Novel Openings: Lessons from a Comparison

WARNING: I’m going to shred my own writing. Have I lost my mind? Believe it or not, no. I consider it healthy that I can look at my work with an unfiltered eye. I’m kind and compassionate when critiquing what others have written, but am ruthless and sarcastic with my own work.

In both situations I’m helpful and supportive.

My ruthless attacks on my own work, though, are done with a lighthearted touch. I know I’m joking. I’m blunt, but my self-reviews are so comical that I often keep them and reread them years later. More than one has begun with some form of, “Christina, what were you thinking?”

Critiques and self-critiques, in both cases they’re learning opportunities, which is what I’m going to do here with two examples.

©2020 CA Hawthorne

I’ve reached the point where I make only a modest effort to write a good opening when I draft. I almost always replace or drastically alter it later. Stressing about it becomes a paralysis that keeps the rest of the draft from happening.

In a great irony, one exception is Following the Essence Stone. Yet again, I need to rewrite the novel even thought the opening is fantastic. The other inspired opening is Protecting the Pneuma Key, a novel that has proven to be the exception when it comes to many of my problems. I take it as a good sign given it’s the last novel I wrote.

The two openings I’m going to share are a contrast. The link between them is thin, at best. In 2000 I embarked on writing my first ever novel, The Other Side of the Aperture. As you’d expect, I could write a book on its problems, but it was a learning experience. After a long illness, in 2012 I decided to try and resurrect a piece of it as a novel called Where Light Devours.

Keep in mind that this was pre-2015 when I overhauled most everything about my writing and my world, Ontyre. Thus, Where Light Devours is written in Distant 3rd and the setting is medieval. After several years of pounding my head against the writing wall, I abandoned the novel, took a different direction with my craft, and reemerged in 2016.

At that point I drafted Trust in the Forgotten. There are a few plot similarities, but otherwise, as these openings show, they aren’t alike. In fact, Trust in the Forgotten has a  different heroine.

Where Light Devours
Strange to say, but Light is so awful that it makes a fantastic teaching tool. So, let’s get to it. If you’re sufficiently brave to read it (heck, I’m brave enough to share it!) then I’ll be back afterwards to point out its lowlights…

She paused her beloved mare and raised the goggles beneath her hood.

Ahead, the sunlight caught on the twisted metal crowning Rusted Mound. Her eyes unfocused and the old tales her father told resurfaced. Some said the mound covered the remains of a giant structure dating back to the Old Empire. Had her father believed the hill was a ravaged glimpse into the past? The faded memory and the answers it might hold refused to materialize.

Horse and rider continued, the currier’s gaze turning to those standing in shadowed obscurity beneath the crumbling walls. She knew all too well evil’s arrogance, having first met it when she was a child. In Baris she never failed to watch for it.

Disinterest, masked and real, looked back.

The traveler halted the mare beneath a crippled sign that once read, The Golden Well. It hung motionless, baking beneath the same morning sun fading the tavern’s façade. She dismounted, removed her goggles, and eased back her soiled hood to release unruly locks streaked with gray. Moisture clung to her neck until she lifted her hair in back.

Relief.

Her shoulders relaxed and she sighed. A rag from a saddlebag removed the flatland’s grime from her face.

Okay, I’m back.

Christina, what were you thinking? I’ll follow that with, where do I begin?

Let’s begin with the lone character. Is it the protagonist? You wouldn’t know it from what’s written here (she is). What do we know about this person? Three things. It’s a she, which we discover incidentally. The other is that she loves her horse, which we’re told, not shown. She also has unruly, graying hair.

We don’t even know her freaking name. This kind of ridiculous cleverness screams amateur until it’s hoarse. It attempts to create false drama where none exists. Oh, and that’s another problem: nothing happens. So, nothing happens to a person without a name. That’s my definition of, who cares? This same problem repeats paragraph after paragraph with clever lines about someone the reader doesn’t know performing seemingly meaningless acts.

All of these sins are best exemplified in the first two paragraphs. The first paragraph is a single line that identifies no one performing ordinary tasks. Not to be outdone, the second paragraph goes on at length spewing backstory. No story questions happen here except, what the heck is going on?

I’d say, you can’t make this stuff up, except I did. To sum up those first two paragraphs, we have no one performing boring acts and providing an info dump.

