I’m currently reading C. B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, a YA book where Jess, born to metahuman superhero parents, tries to discover her natural talents by taking up an internship with a villain (unknowingly so, of course). It has an interesting premise and an inclusive cast of characters.
I’m only 50 pages into the story and…I already have opinions. It’s still too soon to judge the book by its story but the opening checks off a number of boxes for what NOT to do in an opening.
I just wanted to get these thoughts out there because it gave me a visceral pang. A bad opening can turn a reader off to a story. This is such a good premise but its execution doesn’t bode well if these mistakes creep up later in the narrative.
I’ll also preface this list by stating that I’VE COMMITTED THESE MISTAKES.
The first draft of my Festival of Shadows story is a great example of some of the worst things you can do at the beginning of a novel. Hopefully, this will help an aspiring writer who wants some tips in revising their opening chapters. I know it helped me!
So without further ado…
Nothing turns off a reader fast enough than burying them under a mountain of information. The book started out promising enough. It kicks off with some excellent opening lines illustrating a moment of action:
Jess grits her teeth, going for a running start. The gravel on the trail crunches under her feet, the wind rushes through her hair, and she can taste success. This time. This time, she’s gonna make it.
But as the story continues, so much is thrown at the reader. I feel like in the first fifteen everything about this post-apocalyptic world is thrown at the reader, including but not limited to: solar disaster, the onset of World War III over resources, initial nuclear destruction, Jess’ family dynamic, Jess’ parents status as superheroes, her personal insecurities with her lack of powers, how class differences influence driving habits, and a whole host of other things.
It’s hard to get truly invested into a world when the writer gives you so much to digest. It slowed down my pace as I tried to keep track of everything.
It’s one thing to have to take notes on the story you’re reading due to the volume of information. It’s a whole other beast when you see the same information explained to you again later. Sometimes within the same chapter.
One example I found was how the narrative keeps relaying the fact that Jess’ parents are the “C-list local superheroes, Smasher and Shockwave.” This wouldn’t bother me so much except that it’s constantly stated within the first few pages in a similar manner.
Smasher and Shockwave are the two resident superheroes of Andover. C-list as they may be, they’re celebrated here. Jess knows them as Mom and Dad. 
…but her parents were good C-list heroes, constantly working for the greater good of the country, and their home reflects that. 
Jess flops on her back and spots the framed photograph of her parents, dressed as Shockwave and Smasher, vibrant and powerful, the pride of their small city. 
Playing devil’s advocate briefly, this repetition could show how present their reputation is in Jess’ life and how her initial lack of demonstratable abilities compounds how inadequate she feels next to them.
But note the page numbers. See how frequently the writing reminds the reader of this so early on. It became a real issue for me as I found myself rolling my eyes muttering how I already know this.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Okay, so you’ve all heard this one before.
To top off the other issues, most of the information is told. Sometimes shown, then explained needlessly!
I know that when world-building, it’s tempting to just explain how the world works especially if it’s very unlike our own. Some things have to be explained because not doing so may leave the reader confused. But if something can be shown, do it. Certain scenes in this story could’ve been redone and shown later.
There was one really glaring example of this in the first 15 pages.
The context: Jess has just returned home. She reviews the messages on her Data Exchange Device (DED) all the while saddened by the possibility of not being a metahuman when…
Warm fondness for her best friends distracts her from her disappointment.
Did she smile at the messages that her friends sent her? Did her heart feel lighter? Why not show this through character movements? This sounds more like a vague stage direction than narrative.
As I said before, I’ve been guilty of all of these. Everyone has. As I was reading, I kept thinking back to my own stories where I just threw all the information I could think about the setting in the first few pages. I was still ironing out the details myself. Still discovering different aspects of the world that I didn’t want to forget as I was writing.
Revision is a good way of catching these. If this helps in any way to the aspiring novelist, I’m happy about it. And, I must state that despite my griping, I still fully intend to continue reading. The premise is good and I can’t wait to see what happens (hopefully, after the initial hurdle, it’ll get good!)
But now I want to know…