Write the Way a Stripper Dances: Tips for Starting a Novel

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Tattling time . . . I’ve been judging submissions for a fiction-writing contest.  I absolutely love finding new talent and encouraging writers to forge ahead with their publishing dream.

What I DON’T love is wading through reams of background in Chapter One to get to the “good stuff” – you know, like the STORY PLOT.

Never, Ever Make Chapter One a Background Dump!

One of the hardest – but most valuable – writing lessons I ever learned was delivered to me publicly, in a restaurant.  At the time, I held a college degree in Journalism and was working for a city newspaper.  However, my DREAM was to become published as an author of Historical Romance novels. 

My newspaper editor assigned me to interview an author, who wrote Contemporary Romance novels.  After the interview, this fellow Texan graciously agreed to read my manuscript and give me a story critique.

Writing a Novel: 7 Stages of Fiction FrenzyAs the waiter cleared away dinner, my new mentor finally volunteered her opinion.  Patting my hand in a motherly fashion, she blurted out:

“Adrienne, you need to cut the first 45 pages of your manuscript.”

I nearly bit off my tongue.  I mean, I was a writing PROFESSIONAL.  As a journalist, surely I knew what I was doing!  (Little did I know that journalism classes and creative writing courses do NOT prepare an aspiring author to write salable, commercial fiction.  But that’s a story for another post.)

“Why?” I whined, too shocked to realize that I was bending the salad fork in my fist.

"Because your story begins on page 46," she explained in her best professional manner.  "You’ve written these first 45 pages for yourself, not your readers.  You were trying to figure out how to start a novel.  These 45 pages don’t move the plot forward.  In published circles, we call this problem background dumping.”

Writing Action in Scene One? First, You MUST Set it Up!

As a contest judge, I looked back on that (traumatic) story critique and tried to figure out how to help my contestants.  I wanted these writers to understand my criticism of their Chapter One opening.  

Not every contestant was background-dumping.  Some were being so sketchy (a HUGE problem when opening with dialogue) that I didn't have a clue what was happening.  

Word to the wise:  Your reader will be thoroughly lost if you introduce more than two characters in the first three pages - whether those characters are sipping tea or lopping off heads.  (What, you think I jest?)

I wanted to provide concrete direction (not just a score) to help the contestants.  Then I remembered another piece of brilliant advice, delivered to me by a published Historical Romance author.  This time, I was taking a class on how to write commercial fiction.  My teacher told the class:

“You must write Scene One from the viewpoint of the character who has the most to lose.  Open this scene 5 minutes before your protagonist’s life is about to change forever.”

So I raised my hand.  “Why 5 minutes?” I ventured to ask.

Writing a Novel: 7 Stages of Fiction Frenzy“Because,” my teacher said, “you don't want to share too much information. But you do want to show what's at stake for the protagonist. 

"Just as importantly, you want to show how the protagonist feels about whatever's at stake.  Then, and only then, will the reader understand why there’s a problem when you threaten that thing or take it away.”

That advice was a big A-ha moment for me.  Finally, after years of rejection letters, I understood that I’d gone from one extreme (writing too much background) to the other extreme (striking out vital elements of the story plot.)


More (Outrageous) Writing Tips on How to Start a Novel:

So today’s goal is to help you discern the best opening for Chapter One.  There’s no solution that fits every story.  However, the following rules will steer you in the right direction:

Smack Your Readers Upside the Head

Your first sentence should read like a slap in the face.  (In writing parlance, we call this the Literary Hook.) 

Whether it’s dialogue, humor, narrative, or introspection, be sure your literary hook does what it's supposed to do:  grab your reader’s attention. 

Want an example?  (Sure you do!)  Check out the literary hook in my award-winning Western Historical Romance novel, Texas Outlaw.  

Write the Way a Stripper Dances

Now that your literary hook has captured your reader’s attention, DO NOT LET IT GO!  How?   Practice the Gypsy Rose Lee Rule of Writing.

(Yeah.  She was a stripper.  Your point?)

The Gypsy Rose Lee Rule of Writing is simple:  reveal the interesting parts, bit by bit.  How?  Build momentum, paragraph by paragraph.  Alternate bits of character exposition with bits of story plot.  Tease your reader with pertinent detail, don't drown him in the facts.

And just in case I've been obtuse:  Chapter One is not the place to show off all the research you’ve done on the British tea ceremony.  (Come to think of it, no Chapter is the place to dump reams of research.) 

Nor is Chapter One the place to launch into paragraph upon paragraph of narration about the protagonist’s background, including his lunatic relatives, lousy love relationships, and job failures.  (Moderation, people!)

Trust Your Reader to Have an Imagination

how to write novels, book coachingKeep the pace fast and the emotions high.  How? Be judicious when describing scenery and clothing.  Let the reader’s imagination fill in some detail.  

Let's face it:  we all have televisions.  We’ve all seen photographs of ball gowns, castles, dragons, vampires, stealth fighter jets, etc.  We ALSO can picture the act of opening a door or starting a car.

Don't bog down the pace with minutiae.

Still unclear how to write a literary hook?  Wondering if you've started your story in the wrong place? Struggling to write characters that editors love? I’m accepting a limited amount of students for private coaching. You can learn more about my story critiques here.  In the meantime, keep the faith, and keep writing your novel!