New Beginnings - the 15o word, first page, opening chapter feature. Most instructive.
Entries get nailed for backstory, verb form, punctuation, inconsistent action, apostrophed names, run-on sentences, for blah and bland, and so on.
One reader recently likened much of the criticsm to public health nurse mode, ie. nit-picking, and wondered if complaints about the posted examples was largely a knee-jerk application of the latest rules and no-no's.
The poster may have had a point - sort of.
Some critics did seem to want the entire story arc of who, what, when, where, why and how - newspaper style - in those first 150 words: mini-book a go-go.
And one of the violations involved use of pronouns for who.
Some posters feel the lead character must be named immediately and specifically, in order to attach the reader's sympathy and interest - on the basis that a reader simply cannot care about a character who is not promptly, properly and legally identified by a baptisimal certificate.
Mea culpa.
Using the Lone Ranger technique, I don't give a name to my Damie until page three or four when her POV kicks in.
She is the focus, but she is She.
I gamble on curiosity to lead the reader on.
Your thoughts?


Erik Ivan James said...

Hmmm...when to, by name, formally introduce the main character? Never have given that any thought until now. In my WIP, though, the first three words are my main character's full given name.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Ah! I, too, have been lambasted for not naming a POV character in the first bloody sentence. :-)

As a reader, I find it not at all disturbing, and even intriguing, to not know the name of a character for a bit. In fact I've read novels where the opening segment does not name the POV character at all, and one doesn't discover their identity until later in the book.

I don't think it's necessary to name names at the outset. I think it's one of those current no-nos that everyone picks on just because they've been told it's bad.

And don't get me started on what I think about EE's commentors. Let's just say that some of them are less than constructive! :-) One can't judge an entire novel by its first 150 words. Honest.

Dennie McDonald said...

I like a little ambuguity in a story - but really it depends on the genre. If I read romance you look at the backcover blurb and you know who will end up with who at the end. So if it is unclear at the get go who wants who I hate that.

BUT mysteries, mainstream i.e. not romance I like being surprised by what's going on. I like to try and figure it out. That's half the fun of the story to me.

Ric said...

Don't feel it's necessary to name the character in the first sentence - or page, for that matter.
Helps the reader if you have interaction with others at the beginning.

Having said that, I just did what Erik did. Two WIP have FIRST WORD is main character name. Third one doesn't.

Good Grief.

MissWrite said...

Well, I'll be honest, it IS a dangerous gamble (your name on page 3 thing)... it depends on the editor, it depends on if the editor has a hangover, or has had two-hundred and seventy five other 'gamble' attempts that morning already, but most of all, it depends on if it WORKS.

You see, what the commentor on EE's site said was in a large amount true, but that's still the way editors think in most respects. The moment we see something like that it's a red-flag in our minds saying 'warning, warning, this is someone bending the rules to the breaking point. Danger, danger, danger.'

No, I kid you not, at least that's exactly what goes through my mind when I see something like that.

The VERY next thing that goes through my mind, no matter how many gin buckets (sorry MS had to borrow that) I've gone through the night before, is DOES IT WORK?

I'll be honest here too, the most often answer to that is "no."

If it does though, you're honey...

The same caveat that I have always employed when explaining why rules are rules, and when you can break them applies. Learn the rules. Learn WHY they're rules. KNOW why you're going to break them... and do a DAMNED good job of it when you do.

Bernita said...

Then they couldn't nail you for that, Erik!

I'm inclined to agree, Sonia. I don't buy the "must" absolutism for some of the complaints.

So you want the love interest specifically named in the first 150 then, Dennie?

Think it also depends on how and where the story starts, Ric.

I'm surprised that this particular example is considered a "rule", Tami.

It implies that even a first POV should start out with "Hi, my name is ..." like one of those name tags at a convention.

MissWrite said...

Yep, actually that name right there in the first paragraph is sort of akin to an unspoken rule. The reasoning... you need your reader to immediately connect to the story. People's conditioned responses are geared towards connecting with people, not situations. Leaving your reader drifing in the breeze for too long without a connection can lead to a 'who cares' attitude... and remember the 'sentence, paragraph, page' determiner. You only have so long to get a reader (in this case editor/agent, whatever) connected and in to your story. If we like the first line, we'll read the first paragraph, then page, then three, then... etc...

My usual advice is to not break rules on the first page. LOL But like I said, if it works, gravy... if not, death.

MissWrite said...

I just wanted to add something here: Sonja, you KNOW I love ya, but---One can't judge an entire novel by its first 150 words. Honest.

Well, no they can't, but they (as in editors/agents) so often do. Glory, girl, if you were looking at a stack full of work, you'd learn quickly what works for you, and what doesn't. I've had times when I tossed aside a manuscript after the first two lines.

It's a TOUGH, COMPETITIVE writer's world, and it's often vicious and cruel... you have 10 seconds to thrill the shit out of me before I head to the next sub. Sorry, anyone who says that's not true is either lying, or kidding themselves.

Now, the headbanger there is what thrills me may not be what thrills editor 'a', or agent 'c'... that's why every single one will tell you, this doesn't work for 'me', please try others.

Carla said...

As a reader, I don't mind whether the main character is named in the first sentence (e.g. Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom, "My name is Uhtred.") or not for a few pages, or not at all in the entire book (e.g. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca). I also don't mind whether the book starts with the main character's point of view, or with the main character as viewed by someone else, or if the main character doesn't appear for a few pages. It just doesn't matter to me.

EA Monroe said...

