To action or not to action? Guest post by Sherry Thomas

sherrygreenSherry Thomas is the author of Private Arrangements, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008. Her sophomore book, Delicious, is a Library Journal Best Romance of 2008. Her latest book is Not Quite a Husband. Lisa Kleypas calls her “the most powerfully original historical romance author working today.” Along with enthusiastic endorsements from trade publications and New York Times bestselling authors, her books have also received stellar reviews from many of the most highly trafficked romance review websites and blogs. Thanks, Sherry, for coming to the ball!

This past week at the Romance Writers of America’s national conference, I participated on a panel with two agents and three other writers of historical romance. The topic was about debut historical romances that had caught publishing houses’ attention, and sold either at auction or in a pre-empt.

I sat down at the panel more or less expecting to be a stage prop–a potted plant, if you will. Making deals is an agent’s work and I didn’t know enough about market conditions to educate anyone. But it turned out that Kristin Nelson, my agent—and Deb Kristina’s too– actually expected us to speak a little about our own debut books.

At one point, after Kristin talked about what had caught her attention our query letters, she talked about our manuscripts, and what had made her go “Oooohh.” Because she is always prepared, she had the opening of my debut novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS right in her notes and read the following to the audience:

“Only one kind of marriage ever bore Society’s stamp of approval.

Happy marriages were considered vulgar, as matrimonial felicity rarely kept longer than a well-boiled pudding. Unhappy marriages were, of course, even more vulgar, on a par with Frau Von Teese’s special contraption that spanked forty bottoms at once: unspeakable, for half of the upper crust had experienced it firsthand.

No, the only kind of marriage that held up to life’s vicissitudes was the courteous marriage. And it was widely recognized that Lord and Lady Tremaine had the most courteous marriage of them all.

In the ten years since their wedding, neither of them had ever uttered an unkind word about the other, not to parents, siblings, bosom friends, or strangers. Moreover, as their servants could attest, they never had spats, big or small; never embarrassed each other; never, in fact, disagreed on anything at all.

However, every year, some cheeky debutante fresh from the schoolroom would point out–as if it wasn’t common knowledge–that Lord and Lady Tremaine lived on separate continents and had not been seen together since the day after their wedding.

Her elders would shake their heads. Foolish young girl. Wait ‘til she heard about her beau’s piece on the side. Or fell out of love with the man she married. Then she’d understand what a wonderful arrangement the Tremaines had: civility, distance, and freedom from the very beginning, unencumbered by tiresome emotions. Indeed, it was the most perfect marriage.”

Kristin read the excerpt as an example of new voice that excites an agent. And to advertise me to those in the audience who had not read me—Kristin is nothing if not a tireless promoter of her authors. But the reason I bring up what she did is because barely five minutes later, another author at the panel mentioned that a book should always open with action.

I probably would have just nodded under normal circumstances. I don’t think very analytically about writing, and opening with action sounds like a very good idea. But because my own opening was fresh on my mind from Kristin’s recital, I said, hmm, wait a minute here.

My books don’t open with action. They don’t even open with dialogue. In fact, they open with—and here is a word to strike fear into the hearts of aspiring writers everywhere—info dumping. Not only that, it’s info dumping done in an omniscient voice.

Now this is only the opening two pages or so. Beyond that point I move to the usual limited third person narrative and get on with the story. But still, in today’s harried pace of living, with everyone’s attention span becoming shorter and shorter, the first two pages is precious real estate, to be used wisely and efficiently.

Why then do I open my stories the way I do, with what is essentially backstory, another dreaded landmine in narrative writing? Because I am going for the jugular. I am trying, as best as I can, to place the crux of the tale, its greatest conflict, before the reader. Front and center. And immediately.
If Kristin had read one paragraph further, the audience at the panel would have heard this:

“Therefore, when Lady Tremaine filed for divorce on grounds of Lord Tremaine’s adultery and desertion, chins collided with dinner plates throughout London’s most pedigreed dining rooms. Ten days later, as news circulated of Lord Tremaine’s arrival on English soil for the first time in a decade, the same falling jaws dented many an expensive carpet from the heart of Persia.”

There, in a nutshell, is the raison d’être of my whole story. Ten years of unrivaled cordiality on separate continents, and suddenly, of all things, a petition for divorce. Which forces my hero and heroine into hostile proximity. As a reader, at this point, I would whistle, rub my hands with glee, and settle down to see how the two of them would go after each other—cuz you just know there will be heavy artillery and no-holds-barred bombardment.

And that is when, as a writer, I shift into action mode.

Now the point of this post is not to say that opening with action is bad advice. In fact, it is excellent advice. But very often writers mistake good advice for universally applicable advice, when in fact, all advice come from someone’s personal experience.

Your experience might be entirely different. Your book might be entirely different. Therefore you should always feel free to discard someone else’s advice.

Mine included.

And open with action.

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8 thoughts on “To action or not to action? Guest post by Sherry Thomas

  1. Hi Sherry, Thanks for being our guest today, and what an interesting post. I think people often want some kind of magic key to get an agent’s attention, but sometimes (thankfully, in my case!) it really does come down to voice. BTW, love your excerpt! Nice post.

  2. “But very often writers mistake good advice for universally applicable advice…” SO true. In fact, I believe there’s a whole chapter in the excellent WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL book called “The Trouble with Tea” regarding openings where a character is sipping tea or doing something otherwise reflective and static in the opening pages.

    Good advice. My protagonist is having tea in the first sentence. Seems to have worked out OK, even so.

  3. Well, if that’s an info dump, I’m all for it! I was hooked from the first sentence!

    There are all of these extremely catchy rules out there–it sounds like it really makes sense, and it rolls off the tongue. But when it comes down to it, a rule well broken is a marvelous thing!

    Thank you so much for being our guest today!

  4. Every rule is meant to be broken–as long as it’s broken well. And you clearly do it well. Thanks for being our guest today!

  5. Realized I’m wrong about the BREAKOUT NOVEL thing. It wasn’t that book. Not sure where I read it, but it was someone very smart who talked about the Trouble with Tea. Alas. My point still stands.

    And yes, you should all read Sherry’s work! Terrific stuff.

  6. Of course an author can begin in media res, but if Jane Austen could break that rule, others certainly can. I’ve never objected to info dumps at the beginning of books. I appreciate them, in fact, and especially in books as well written as Sherry’s.

  7. Chiming in a little late–weekend was a blur, as usual. 🙂

    It’s been fun to write this post. And I forgot to include a bit about a scrap of conversation between my agent and me. The day after our panel, we were chatting at the conference hotel. She was happy about how the panel had gone down. And then she said, “Oh by the way, I met your editor today for lunch and I told her what you said about your openings. And neither of us had realized that that’s what you do!”

    Fun to break rules and NOT get caught! 🙂

    Thanks you Debs for having me and thank you all for your kind words.

  8. Fantastic post. Considering there are so many opening styles around, it probably works differently for everyone. Personally, as a reader, I don’t care how the opening is unless it keeps me hooked.

    The opening for Private Arrangements is stellar. I absolutely feel like reading the book right now 🙂

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