I recently read a troubling blog post by a well-respected—and, I have no doubt, quite capable—literary agent who specializes in YA fiction. At the top of her list of how not to begin one’s novel, she wrote the following:
“Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today?”
I found this post troubling for a number of reasons, foremost of which is that my debut novel, Survival Colony Nine, a futuristic YA, has just been acquired by a very reputable publisher and begins with . . . the main character waking up.
Now, granted, in my novel, the MC is woken up in the middle of the night by another important character (his father, with whom he has a rather contentious relationship); and he’s woken up because a mysterious, unnamed enemy is advancing on their camp; and he’s suffering from amnesia, so he doesn’t know what’s going on; so immediately you have interpersonal conflict, dialogue, tension, mystery, scene, all that good stuff. Still, my point is this: the novel starts with a character waking up, and I think it was precisely the right way to start this particular novel.
Nor am I alone. Quite the contrary, I’m in very good company. One of the finest fantasy novels ever written, Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, begins with a character waking up. Rick Riordan’s YA fantasy The Lost Hero, first in a wildly popular series, begins with a character waking up. And then there’s that little YA novel that begins with the following four words: “When I wake up.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called The Hunger Games.
My guess is that the millions who bought the book aren’t going to be demanding their money back.
As a final example, another of my favorite fantasy novels, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, begins with . . . a character walking down the street. Awake.
You see my point. For some novels, starting with a character waking up is the right choice. For others, it’s not. But I would no more tell writers never to start a book with a character waking up than I would tell them always to do so.
The larger point is this: writing is complex. There are no rules so absolute that they cannot be broken. There are rules, yes. And there’s good writing as well as bad. There are also personal preferences, which we all should respect. If you’re of the no-character-waking-up preference, that’s fine. But that’s a preference, not a doctrine, and it should never be presented as the latter. To thrive, literature needs to be willing to take risks, to try something that’s not been done before, to challenge and upend what’s considered desirable or even do-able. Otherwise we end up with cookie-cutter books, and both reading and writing are debased in consequence.
I’ve just begun to read blogs that provide writing advice, so I’m no authority. But one of my current favorites is by fantasy novelist Victoria Grefer, who hosts the blog “CreativeWriting with the Crimson League.” Her blog is low-key, accessible, friendly; she presents herself as a writer writing to other writers, not as an unapproachable sage or pundit. She never snipes, censures, or chides; instead, she encourages and invites, using her own experience as an illustration, not an ultimatum. I’m not sure how she feels about character wake-ups, but my guess is she’d be cool with them.