Monday, March 7, 2011

Things I Learned at Sleuthfest

Randy Rawls (JEB’S DECEPTION, JASMINE’S FATE) gave a talk on “Where does your Book Begin”? Not the story, all stories begin at the beginning. “Where does your book begin?” is a slightly different question. I’m going to summarize what I learned from great writers at Sleuthfest 2011.

The obvious answer is to start your book with an opening that draws the reader in. There are no rules, no formulas, to make that happen. Each reader’s experience is unique, right? While there are no rules, I did pick up some tips to help make a compelling opening.

James Born (BURN ZONE, FIELD OF FIRE) gave some great advice. “If you don’t care about the character, you won’t care about the plot.” Make who the bad guy is clear from the start. The flip side of that coin says you should make who the good guy is clear from the start. So if your book starts with a throw-away character or one who gets marginalized later on, re-think your beginning.

Readers have to care about your character as much, or more than you do. To make that happen, tell a little about why the character is in the situation she’s in. Meg Gardiner’s THE MEMORY COLLECTOR starts with a boy riding a bike. Big deal, 99.99% of all healthy boys ride bikes. But by the third sentence, you get the sense that this is no ordinary bike ride and there is trouble afoot. “He never heard them coming.” Five words make up that third sentence, and it hangs like a thunderhead ready to spit lightning. So you’re hooked. You have to read more. You have to know what happens to Seth, and why.

Meg Gardiner (Evan Delaney and Jo Beckett Mystery Series) gave some great tips. “Start your story as close to the end as possible.” As in THE MEMORY COLLECTOR example, we don’t know where in the sequence of events the opening scene occurs. In the analysis of the book, it doesn’t matter. The scene is critical to the story, but it doesn’t matter when it occurred.

Meg offered more advice on what not to do.
1. Don’t explain too much of a story.
2. Don’t start with a dream sequence
3. Don’t do a “story within a story”.
4. Don’t be too introspective.

Will save more for later posts, and I’d love to hear your comments. Hope you find this helpful


  1. Good tips, all. Sounds like a great time, Tom. I hope to be there next year!

  2. It was a great time, Jenny. Look forward to seeing you there next year.