Hi Bernita.
I double checked the openings of the books in my never-ending-saga. I've named the character either in the first sentence or within the first paragraph -- not that the characters named are the main characters though.

I write from multiple 3rd person points of view. You know those "Forewords" at the beginning of a lot of books? Imagine my surprise when my main protagonist hijacked the Foreword and had his way with it. Talk about a Prologue/Foreword switcher-roo. ;-)

Miss Write would probably skin me!

S. W. Vaughn said...

That's a good point, Tami! You come to the issue from both sides, so you know what works for editors and what doesn't! LOL but some of EE's commentors, well, I just don't know about them.

I'd respect your thoughts on any fist 150 words! :-)

Steve G said...

If it's a good story with a good hook, I don't believe the main character has to be listed in the first few pages. Perhaps that's why I haven't been published yet. So be it.

Gabriele C. said...

I don't need the MC in the first paragraphs, but I prefer a name, instead of 'he' or 'she'. It's one of those artsy literary devices few writers can make work, and even prize wining artsy Literature writers fail at.

Talorcan is first seen from the POV of his friend Cailtharn, but that name is the first word of the book. :) Endnagered Frontiers starts with a quarrel between a - named - bookseller who'll probably never appear in the novel, and a minor albeit important character, and only halfway through the chapter will the MC appear on screen. I decided to name the bookseller because calling him only 'the bookseller' gave the scene a distance ill fitting with the immediacy of the conflict and action.

Maybe it's more important to have names in genre fiction because you're supposed to start in the middle of something. A name can be a handhold to slide into the narrative like into a nice, warm bathtub.

December Quinn said...

Carla beat me to themention of Rebecca. You know, it wasn't until someone pointed out to me that the heroine is nameless--several months after I read the book--that I realized it? I went back and re-read it because I could have sworn she had a name.

I like a little nit-picking, because it's good to know what people's reactions are to your first 150, but confess that some of what I saw referred to elsewhere as the "this is the way we write our books" mentality does get to me. I honestly believe that if the story and concept intrigue and editor or agent enough, they'll read at least the first page. (And I wish I culd credit the creator of that phrase but can't for the life of me recall who it was).

kmfrontain said...

Putting a second important POV character's name in before that person is being the POV depends on the plot, imo.

If the second important POV character isn't someone that the first character would know, and also not someone for whom he or she would readily be able to acquire the name, then no, don't insert the name until the name is logically insertable. (Oh, God. I wrote insertable.)

If the ability to know the name is possible, then for reader comprehension, perhaps the name should be inserted. Perhaps.

If one is worried that readers are too lazy to figure out that "unknown" character will be an important POV character popping in later, or if one thinks readers are easily confused, then yeah, worry about shoving that name in there.

Personally, I don't have any problem leaving out a name if: 1) the first scene is in another POV and POV in operation cannot know the name, and 2)we as readers will logically discover this other character's name in another scene.

Bernita said...

Connect with the character, yes, Tami.
But the use of a proper name is not necessarily the best or only way for the writer to make that connection with the reader, I'm just sayin'.

In fact, giving your character the wrong name can sometimes result in a toss on that basis alone( query widely, which see).

But I agree with the first 150 words often being enough from an agent's or editor's point of view because the parmount factor is time - they don't have the TIME to waste on an MS whose opening doesn't grab - because queries are only a small part of their daily work load and not, as some writers seem to think, their main exercise and purpose in life.

Me either, Carla.
Just as an example, a story that opens with a hunted, running man would have me panting along side of him for several pages. I would not care about his name, I would care about him .

I name a character too, EA,second sentence, it's just not the principal character.
She can hang my hide along side yours.

Bernita said...

Steve, I think the basic "rule" is to intrigue the reader to continue, and there are a number of ways to do that.

Specifics can orient the reader to the scene, there's no question about that, Gabriele.

Unhuh, December, some objections seems based on form rather than substance.
I got a kick out of the claim that any story based in Toronto or Detroit was an automatic joke, a no-no, for example.

Agree, Karen.
Take my imaginary running man,deaking out of a dark alley, he's stopped by a policeman, who is likely going to say "Hey, you!" not "Hello, John Joseph Nighttraveller."

M.E Ellis said...

Cripes, I don't even give that a thought. I do know that Wayne's surname in Quits doesn't come up until around 3/4 of the way through.



Bernita said...


anna said...

Of course it all depends on the writer. I love sometimes to see only He or She - other times it irritates the hell out of me.

Marie said...

I tend to name my character on the first page, though I'm working on a short prologue for my current novel and I've decided not to name the character in order to create mystery. I guess it depends on the novel.

Bernita said...

And the structure of the plot,Anna, as Karen pointed out.

Think it can - with the usual caveats - create curiousity and suspense, Marie.
We shouldn't forget the context: readers have the back blurb or the frontis page excerpt, and editors have the query letter and/or synopsis.
In effect, they already have the name.

Rashenbo said...

Hmmm, it's an interesting discussion. In my current work in progress the first line is descriptive. The second line begins descriptive and ends with the character's name. I have had some people in my critique group to tell me to have the character's name be within the first few words of the first line, so that the reader can instantly identify the character. I disagree... I like the way my story opens... and I like to read stories that open in a similar fashion. For me, it's like gently easing into warm water. I don't necessarily need to jump right in, I like to take a few seconds to enjoy the slide. But, that could just be me. :D

Bernita said...

Seems a little excessive and rigid for them to demand it in the first bloody sentence,Rashenbo.

SassyJill said...

Gotta have some mysteries to keep the reader reading. And 150 words isn't very long.

Bernita said...

A couple of seconds reading time, Sassy, no more.