Sunday, February 19, 2012

Liz's Lair: Knowing When to Start Your Novel

So, just in case you don't know, I sold book 4 in my mystery series with a title and a one line blurb. Here is the blurb for CHICKEN CACCIA-KILLER.

When an international playboy ends up dead at the International Italian Festival, and Alex’s sister is accused of the murder, Jordan and the motley crew of neighbors hatch a plan that leads to the Godfather himself knocking at her door.

Okay, that's what I have to work with. Knowing where to begin has always been a problem for me. In the past, I've struggled with wanting to put in too much back story too soon, but I think I have finally killed that demon. I write mysteries, so I know the first three chapters are set up.

In MURDER FOR THE HALIBUT, book 3, the setting is a culinary contest on a cruise ship. (Think Top Chef meets my Clueless Cook.) I went back and forth as to where to actually start the story.

Should I put them walking onto the ship? What about starting out with the first competition which I called the Greased Lightning Elimination Round?

I finally settled on a scene on a fishing boat the day before the cruise when my heroine and the contestants spend the day drinking, eating, and trying to get bonus points by catching enough fish to feed the judges and 25 tasters in the elimination round. Of course, with contestants who will do anything to win the prize, all is fair in love and cooking competitions, and somebody ends up with a huge saltwater fish hook in his thumb. Did I mention booze plays a big part in the fishing trip?

I debated long and hard about whether this was the right place to start. That manuscript is with my editor right now, so I'll let you know what she says. Ultimately, she gets the deciding vote. Fortunately, I trust her judgment enough to heed her advice. In looking back, I now think it was the perfect scene to begin with. It allowed me to introduce the contestants and to give the readers a little peek into their personalities before all the reoccurring secondary characters arrived for the cruise later that day. Despite the fact that I don't have to spend too much time with these secondary characters, I do have to give them some air time. Not everyone who picks up MURDER FOR THE HALIBUT will have read either of the first two books in the series. I'm always conflicted about not giving enough information to new readers and repeating too much stuff and ticking off my old readers.

Which brings me back to my original thought about where I should start book 4. There are several ways to start a novel. Here are a few of them with a made-up example.

1. Open with narrative.
The Texas heat burned down on the plains with the vengeance of Satan himself.

2. Open with dialogue
"Damn, it's hotter than hell today."

3. Open with action.
She grabbed her arm as a bullet pierced her shoulder, and she fell to the drought-hardened ground, feeling the heat of the sun caking the blood before it ran down her arm.

Okay, I know these are lame examples, but you get the point. Although my writing style is to start with action, I have used every one of these in my books.

Single white female stuck in a dead-end job, looking for tall dark rich guy…

Before the night ended, she would have sex with a total stranger.

MURDER FOR THE HALIBUT-- Whose hair-brained idea was this, anyway?

I believe first lines are so important I change mine at least five or six times before I settle on one. I'm thinking for my new story I should open with my heroine Jordan meeting her love interest’s sister and mother for the first time. Maybe something like.

"So you're the girl Alex has been shacking up with."

Just kidding. I write cozies, remember??

Anyway, I'm really curious how you all start a novel. Any hints on knowing what the perfect scene is? And if any of you have a great first line for me, I would be forever grateful.


Kari Lee Townsend said...

I have also started with all three of those, Liz. It just depends on what book I'm writing, and what type of scene I want to start with. Good lluck figuring that out :-) It always takes me forever!

Cassy Pickard said...

Herre's my current first line, see what you think.
Finally, after years of training and the huge effort of starting a new practice in a small New England town, her life was on the right path, until Suzanna committed suicide.

Vicki Batman said...

No hints, honeybunny. You have to go with your gut. I do begin my stories with dialogue. I've heard lots of pros and cons about this, but it feels natural to me.

Lindsay said...

Here's the opening line for my next book-
Her feet barely touched the ground when an insulated cup of coffee was shoved under her nose.

Liz Lipperman said...

Hey, Kari, hope you're having fun in Florida. Then you get to start book 4 when you get back!!

Liz Lipperman said...

Great line, Cassy, but I would give it a tiny tweak.

Finally, after years of training and finally starting a new practice in a small New England town, Suzanna (Last name)'s life was on the right path...until she committed suicide.

Liz Lipperman said...

Vicki, I like starting with dialogue, too, but sometimes a bold statement like Cassy just gave us is a great opener. I can't wait to get the Plotting Princesses to help me with this one.

Liz Lipperman said...

Lindsay, don't hate me, but I'm not crazy about your first line. Who cares that she's got coffee under her nose and who cares even less if it's insulated?

Try this.

Before Name's feet touched the ground someone handed her a steaming cup of coffee...and a copy of the morning newspaper with her name glaring at her in huge letters on the front page.

Or something like that to give it more punch. Are you sorry you asked? Oh wait! You didn't!!

Lindsay said...

Interesting and good points Liz, except she just got woken from a sound sleep after solving one murder case and was at the crime scene of another.
No rest for the weary Emily Dahill.

Anita Clenney said...

Great post Liz. I like starting with dialog or something that's an attention grabber. Great first lines are so important and not so easy to come up with. And I LOVE your titles. I just met a cozy mystery lover and I've been pushing you, Kari, and Rochelle on her. :)

Anita Clenney said...

I think any way to start can be effective if it's powerful. I kind of like your narrative one here.

Liz Lipperman said...

I think you're right, Anita. Whatever works best for the story is what you should go with.