Archive for the ‘First Chapters’ Category

Opening Up

March 3, 2013
Once upon a time, I used to agree that picture book writers had to put much more time into selecting each individual word than novelists. After all, picture book writers can have anywhere from seven words to three thousand words to work with as they work to tell an entire story.* 

I can’t speak for every novelist, but I have to say, as a person who has recently finished another draft of another first chapter,  that I am willing to put my efforts at trying to find just the right word on a par with even the pickiest of picture book writers. Effort and effect are two different things naturally.  I probably still don’t have everything where it needs to be, but I’m ready to move on. 


*And yes, I personally know writers at each end of the scale. In fact, Shutta Crum’s delightful MINE! uses the same word seven times.  I’m actually not sure exactly how many words finally wound up in Jeanie Franz Ransom’s Land of Enchantment Book Award Winner WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO HUMPTY? Maybe it wasn’t quite three thousand words, but it was ridiculously close to that in a time where most editors are looking for projects that are much, much short.  The editors kept asking for more jokes and Jeanie kept delivering them. 



Over 7000 Words

May 5, 2011

It felt like I was back to my old plodding ways.  On April 19th, I was at 5600 words. Yesterday, I was hardly 1000 words further along as I struggled  to get my character from Merano to the Alpe di Siusi–or as she’d say from Meran to the Seiser Alm.  (Elise has a connection to the German population instead of the Italian one.) 

I have a difficult enough time getting my characters down a hallway.  This translocation included a walking, a bus, a train and the Seiser Alm Bahn cable car.  And I didn’t feel like just dropping her on the alpine meadow because she really did have to think through her decision to go there.  The other thing slowing me down as been the research as I figure out how to get my character around.  For example, they didn’t have the cable car system in place when we lived there.  So I had to figure out where the base station was and so on.  While I was clicking around the general area, I decided that I may as well pick out a nice place for Elise and her classmates to stay.  The place I found in Kastelruth is just a bit too gorgeous, but I think that I can tone down the decore to fit the budget and make it work.

But today I boosted up and over 7100 words thanks to a writing session devoted almost exclusively to dialogue.  In fact, I didn’t get the whole thing transcribed, so I could be even higher in another 10 hours.  But then of course, I’m going to have to move my characters around the Seiser Alm.  More pictures?  Poor me!   (Click a few of my links and you’ll see what I mean.)

Another Blank Book

April 26, 2011

Back in March, I opened up a fresh blank book that I’d gotten for Christmas last year and started scribbling away on what I’d been calling the Italian chase novel.  The black and white cloth cover was attractive enough. I would have been happy to scritch-scratch away on all of my outlines and extremely rough scenes on the pages inside of it until I saw a blank book on display at the grocery store earlier this week.  Its front and back covers were illustrated with places that my main character either had visited or would visit on her trip to Europe: London, Paris, Rome.  What can I say?  I gave into temptation.  Instead of being jinxed, I managed to produce ten pages of very bad prose today. But there were a few bits that sparkled like iron pyrite on polished lapis lazuli.

Over 5000 Words Already?

April 19, 2011

In general, I tend to work quite slowly.  Dialgoue might flow easily, but then I have to smooth all of the details that bring a story to life with action, description and movement.  That’s why I’m just a bit surprised to discover that I’m about 5600 in.  The first chapter is fairly polished. The second has a few rough patches.  Then the rest of the words from Chapter 3 and Chapter 5 are the mere scraps of scenes.  

Chapter 5, but no Chapter 4?  Well, I was doing a bit of outlining and suddenly a big argument between two characters erupted.  I felt like I was taking dictation.   For the most part, I tend to work sequentially.  I like to know exactly what happens before moving on, but I had pretty much “set the table” for this confrontation in advance.

Chapter One….More or Less Done!

March 29, 2011

Picture book writers maintain that they have to slave over every single word.  I believe them.  In fact, I was more than willing to agree with them that they had a much tougher job on a word by word basis than novelists did.  That was before I spent three weeks writing the first chapter of Calyn’s story followed by two weeks of revising the opening chapter of SUSPECT. 

