Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ask the Editors – First Chapter Importance

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Question: What one thing do you look for in the opening chapter and that makes you read on?

Patricia Harrington


***

A good friend, an esteemed literary colleague, Peggy Ullman Bell (who does the editing of my manuscripts) once said, relaying to me the advice of her mentor:

“If you can get the reader to smell the coffee on the first page, that reader will be with you for the entire rest of the way.”

Smell the coffee. Perfect.

The first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence - all are of paramount importance. Imagery, setting, characters, smells, noises, thoughts and emotions must be forward, intriguing, and captivating. It is vital the author snag the reader’s attention, grab hold of all the senses, and bring the story alive with immediacy. If not, a yawn will transpire; the book will go back on the shelf of the library or bookstore.

I'll illustrate with two examples. One will be my attempt at a coma-inducing "back-on-the-shelf" opening paragraph, and the other will be a more serious stab at snaring a reader's full attention.


***

The drive seemed like it would last forever. On and on the miles and hours rolled by, with not so much as an interesting sight to break up the monotony. Route 66 through the Oklahoma flatlands was not very exciting. Betty wondered again if she had made the right choice. Leaving the bright lights and fast pace of the big city life, opting to relocate to the country. It was a radical move, an attempt to break through a year long writer’s block. Her publisher was fast growing impatient. She had received her hefty advance more than twelve months ago. No sooner than she had gotten over the thrill of her first six figure contract she promptly lost all inspiration. Hadn’t written anything worth fool’s gold in all this time. Doubts were growing inside her. Am I still a writer? Was that first best-seller novel just an aberration? She certainly hoped not. She was becoming unbearable to be around, so snarky and foul of mood. Calvin had moved out, telling her to look him up when she snaps out of her funk.

***

So this was the famous Route 66. Betty winced and applied pressure to her temple with two fingers. It wasn't much - boring as hell. And holy mother of god, the malodorous cow manure. She wondered if she had lost her last brain cells making this move. She buttoned the window up, turned on the air and nestled back, massaging her sore stiff shoulders against the soft tan leather. Her migraine felt like it was going to split her head apart. It was the pressure. All the flippin’ pressure. If she didn’t get a world-class manuscript to her publisher within three months her career was soggy toast. A hideous doubt had grown to a giant within her. Was she still a writer?

***

The first example is not as good as the second one for several reasons. For one, it is rather long, with too much back-story for my liking. A taste of back story is all I want in an entire opening chapter, let alone a first paragraph chocked full of it. I like to be teased with what, where, when and how questions. Captivate me with a conflict and the introduction of one or two interesting characters. That compels me to read on to find out how the situation came to be and how it will be resolved. Add to those problems the fact that the writing is flat; a monotonous rambling on about monotony. The second example is shorter, with better imagery, has more emotion and introduces the character and her dilemma with just enough hint of back story to hook me.

***

Article written and submitted by Marvin D Wilson, author, I Romanced the Stone, Owen Fiddler, and Between the Storm and the Rainbow.
Marvin is an editor with
All things That Matter Press and does freelance editing.
He maintains two popular blogs at
Free Spirit and Tie Dyed Tirades.

16 comments :

  1. This is a great example of how to suck a reader into the story faster, and also a good example, in general, of juicing up the narrative.

    Wyatt at Pan Historia

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent examples. As a writer, I am always looking for that perfect 'jumping in' point of the story..something that's going to immediately grab the reader's attention. It doesn't have to be an action packed sequence, but it's definitely got to leave the reader wanting more.

    J.E. Braun's World

    Author J.E. Braun's Site

    ReplyDelete
  3. Usually the first page has to draw me in, and when it does it feels like a personal invitation for me to read more. When it hits me like this it's almost like "love at first read" and I'm hopelessly hooked. I like literary novels with visionary images and depth.

    www.jrlagreca.com
    www.suburbanweird.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great examples, Morgan. And very helpful. Thanks for making it possible to ask the question and for giving excellent and concrete examples.

    Pat Harrington

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great example, really illustrates clearly what is needed in the first chapter. Thanks...now back for some re-writes!

    ReplyDelete
  6. For the publisher of my novel PSAPPHA, the trick for a "snap to attention" opening was to lop 7 chapters off the front of my manuscript.

    Although the end result worked, I was never satisfied with the loss. Therefore, as soon as his supply of books ran out and the novel was allowed to go out of print, my personal editor and I grabbed the opportunity to re-include the details from those missing chapters in a completely revised & substantially augmented re-issue entitled SAPPHO SINGS.

    SAPPHO SINGS begins like this --

    "“Psappha∗, as she [Sappho]called herself in her soft Aeolian dialect, was born at Eresus, on Lesbos”
    The Life of Greece by Will Durant’



    -- I --


    On the opposite side of the island from her birthplace, on a hill above and somewhat south of Mitylene, Psappha leaned her back against the outside of her stepfather’s garden wall and stared across open water. The mainland shore remained in shadow as Dawn dressed ancient mountaintops in brilliant white.
    Soon the sun would move higher to grace the twelve mainland Aeolian cities with early morning light.
    Near the second to last, a thin column of smoke wafted upward. Whatever vessel had the signal fires ablaze throughout the night was getting closer. It should reach Mitylene by noon.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another important element in the second example is point-of-view. In these cases, it's subtle, but the fact is in the first example the author is telling us what's going on. In the second, we're riding along with Betty and experiencing that ride with her.