*What from this opening survived the jump to Trust in the Forgotten? The name of the tavern is reused, but the reader never sees the interior because of a tragic event that occurs outside. The other is the unruly hair. That’s it, unless you want to count the mare and the city name, which is kinda cheating because it’s worldbuilding).

Trust in the Forgotten
Whew, enough of that. Let’s move on to Trust in the Forgotten. As an aside here, this isn’t the original opening to this novel. I liked the original, but it was too slow, too introspective, and tried too hard. It survived, though, as a heavily edited portion of Chapter 2.

Note that this opening has been edited fewer times than the first one I shared. Okay, like with the first one, here are the first ≈200 words of Trust in the Forgotten…

Rain dripping off the brim of her hat, Riparia Dellbane weighed the possibilities, but any explaining the charred corpse in the middle of a Coving street weren’t good, and the worst was the most likely.

Practitioners.

The mere thought, if allowed to linger, would induce shaking.

She was shaking.

Clutching Doppla’s reins with a cramping hand, she made a slow, torturous turn. The street was empty. Too empty for early evening.

“Dear Genessa, Doppla, isn’t it enough that I already despise being trapped inside town walls? Then, this has to happen?” She could flee. She could ride for the gate at a gallop.

No. She had a duty she’d sworn to perform.

What did she know about Practitioners? Little, outside fireballs and cruelty. Maybe more. If she could think, but even the solemn drumroll of raindrops on cobblestones couldn’t remove the stench that was cooked human flesh.

She pulled a threadbare sleeve across her brow to remove the dark, tangled locks sticking to her skin. The moisture chilled. She rubbed her arms. The twenty-ninth of Autumn New Season had become as cold as winter.

“Okay, Doppla, what’re Practitioners doing so far north?”

Doppla snorted. Odd how it summed up the situation.

Lights came on. Doors opened. People emerged from glistening gray stone homes, each a headstone marking potential victims.

I love this, but depending on your tastes you may or may not. Regardless, I’m proud of the fact that these couple of hundred words do a lot. The character, horse, and location are named. We know she’s on a street in the evening in autumn and it’s raining. An actual event has occurred that is a threat to her wellbeing.

What do we know about Riparia Dellbane, the protagonist? There are details strung through this first chapter and the next couple, but even here there’s enough for her to become multi-dimensional. Her hair is dark and long enough to be tangled, which implies she’s not one to obsess over her appearance. Her threadbare garments reinforce that and hint at poverty. More important are the hints to her personality.

Because this is written in Deep 3rd, the narration is hers. We learn she’s uncomfortable in large habitations. That could be hinting she’s introverted (she is) and awkward around people (she is). In addition, she’s brave enough to face those discomforts for the sake of her unnamed job. She’s also willing to remain despite her obvious fear. There’s even a dash of self-depreciating humor (the shaking). Her fondness for Doppla? The relationship becomes more apparent later in the chapter, but even here she talks to her like a friend.

There are also questions arising already. Why is she braving a city that makes her uncomfortable? What’s so vital that she’d face a threat to remain? What or who are Practitioners? Why was someone burned to death? Why are the people so scared that they wouldn’t go to the victim’s aid?

Riparia at Lake Seclusion.

Riparia at Lake Seclusion.

Guess what? It just took me more words to tell you what happened than the opening is long. That means the words in this opening are working hard. That’s what they should always do, no matter what form the opening takes. The open is your calling card, your first impression.

Oh, the opening that I moved back into Chapter Two? One of the problems with it was it was trying too hard to convey information because I was starting the story too late. Because of the information sprinkled in this chapter and the beginning of the next it had to do less and, as if by magic, it worked after editing.

Keep in mind that this is just over two hundred words of a +1,300 word opening chapter. What follows? A crowd gathers and she lingers to gain information. They become suspicious that she’s the prey the Practitioners are seeking. The crowd becomes a mob. On it goes. We also learn about her job, the cause she serves, and the magic gift she possesses.

As bad as the first example is, it was a vital step for me in my learning process. The same could be said of the opening I moved. All of the above helped make possible the openings I’ve written since, whether I got them right quickly or not. Learning is never a waste.

About Christina Anne Hawthorne

Alive and well in the Rocky Mountains. I'm a fantasy writer who also dabbles in poetry, short stories, and map making. My Ontyre tales are an alternative fantasy experience, the stories rich in mystery, adventure, and romance. Alternative fantasy? Not quite steampunk. Not quite gothic. In truth, the real magic is in those who discover what's within.
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