Thriller and mystery writer Elmore Leonard, who passed away on August 20, 2013 at the age of 87, is known for his “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” This is the first of a series called, “Ten Rules in Ten Days,” where on ten separate days I will present and briefly discuss one of the rules.
Rule No. 1: Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
I see a lot of new writers begin a novel with a detailed description of the weather. Go to Critique Circle and read some stories. I’ll bet that a bunch of them start with a description of the weather.
The purpose of an opening is to get the reader engaged. If you start by jacking about on the weather, people will be stroking Zs by the middle of page one.
There are other rules on how not to start a novel. Consider:
Don’t start with someone waking up. I see this all the time. Chapter 2, fine. But don’t start with Grendledore waking up. The book smash against the wall with extreme prejudice. Actually, I won’t have to worry about throwing it against the wall. If it starts with someone waking up, it will never be published.
Don’t start with someone getting out of a car. Just don’t. Is that all you can think of as an opening? Go back to the drive-up window. I’ll have fries with that.
Here’s how to start a novel: Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard:
Sunday morning, Odell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.
I’m in. I want to see what this is all about. Nobody’s waking up, getting out of the car, and Odell and Louis are not walking in the hot Palm Beach sun. They’re going to a white-power demonstration, and we want to see, even before we find out that Odell is black, and Louis just got out of prison. (which brings up the topic of description, which will dealt with later).
The takeaway is that beginning your novel with one of these “Don’t begin your novel with” options is lazy and boring writing. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to do better than that.