Great news! I just got back from the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc. contest and won first place for my novel Treasure Traitor! I only got third place for my fantasy short story, “Dargon, the Human Slayer,” but that was top 10%, so I’m not complaining.
So, folks have been asking me, “How do you snag contest wins?” I think this needs to be a four part series: Good beginning, removing passive voice, compelling characters, and page-turning plots. So, as is appropriate, let’s begin with the beginning!
Most people have heard the phrases “start off with a bang” or “hook your reader.” These are true, but I want to emphasize that the genre (category) of your writing will determine the degree of “zing” you need. If you’re writing a murder mystery, a good classic is to have someone die or already dead on the floor on the first page. An adventure/thriller (think James Bond) might start out with a real, full-blown explosion.
A historical romance or “cozy” mystery, on the other hand, does not require such a literal bang. A catchy phrase may be all you need to “hook” the reader. For example, my novel that won first place (a young adult fantasy) started out with a pretty typical day in the life of a young aristocratic girl. Only I began with the enticing phrase, “The day I met my best friend, he tried to eat me.” It gave a promise of something interesting to come. Apparently that promise grabbed the judge’s attention and she kept reading.
What you don’t want to do is bore your reader with a bunch of background info right up front. This is the tyrannical “info dump” dreaded by all authors, especially in the historical and speculative fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy) veins. It has a way of rearing its ugly head because we want the reader to understand our little universe or area of expertise we’ve been creating/studying for a gagillion years (or what feels like a gagillion years)! Resist the temptation. We don’t need to know that your main character is the second cousin of King Louis the fourteenth once removed or that the CO2 levels of planet Corbec are roughly the same as those in suboceanic volcanoes on Earth! Make us care about your character and their problem first, then give us those juicy details that you researched so long to find or created in a spark of genius inspiration.
A little suspense or humor never hurts. Far from loosing your reader, a fast-paced, unhampered-by-explanation beginning can cause them to say, “huh?” and read on to figure out what’s going on. But if that’s not the style of your book, try a bit of wit, or a clever turn of phrase to make them laugh. Laughter makes people feel good and if they feel good, they’ll keep reading your book.
Good beginnings are succinct, enticing, and well written. Editors often only look at your first page before they make a decision to press the reply or delete button. If a judge doesn’t say “winner!” after the first paragraph, it has no hope of getting that gold star. It sounds harsh, but these people get hundreds of submissions a week! They don’t have time to deliberate; they’ve got to make a decision based on their first impression. So write a killer beginning, and you’ve got a sale!