Bloody first chapters, such tricky things… Oh! Hello there! I see you’ve found your way to my blog, are you lost? No matter, while your here, allow me to talk your ear off, I mean, entertain you for a moment! Alright tomfoolery aside, welcome to the first Critical commentary, focused on my novel Second Draft, I’m not sure how much we will end up talking about specifics of the Novel but I thought that we would talk about first chapters, the trouble that I’ve encountered writing this one and some of things I’ve attempted to do, to address them.
The first thing to consider, is perhaps the most important part of any novel, the ‘hook’ or more broadly put, how do you get people to keep reading, rather than put your book back on the shelf. While a clumsy attempt at humour, the opening sentence of this blog post, is kinda how it feels to construct the first paragraph or if you’re lucky chapter of a novel. There are many different ways to grab peoples attention, and being blunt, people like different things, there is no guarantee even if you construct a compelling opening, that it will be compelling to everyone who picks it up. In fact the only guarantee you have, is that this will not be true. Genre, while not always applicable, or as one dimensional as book shops would have you believe, is a sales tool. Used to guide people towards your book and those deemed similar to it. But being grouped with other novels people may have enjoyed is not enough in and of itself, if you’re lucky, people will take a look at a blurb or first paragraph or so and decided based on this. At least that’s what every author or lesson I’ve ever had on the subject has told me and that’s a lot of pressure.
Knowing that you have so little time to invest people in something that you have spent countless hours on is daunting and finding the right way to start can be considered starting a race without stumbling. This presented me with a problem, I wanted to do a lot in my opening, introduce major characters, grab a readers interest and set up for a progression in plot and characters. Not to mention introduce the world in which my Novel is set in a way that attracts interest without falling into the infamous ‘info dump’. As such the first question I had to answer when restructuring the Novel, was how do I improve the opening. Well that involved working out the problems I had with the previous draft, which were as follows.
Firstly that although the opening had impact it forced my two Main characters into the role of a reluctant hero very quickly. Leaving little to no space to build up connections and relationships or indeed explore their place in the world before drastically shifting it. Although I am not writing a tragedy, something that has always stuck with me is that in Greek Tragedy (classical) or Tragedy in general it is much more effective if you build a character to great heights before sending them hurtling down to earth.
The second was that the plot seemed to progress far too quickly. It was almost like the novel itself had been influenced by my own desire to see the end. To be honest most first drafts are like that which is why I tend to refer to them as brain vomit. I wanted to make things seem believable. Their needed to be more resistance or motivation for characters to go through the story as I wanted them too and as such I needed them to build a more concrete prior relationship.
With these two primary objectives in mind, the obvious conclusion was to spend more time building the world and relationships. But, having a slow build up to a novel isn’t likely to grab a readers attention, there are some memorable first lines in fantasy such as ‘in a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit’ or something to that effect. But times and audiences have changed and the slow pace of The Lord of the Rings is the reason I most commonly hear cited for not wanted to read them. In many ways I believe cinema and the birth of films has changed a lot about how people like to process literature but that’s a speculation of mine and would be worth a post in and of itself. How then did I decide to reconcile these two aims. To solve this problem I went into the background world of my novel.
Given the criminal nature of the main character Kite, on whom the opening chapter was focused, the secondary protagonist to be introduced later. I figured that a run in with law enforcement on her way to conduct business, would not only give me the tension and ability to grab a readers attention out of the gate. but to slow the chapter down afterwards as I introduce some other characters and begin to flesh out the world and characters that readers will see more of. Then they were off, as I often find the case, writing action and introducing the characters as they move straight into an action sequence, was a lot easier than what followed. Small details and bits of lore worked in throughout the chase are one thing. Lots of body movement, limited time for talk. But entering the final part of the chapter which is essentially a long conversation was more challenging.
I talked earlier about wanting to avoid info dumps, easy enough to do during an action scene, but when writing a conversation, fraught with tension. It becomes necessary to consider what information, is, well, necessary. For a start the characters have limited time and are not each privy to all the information the others may have. A history lesson wouldn’t fit well into a business conversation. Oh and one more thing, how not to make a conversation dull. I know that the information contained is needed to make the story make sense and I don’t think I’ve spent too long laboriously explaining unimportant things. Perhaps it is just a part of taking time to try and craft dialogue, that makes it feel like it drags. Struggling to write it probably had that effect.
I’ve mentioned trying to avoid unnecessary dialogue and avoid dumping information that wasn’t needed on the reader. The other thing I tried to make the passage which was heavy on dialogue interesting, was to give details about characters and their expressions or movements. A fairly standard thing to do in any novel, but something I have in the past overlooked or ignored. Here I wanted to sow the seeds for a consistent personality for all the characters involved and hope as I go through the novel and write further chapters that I can use these tells to create convincing protagonists and side characters alike.
Well, that’s all for this one, struggling to give an opening a good hook and difficulty writing dialogue and creating lifelike characters. I hope that what I have done in the first chapter to tackle these issues, such as placing action at the start and making sure to avoid unnecessary info while attempting to add depth to my characters will pay off in the long run but I guess only time will tell.