Finding the First Chapter

While writers are supposed to avoid cliches in their work, they often use them when coaching each other.  Here’s one of the classics about openings: Grab the reader by the throat and don’t let go. 

Writers slave over their first pages.  It’s not easy to pull the reader into a world.  But I suggest that you don’t worry as much about the first words that you write in that first rough draft.  I’ve heard of writers arriving at their third or fourth chapter and realizing that they’ve just found their opening chapter. 

I like scribbling my first drafts in books of blank pages. In fact, I have more than ten of these books stowed away in my filing cabinet.  For some reason, I was paging through one of them.  I ran across the following from the rough draft of SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  It came after I’d been scribbling for three or four pages in my absolutely atrocious handwriting:

   “What was that?” Michael asked, pointing at the bushes with his plastic yellow bat. 
   Kate looked. “I don’t see anything.  Maybe it was a cat.”
   “Do cats have wings?”
   “Maybe it was a bird.”
   “Do birds have fur? And ears?”
   Kate shook her head. “Forget about it. It’s probably some strange monster native to Italy.”
   “Really?”
   Michael, who had just turned five, would believe any story she told him.

It was a bit of a shock that my first draft would be so close to my final one.  Here are the opening lines of the published version:

   “What was that?” Michael pointed at the laurel hedge with his yellow plastic bat.
   Kate squinted into the shadows under the large, shiny, evergreen leaves. “I don’t see anything,” she told her younger brother. “Maybe it was a cat.”
   “Do cats have wings?”
   “Okay, maybe it was a bird,” Kate said.
   “Do birds have fur?” Michael asked.  “And ears?”
   Kate grinned. “Nope. It must be one of those shy Italian monsters, then,” she teased. “There’s a warning about them in Mom’s guidebook.”
   “Really?” Michael asked.

The dialogue in my first draft is practically identical to the dialogue in my final draft.   The tricky part for me was slipping in knowledge for the reader.  This scene took place in a Tuscan garden, so I wanted to establish that fairly quickly.  Moreover, laurel hedges were fairly important to my plot, so I wanted the reader to have an idea about what they looked like.  That’s why I described the leaves. Peachtree’s art director, Loraine Joyner, must have agreed that the shrubbery was important because here’s the cover of SAVING THE GRIFFIN:

Yoshiko Jaeggi's gorgeous artwork. If readers start by judging this book by its cover, I'm a very lucky woman!
Yoshiko Jaeggi's gorgeous artwork. If readers start by judging this book by its cover, I'm a very lucky woman!

What else did I need to do in the opening?  I wanted to let the readers know that Kate was the older sister and that my two characters were visiting Italy.  It was harder than you might think to find just the right spot to put in these details.  I’ll talk more about first chapters in the coming days.

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