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Structuring beta reads, blurbs, and other critiques

What happens after the publisher says yes

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LA Thomas

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Jul 11, 2022
United Kingdom
Hi All

When my opening pages were critiqued on Pop Ups, the general consensus was that I was starting in the wrong place, and that I should start with my character waking from a coma in hospital.

I've now rewritten it so that's the new start but it's a huge cliché. I think it will automatically get rejected by agents on that alone. All I ever hear is not to start a story with a character waking up but that's the advice given on PU's.

Not sure how to avoid it...

I don't know how I expect the forum to help... I guess this is more of a vent... but what do you think about starting with a cliche? :(

L.A
 
but what do you think about starting with a cliche?
I would avoid the cliche.

A cliche is a cliche because it's been done so often. Get your creative muscles flexing and think of something that is very different. You have one chance to grab the reader/agent. Make yourself stand out as unique. There will be another place / way to start.

Make a list of the things the reader needs to know and feel in chapter one then put everything into a different scenario; something which is a very that person / protagonist. Where else could that scene play out? Physio therapy? The first back home after the hospital stay, having to readjust to a different life?
 
what do you think about starting with a cliche?
I started my novel with the main female character pouring out her heart – discovered boyfriend in act of cheating on her – to two female friends, over drinks. What they then do, which gives a punch (I thought) at the end of chapter 1, sets the whole plot off. (Inciting incident, I'm told)

BUT, something I'd never imagined, this start led to agents thinking the book was a rom-com or chick lit. (It isn't; it really isn't.) For them, it seemed to be some kind of shorthand for that.

So, be aware, this is a risk you might run. NOT rom-com or chick lit, probably, but totally wrong genre.
 
I would avoid the cliche.

A cliche is a cliche because it's been done so often. Get your creative muscles flexing and think of something that is very different. You have one chance to grab the reader/agent. Make yourself stand out as unique. There will be another place / way to start.

Make a list of the things the reader needs to know and feel in chapter one then put everything into a different scenario; something which is a very that person / protagonist. Where else could that scene play out? Physio therapy? The first back home after the hospital stay, having to readjust to a different life?
Thanks Barbara. My MC gets two huge shocks the moment she gets home and we need to get grounded with her before that happens so I don't think that would work but I will think about your advice.
 
I started my novel with the main female character pouring out her heart – discovered boyfriend in act of cheating on her – to two female friends, over drinks. What they then do, which gives a punch (I thought) at the end of chapter 1, sets the whole plot off. (Inciting incident, I'm told)

BUT, something I'd never imagined, this start led to agents thinking the book was a rom-com or chick lit. (It isn't; it really isn't.) For them, it seemed to be some kind of shorthand for that.

So, be aware, this is a risk you might run. NOT rom-com or chick lit, probably, but totally wrong genre.
Thanks E G
 
My MC gets two huge shocks the moment she gets home and we need to get grounded
I obvs don't know your story, but are you sure the readers need to be grounded for it? It might work to start with a bang.

How about starting when your MC is leaving the hospital, i.e. in the car on the way home, anticipation of getting back to a normal life, glad to be alive, having had a rough ride in hospital and longing for the safety and normality of home ... then boom the 2 shocks ...
 
Hi All

When my opening pages were critiqued on Pop Ups, the general consensus was that I was starting in the wrong place, and that I should start with my character waking from a coma in hospital.

I've now rewritten it so that's the new start but it's a huge cliché. I think it will automatically get rejected by agents on that alone. All I ever hear is not to start a story with a character waking up but that's the advice given on PU's.

Not sure how to avoid it...

I don't know how I expect the forum to help... I guess this is more of a vent... but what do you think about starting with a cliche? :(

L.A
Don't start with a cliche would be my experience. I think you probably need to interpret what people were saying. In the broader sense. How else could you start that also answers the things raised in pop Ups. I would say really step outside the box as an exercise and give us a totally different way in to the story. If you were telling this story to a bored, blind friend. Where would you start. You know that they heaved a sigh and drummed their fingers at the coma thing. So what's the next thing you try.
 
I obvs don't know your story, but are you sure the readers need to be grounded for it? It might work to start with a bang.

How about starting when your MC is leaving the hospital, i.e. in the car on the way home, anticipation of getting back to a normal life, glad to be alive, having had a rough ride in hospital and longing for the safety and normality of home ... then boom the 2 shocks ...
Thanks but the set up to the shocks is in the hospital.

Hard to explain, I know, when you haven't read it!

Feel like I'm going in circles.

I thought about the car journey based on your first comment but that would then it would just be full of flashbacks and backstory to what she learns in hospital.
 
Don't start with a cliche would be my experience. I think you probably need to interpret what people were saying. In the broader sense. How else could you start that also answers the things raised in pop Ups. I would say really step outside the box as an exercise and give us a totally different way in to the story. If you were telling this story to a bored, blind friend. Where would you start. You know that they heaved a sigh and drummed their fingers at the coma thing. So what's the next thing you try.
Don't start with a cliche would be my experience. I think you probably need to interpret what people were saying. In the broader sense. How else could you start that also answers the things raised in pop Ups. I would say really step outside the box as an exercise and give us a totally different way in to the story. If you were telling this story to a bored, blind friend. Where would you start. You know that they heaved a sigh and drummed their fingers at the coma thing. So what's the next thing you try.
Thanks PJ (they literally said start with her waking from the coma :D )
 
I'd avoid the cliche too. Someone like Suzanne Collins can get away with it, like here:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games Trilogy (p. 8). Scholastic Press. Kindle Edition.

but we're baby writers.

