The Ever Elusive Ch. 1

I have to admit it–Ch. 1 is killing my schedule and my goals for October rewriting.  Killing them with a huge, blunt axe.  But since Ch. 1 is the most important chapter in the book (at least in terms of grabbing the attention of agents and readers), I consider all this axe-wielding a necessary evil.  I’m turning today’s topic over to Syd–because between the two of us, she is the expert on good first chapters.  

I should start by saying that Syd warned me about my opening chapter back when she first read it, and then again in July when she read the whole story.  I knew I needed to rewrite it, even before the whole MG vs YA issue happened.  Pat gave me a similar warning when he read it, but I think I misunderstood what he was saying.  Only after Syd spelled it out for me several times did I finally begin to grasp the problems with my Ch. 1.  

At first I thought my Ch. 1 was too slow, with unnecessary information.  I took the same elements and just changed them around, deleting a few sentences here and there.  I sent this revision to Syd on Friday night, and she critiqued it immediately.  Judging by her comments on my manuscript, she was not impressed.  Here’s an excerpt from her email to me:

I’m sorry that I wasn’t more positive, but I do firmly believe that your chapter 1 does not do the story justice.   After reading everything else, and knowing how good it is, I can’t let you query with that chapter. Well I suppose I don’t have too much say, but I’ll be mean and harsh if it’ll make you work on it.
Think really long and hard about selling your story with that one chapter.  If you look at it very analytically,  there is little going on in chapter 1.  It’s just an average-ish girl (even though you describe her eyes, it’s not enough of a “hook” to make her seem something OTHER) going about her day and then she’s leaving to see her grandpa who she doesn’t know.   Now, all of those things can be so much more–interesting? Emotion evoking?–only it doesn’t work because we’re not invested with the characters.   It falls flat because we don’t feel connected to the characters yet. I think the trick to first chapters is this (or at least what interests me):  you show your character’s personality/quirks while not overloading the reader with emotional situations/drama/plot that they can’t feel (which makes the story seem contrived, flat, and boring).   If you instead start with something mundane and let the character shine through, you’ll have a much better result.   Add in a bit of wit and humor and voila — you’ve got ME as a reader.

Over the next couple days, we emailed back and forth several times.  I would brainstorm and send ideas to Syd, and she would reply and basically shoot them down, LOL.  I just wasn’t getting it.  I tried reading the first chapters of my favorite books for inspiration, but they were all so different.  When I read them with an analytical writer’s eye, I realized that several didn’t follow the “rules” of good first chapters.  Then again, I’ve read so many conflicting rules that it’s a wonder any first chapter could live up to those standards.

But I think the main problem, above all, was my attachment to the opening scene.  I actually liked all of Ch. 1, but the opening scene was my baby.  I couldn’t bear to part with it.  But when I asked Syd about that scene, she said:

I would like to see more to this scene other than the large self-reflective passages.   If you’re keeping the scene, I think we need to see a little more of her personality and the interactions she has with other people.  It’s a whole lot of monologuing, and I think what would help is more dialogue or other type of interaction.  What I don’t like is that you automatically get into all this sad stuff about her not fitting in… the action/fight is fine, but it just seems too convenient.  Like you’re trying to make a few crucial points in the first chapter.

And then it finally hit me.  I loved my first chapter because I already knew my character.  I knew her past, present, and future.  I could appreciate her thoughts and emotions because I knew why she thought and felt that way.  I was terribly, unforgivably biased.  

So last night I sat down and wrote an opening scene with my reader in mind, not myself.  I sent it to Syd, and she soon replied with:

You know what??!!! I really like that actually.  It’s intriguing cause we don’t know where she’s going or why… yet you get a bit about her without it being lame.  MUCH MUCH better than the other first chapter.  You’re doing great honey, keep it up!

That one email made the whole crazy weekend worthwhile.  And I like this new version better, too.  All it took was some smacking around by Syd.  I know I can’t impress everyone in the world; but if it makes Syd and me happy, that’s good enough for me.  This is why a great CP is crucial, at least in my opinion.  Without her, my story would be dead and buried.

So now, it’s your turn.  Tell me about your favorite kind of Ch. 1–what you love and why.  Do you think there are “rules” to writing first chapters, or does it all depend on the individual story?  If you’re the one writing the Ch. 1, how do you gain the necessary perspective to do it justice?  I’d love to hear any thoughts or ideas!  Have a great week, everyone!


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