Saturday, December 5, 2009

First chapters

I hate first chapters. I'm a notoriously critical reader. It took me years to get past page eight of Wuthering Heights... I think it was Wuthering Heights... because the beginning was so dry. Once I got past page eight, I loved the book.

I go to the library or the bookstore, I open the book and look at the first couple paragraphs. What is the opening sentence? What 'person' is it? If it's first person, that's a hurdle the author will have to overcome.

I hate the first person. Now, there are exceptions. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games. But in general, authors who rely on the first person for their voice never fully developed their characters/writing enough to construct a well-crafted story... but that's an argument for another day.

I judge the authors I read on their sentence structure, their word choice and what happens on that first page. Perhaps I should be an agent... or a reader for a publishing house.

Some friends had posted this link on their facebook page:

Seven reasons agents stop reading your work

Now, I don't think I do any of these things. (Although right now, I do have dates in the beginning of my chapter as a simple reminder to myself to keep my chronology straight. My work depends on moon phase for some events, and I have a pregnant woman who's going to give birth in this novel so I have to be careful with the time sequence. The dates will disappear in later drafts...)

First chapters are hard. It's hard to find that balance of tight writing, exposition, character introduction and compelling action. Agents and editors judge on that first five pages and what happens there sets the pace for the whole manuscript. As an author, there's nothing worse than the intuition that your first chapter doesn't measure up to the rest of the book...

So, the word count mentioned in the link above, doing a "writing idol" contest based on the first 250 words interested me. Now, I'm cautious about posting my work on the internet, but I have been mulling this over for a day and I want to address this question of openings...

This is the current first paragraph (66 words) of book one of my Fashion and Fiends series:
"A drunken jumble of bleached blonde hair, cheap denim, and tight tank tops crashed from the unlabeled door. Inside his car, he reached for his cigarettes, tapping the box with his finger. The blondes stumbled, arms tangled and bodies barely upright, to a Firebird. They exuded their intoxication as a dreary fog that blurred the defining lines between them. He only needed one for the ritual."

This is its predecessor, the former first couple paragraphs of the same book. I was pitching this book to agents with this paragraph at the lead and I hated it the entire time. That should have been a sign that these 144 words didn't work:
"Galen could kill her so easily right now. He could wrap his fingers around Adelaide’s throat and suffocate her, quickly and directly as she slept. He inhaled sharply, meditated, and sprinkled cleansing herbs across her bed.
Galen didn’t want to kill her. If he had, he would have done it as soon as she opened the sliding glass door to her balcony. But he didn’t. He had plans. Hopes. Instead of destroying her, he ushered her sleepwalking figure back to bed, not distracted by her nudity on this humid summer night. She had a toned, muscular figure and shapely bosom uncommon in other fashion models, but Galen recognized assets beyond those that might attract mere mortal men."

This is the former first paragraph (89 words) of book two of my Fashion and Fiends series:
"Something orange and translucent clung to the cuff of Galen's sleeve as he swapped lenses on his Nikon. Étienne hobbled closer, index finger and thumb pinched to grab the offending scrap but a sudden flicker stopped him. The vivid orange-and-red object moved toward the hem and over Galen's hand. A flame. Fire. As it licked Galen's fingers, Étienne's chest tightened. His throat swelled, blocking the air. He fumbled for a chair, but someone had moved the furniture to accommodate the clothing racks, the lighting equipment and the make-up stations."

Now I've determined my proposed chapter one is too fast past and unresolved to anchor the story, so I've mounted my umpteenth revision and this is my current first page or so (255 words) for the second book:
"Étienne d’Amille clung to the steering wheel of his wife’s Mercedes, his fingers grip tight enough to stretch the supple leather of his favorite old driving gloves. The keys laid in his lap as he surveyed the other cars in the parking lot from his rear view mirror. The typical array of dusty pick-up trucks and nondescript Chevrolets and Fords surrounded him, except for one gleaming black sports car with white racing stripes.
A Dodge Viper. His eyes remained nailed to the spot. Or, how did the Americans put it? Glued. Glued to the spot. The heavy emptiness that had dwelled inside him since September now ached, even worse than it had inside the house.
He couldn’t sleep inside the house. He hadn’t gone into the bathroom where Adelaide committed suicide, where he had his heart attack, but yet somehow his wife slept in a bed in the next room. He couldn’t. But then, these days he barely slept anywhere...
He thought he would sneak out, have a beer, and go home. This tiny town had a population of 400 people and in that respect, it reminded him of rural France. Not much to do and not much there. This particular country hamlet had one option at this advanced hour of the night: a bar
péquenot... peasant? redneck? He hadn’t expected to find anyone he knew, let alone the Viper.
Galen’s Viper. The aspiring photographer had dated Adelaide. She was completely infatuated with him. Étienne hadn’t heard of him or seen him since her death."

In my revisions, I have moved the location of the opening of the second book to the same setting where book one opens. This makes for an interesting parallelism and I'm intrigued to see if structurally it will work...

I guess I don't have much of a point for this rambling but to say that first chapters are hard. Eternally. Because as authors we know what we have to say and it's bursting from us, but to try and control that initial flood of information... It's hard. But therein lies the fun and the frustration.

1 comment:

  1. I find that I always end up creating this amazing "punch" with my first two chapters (at least in my mind), only to toss it out later when my editor finally reviews it. The words are always the same, "These first two chapters really lag. Cut them. The story begins after that." It's my weakness. Always.