You can still write about the coma later. You just might shake chapters up so it's not a linear timeline. Having been in a coma and in rehab and in hospital, the most emotional moment (and remember, Pete says go for the emotion) is:

1. The event itself (for me, the stroke)
2. being told what happened
3. arriving home (that can be overwhelming)

Someone I know described a coming home party. Could you have a character at a party that shakes things up? Can the shocks be used as bait for the reader? i.e. setup and payoff? @E G Logan is right. You need to think about the tone of your book. What genre is it?
 
Hi LA,
You raise an interesting point. As a reader, I think it is fine to start a book with the main character waking up from a coma, there is some good drama there. However, the opinion of the literary agent and publisher is important, and some of them might consider a coma start to be a so called cliche, and a quick reason to reject a book. If you like starting with the coma, I suggest you keep it and trust your own style and ability. If you are not so sure, then maybe play the odds and avoid starting with a so called cliche.

I do not know your story plot so this may not help, but have you already tried or considered starting with the 'thing or accident' that causes the coma? I assume this event was dramatic. I expect it was touch and go whether your main character would live or die. You could then move smoothly into your main character waking up from the coma, later on in Chapter one. Depending on your story, you might include the dash to A&E, the A&E checks, the main character being wheeled into the operating theatre?
It seems to me you get the best of both worlds then. Drama going into the coma, drama coming out of the coma, and no agent advising you have started with a cliche.
Best wishes
Paul
 
I did not realise this was a no-go for agents until recent online research. I'm pretty sure I've read many books that open with someone waking up somewhere, never has it caused me to fetch the smelling salts as a reader.

The more research I do, the more "rules" I find. "Top 10 things literary agents HATE", "One MILLION ways your writing needs fixed NOW!" Then I'll read an actual, published book, find all those "rules" broken on page 1. It all seems very esoteric and annoying. I think we can get bogged down in the idea there's some kind of secret handshake choreography that's going to hack the process. If we just follow these 10 tips, write your cover letter following these 5 steps etc...So yes, definitely share your frustrations on this front. It's hard to know what advice to take seriously, and what is just rubbish, especially on the likes of YouTube.

For what it's worth, I really liked the version of your first chapter that I read when I beta read your WIP - the car chase - the pre-coma, as it were. I thought it was exciting and hooky and a good set-up.
 
Then I'll read an actual, published book, find all those "rules" broken on page 1.

My guess is that a lot of these "rules" are not based on what actually works in a finished novel.

If I were someone with a job where I day after day had to go through a stack of submissions to pick out the ones with potential, I'm sure I would look for patterns that would make my task easier. For example, if I found that most of the subs that began in certain ways have turned out to be bad, then I might at some point begin to always discard subs with such beginnings. And maybe at some point, I would make a video advising writers not to begin their story in that way. The fact that established authors began their story in the way I advise against, would not be a consideration, only that having the rule made my job easier.
 
The exception makes the rule but...starting with a cliché is a risk.
I would say that with PopUps you get a lot of good but raw input -- it needs to be filtered through your own writerly experience to glean the most value. Maybe in this case, to avoid going in the wrong direction, you could rewrite your opening in two ways and workshop it for feedback?
 
Popups goes too fast to take literally as feedback. The instant reaction that counts is this works or this doesn't. You know it didnt work for a lot of people. Interpreting the other feedback is more "We want to meet her when she is awake, before this happened in a way that makes us care." I know I sound like Tiffany Yates Martin's little helper but you know that chapter about this in Intuitive Editing? With the woman musing in her car before the accident at the bridge? That might give you some ideas. But I think if we are going to beat AI we are going to have to push our creatives to the outer limits. Fresh and New. AI owns the cliches from now on.
 
I don’t know your work, but what’s about starting in that moment after she wakes up but before she gets in the car to go home? She is going through her bag to make sure she has everything and is waiting for her ride. She’s reflecting on what she remembers - the car crash, and the strange feeling she had when waking up - and comparing it to the nervous energy/anticipation of going back home and what she is expecting to find there. It might make the bang of what she actually finds even more impactful, plus we as readers may get a sense of her voice and who she is. Just a thought?
 
Thanks C. That would skip over two bits of foreshadowing/hooks that need to be there before MC gets home. They wouldn’t work in the car. I’m still thinking on it…
 
I have one starting with my MC waking up with a hangover in a ritzy Vegas hotel room, which has been destroyed. She barely remembers anything at first (the memories seep in as the morning progresses) but I made what she sees and feels pretty clear the damage came from her getting laid ... especially when finding him still sleeping in the same bed. After an awkward exchange, she gets someone to help her get rid of him ... then discovers a wedding band on her finger.

Interested yet?

The way I see it, everything's a cliché now. When something hits, many clones follow and run pretty much any approach into the ground. The best you can do is make yours grab them from the start with what you've got. If it doesn't, figure out how you can make it do so. If the consensus is to start from a wakeup, then make it a memorable one. You can do it!

Keep writing, and Live the Dream:^)
 
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