Sunday, March 28, 2010

First Chapter of Your Novel Part 2: Focus, Focus, Focus

I went back and forth on whether or not to make this into a post, but I figured if it helped me, maybe it would help someone else too.

Before I begin, I need to give a little back-story. A few weeks ago, I sent the first 250 words of Spirit World to agent Mary Kole of She was hosting a workshop where she would take 8 entries and pick them apart, deciding what could be fixed. I was not one of the ones she had chosen. In fact, she sent me an email stating it was too good to be workshopped. The only note she offered me was she couldn’t figure out the plot. Well, she only read the first 250 words after all.

Forward to last week when I found out Spirit World had made it to the Quarterfinals of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. Everyone who made it to that round receives two reviews of the first chapter from Amazon as well as a Publisher’s Weekly review. While I haven’t received the Publisher’s Weekly review, the Amazon one is on display for the entire world to see here.

Let’s take a closer look at what the first reviewer had to say.

“I don't feel that the author clearly defined the goal or problem Reisa is trying to overcome. I vaguely put it together as ‘get over these internal voices I pretend not to have but which are nevertheless bringing havoc into my life’ or ‘overcoming her budding alcoholism.’”

Ouch! *

I wanted to scream out, “But it’s right there on page 4!” And also, “Chapter one is the only place in the entire novel where the character gets drunk”. But of course the reviewer doesn’t know that, because they only reviewed the first chapter. And after I got over my initial frustration and embarrassment, I began to think, “Hm, maybe there is something I can do to fix it.” I mean I know the plot is right there spelled out, and if I move a few paragraphs around, and tweak a few sentences here and there, maybe it will become clearer. So, that’s what I plan to do.

Now on to the examples. Off the top of my head I could name several novels that don’t get into the plot on the first page or even the first chapter, and I’m sure you can too. But that’s not what this post is about.

I want to examine a couple of novels that focus the plot from the beginning, and do it well.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Mary begins the story by telling us a fairy tale about the ocean, something she does not believe exists. But why doesn’t she believe it exists? Well, go on to page 2 and we learn all about the Unconsecrated, the zombies who live just outside her village in The Forest of Hands and Teeth. That’s when we know Mary is destined to travel outside of her village, through the forests of Unconsecrated, and meet the ocean.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
At the end of the first paragraph, Katniss tells us, “This is the day of the reaping.” Do we know what the reaping is? No. But we know it’s terrible because it gave her sister bad dreams. Throughout the first chapter Katniss gives us quite a bit of back-story and leads us right up to the reaping. After that, we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to change her life forever.

Can you think of any more examples?

*The reviewers did have nice things to say as well. You can read them, as well as download the first chapter for free here. Or if you don’t have a Kindle, shoot me an email at belle5678 at yahoo dot com and I’ll send it to you.


Summer said...

Oh, I'm going to download it on my Kindle! Cool! Congratulations on making it to the quarter-finals! That's awesome!

Crystal Cook said...

Congratulations!! That's so exciting! And this is very informative, I think those examples you listed were just perfect. Thanks!

I don't have a Kindle, but I'd love to read it, I'll send you an email!

Suzette Saxton said...

Oooo, congrats about all your successes thus far! You are on your way! (Sorry about the crappy review.)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Congrats on making it to the Quarterfinals!! When I receive reviews of my work, I always remind myself that in creative writing, it's the journey that counts. Take what you need from each critique to make your work stronger, and leave what doesn't feel right for your story.

Best of luck with it!

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