Entering your manuscript into a contest for unpublished writers is a good way to get feedback about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong and how to improve your work. Judging a manuscript contest for unpublished writers performs magic on your writing. And because most contests are about the first 15 or 25 or 50 pages of a manuscript, it shows you how not to start a book.
Short-story writers have long had a Latin phrase to help them start: in media res. Translated, it’s supposed to mean “in the middle of things.” In other words, do not waste your first chapter, your first five pages, or your extremely precious first page on background, backstory, description, introspection, the geology of Hawaii, or whale biology (although it’s technically chapter 13 of Moby Dick, it’s still completely bizarre).
First, take off your writer’s hat and put on your reader’s hat; I know you have one. Go to the bookstore and find your genre. Pick up five random books published in the last ten years that you haven’t read. If you can’t find that, pick five that you haven’t read recently.
Now read the first five pages of each and I’ll bet you have at least the beginning of the inciting incident. Where the trouble starts. The day that’s different from all the days that have come before. The call to adventure. The hook. Whatever you want to call it.
While this is entertaining and informative, a published book isn’t as useful as an unpublished manuscript (or a couple of dozen of them over the course of a year or two) in helping you figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Published books have all the bugs worked out, the kinks removed and the warts frozen off. Contest entries, on the other hand, still have the bugs, kinks and warts.
I once read 25 pages of a mystery novel where the amateur sleuth is a life insurance agent. Seemed quite plausible, as life insurance agents get to know their clients a bit and would probably notice something odd about a death. In the first two pages, the main character receives a phone message (not the phone call, mind you) that a client has died and proceeds to drive to the client’s home. For the next twenty-plus pages he describes what I presume is every character in the novel, and, in an entire first chapter, doesn’t get to the client’s house.
To give the writer his/her props, the first-person narrative was snappy with a strong voice (remember, voice is like pornography; almost impossible to legally define, but you know it when you find it), which is the only thing that made the entire opening chapter of non-action readable.
Do develop a strong, readable, entertaining voice. Don’t open with 25 pages of backstory. Please.