    There's an often-suggested exercise for beginning writers and those who have show v. tell issues. Write in first-person, then go back and convert to third. Note the difference. It works for some but not all.

    Another trick is to avoid internal monologue tags such as "he thought" and "she wondered." If you're in the character's head where you should be, thought just happens.

    The final trick is to listen to how you think. Have fun. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Elizabeth, good point on the point of view comment. I forgot to mention that in the post, even though it was intentionally written.

    Hey everyone, "Novel Eagle" is Peggy Bell, my editor of choice.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have to add a "mea culpa" as it was Marv who wrote the examples. There was a blogger called POD-dy Mouth, who did reviews and commented on POD books. She was kind of enough to write a great review on Death Comes Too Soon, and commented on my opening chapter, as a "good one." Pretty darn pleased about that. My genre? Traditional mysteries of the whodunit variety.

    Cheers,

    Pat Harrington

    ReplyDelete
  10. Wonderful post, Marv. The example really makes a difference. I recall early in my efforts to write fiction people in my critique group would comment that I was telling and not showing. I never understood what they meant until one kind soul took me aside and gave me a good example.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The Durants write such great history books - if only those were used in schools more often.

    Dani
    http://blogbooktours.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sometimes it is about capturing thee imagination. Smell the coffee


    When the winds of Fate search the human heart they will have found cause to caress a face, or tousle a lock of blond and unruly hair or simply chase down a child’s balloon from the heights. Seldom do they dare to peek or listen, for the human spirit is such a powerful and hard to look upon thing, yet when they do look they must act, must follow their own basic nature for that is what fate is.


    See the tall drink of water watching the foot ball game? The one with the ruggedly handsome features sitting on the bleachers under the announcers’ booth. This is Joey Spanner, he has never dealt with fate, nor does he believe in it and is of the mind that the world is as you make it. He is powerful across the shoulders, with long lean muscles, a natural athlete whose movements are smooth and graceful. Yet, he is not a brute, growing to believe true strength comes from the heart and mind not from physical mass. Joey has matured into a fine young man, intelligent, resourceful and cautious. Yet, he is still only eighteen and there are things in this world which only cause and experience can teach a person, even to an intelligent and resourceful boy of eighteen. And the fates are full of mischief, mirth, and laughter. Nonetheless, peering into the hearts of mortals where the light of the human spirit is brilliant and burdensome to look upon they too can find reason to intervene.

    ReplyDelete
  13. If you can condence your feel for your story into one simple opening statment, what would it be? If you can define and narrate all that you want to present to the reader in a simple paragraph, what would it look like? When writing "Tramp" there was no "Bang" no blood on the ground, no strife or conflict. But, I needed to bate my hook.

    For some time now the fates have been riding along on the autumn winds, following along in their mischief as they scurry down the streets doffing men’s hats from their heads and peeking under the ladies skirts. The Fates are searching for a heart, one that is pure and good and honest. It is not an easy task in such a town as Raybern where the hearts are as cold as the winter winds. Still, even in Raybern not all hearts are closed or cold. And, as the Fates race up and down the bleachers of the local football stadium on the wings of the winter winds, they brush the face of a boy, pause to caress his mind and heart and know that their search is at an end. This is the boys’ senior year of high school and he is there to cheer the team on to one more defeat. The winds directed by the Fates scatter his friends to other more exciting and inviting places, leaving the boy there alone to watch the game. Joey has witnessed his friends depart and has bade them fare well, wondering why he has chosen to remain behind when the warm company of his companions would be preferable over the cold windy bleachers.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The examples made it easy to see what is needed. Thanks for the advice.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The disadvantage of trying to comment on a blog when you're on a train is sometimes the network card doesn't work right in dead zones. My comment from this morning got lost in cyber space or the cold air of Chicago.

    Anyway, I believe the opening sentence has to be a hook. A reader may let you get away with not doing one if the next sentence or the rest of the paragraph provides that hook. Definitely, it needs to be there on the first page or that book gets put down and another is picked up instead.

    After that, you better get that hook in toward the end of the chapter or it will be just as easy for the reader to lay the book down and never pick it up again.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  16. For the publisher of my novel PSAPPHA, the trick for a "snap to attention" opening was to lop 7 chapters off the front of my manuscript. Although the end result worked, I was never satisfied with the loss. Therefore, as soon as his supply of books ran out and the novel was allowed to go out of print, my personal editor and I grabbed the opportunity to re-include the details from those missing chapters in a completely revised & substantially augmented re-issue entitled SAPPHO SINGS. SAPPHO SINGS begins like this -- " “Psappha∗, as she [Sappho]called herself in her soft Aeolian dialect, was born at Eresus, on Lesbos” The Life of Greece by Will Durant’ -- I -- On the opposite side of the island from her birthplace, on a hill above and somewhat south of Mitylene, Psappha leaned her back against the outside of her stepfather’s garden wall and stared across open water. The mainland shore remained in shadow as Dawn dressed ancient mountaintops in brilliant white. Soon the sun would move higher to grace the twelve mainland Aeolian cities with early morning light. Near the second to last, a thin column of smoke wafted upward. Whatever vessel had the signal fires ablaze throughout the night was getting closer. It should reach Mitylene by noon.

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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