But I did manage to finish a semi-polished draft of PORTRAIT (working title) in eight days.  It’s not perfect by any means, but it was good enough to come along with me to the Missouri SCBWI retreat at Trout Lodge last weekend.  I received some good feedback on areas of confusion. Even better, I received a few grumblings along the lines of “This is a brand-new first draft?”  Everyone present during that critique session knew just how hard first chapters can be.  And this one might wind up being a real bugger when I go back to it.  But for now, I’ll let myself move forward after I do just a bit of shaping and sweeping.

Starting a New File

March 17, 2011

It’s been a long, long time since I started a new project.   But today, I created a  file with the name of ItalianChase and managed to produce just over 500 words.  It will be another young adult novel, but more in the vein of a suspense/thriller than a cozy mystery.  In fact, bad things are going to happen to my character from the Dolomites on down the Italian peninsula.

Forward Progress

December 17, 2009

Goals are good things.  My editor established one goal when she gave me a due date for the mystery revision: February 15.  But it was pretty clear that she’d like to have it sooner, so I have a private goal of getting it out the door by the end of the third week in January.  I also have a more immediate goal.  I’d like to have finished a rough recasting of the scenes by the week after Christmas.  My college-age daughters will be back for winter break.  It would be good to have them check the voice and word choice.  

As important as it is to push forward, I did wind up going back to the first chapter one more time this morning.  Two of my in-person critique groups have reviewed it in the past week or so.  With their help, I managed to cut a bit of fat out of the first chapter.  Some of the facts and characters will need to be stitched into the book later, but first chapters need to clip along and hold the interest of the readers.  Roughly half of my writer friends felt things really started to clip along at the middle of page five.  The rest had their attention caught earlier.  So I did manage to cut out half a page so that the really high stakes of this novel became apparent by the bottom of page 4. 

Thank goodness for great critique groups.  They let you know exactly what is actually on the page and make solid recommendations for what should be added or taken away.   Here’s how Stephen King recommended handling criticism from ten or so people in the 1990 version of THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK:

“…if a lot of peope are telling you something is wrong with your piece it is.    If seven or eight of them are hitting o that same thing, I’d stll suggest changing it.  But if everyone–or even most everyone–is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.”

Falling into a Classic Writer’s Trap

December 2, 2009

A friend and fellow author gave me some good feedback on the first chapter of my mystery.  Among other things, she noted that I was throwing a lot of character’s names at her, so she was having a tough time keeping track of everyone.  I looked through things.  She was right.  I’d fallen into one of the classic writer’s traps for first chapters: too many characters thrown at the reader in too little time.

And yes, I’m the writing instructor who will preach to her students about carefully introducing characters with scenes so that they’ll be memorable.  In short stories, in fact, I do my best to limit the cast to just a few people so that it’s very easy for everyone to keep track of my characters.  So I’ll have to go back and put people in context a bit better even if I find it necessary to leave them in.  If necessary, I’ll nudge the conversation in slightly different directions.  But I’m also moving forward into Chapter 2.  After all, Chapter 1 will need a re-edit after I’ve gone all the way through my mystery, so there’s no point in sewing things up too tightly.

YA Mystery: Chapter 1 Revision is Done!

November 18, 2009

First chapters and last chapters are often among the hardest ones for any novelist.  You have to first pull the reader smoothly into your world with the first and ease them out in a satisfying way in the last.  It’s necessary to put in just enough information so that the readers know exactly what’s going on, but not so much that it weighs down the story.  Plus readers have a well-tuned sensor for when the author is providing important information for their benefit rather than following the flow of the story.   That’s why I do my best to make explanations seem like the very thoughts of my main character.   Did I achieve this in my revision to Chapter 1 of my YA mystery.  Well, maybe not all of it.  But that’s what critique groups are for.  They let me know what’s really on page.

Inserting Characters

November 10, 2009

A few years ago I was on a walk with my son when he was in seventh or eight grade.  He’d just finished reading a first draft of one of my manuscripts. “I really liked Sophia,” he said. “But you’re really going to have to introduce her earlier.”

I laughed because he was exactly right. My main character and I both met Sofia unexpectedly at the very same second while my MC was in the middle of his “darkest moment.” (That comes near the end of the second act in a plotting plan known as the step outline.)   If I’d let her, Sofia would have stuck to Thom like a burr and really gotten in the way of the story. Fortunately, her parents and I managed to stop her, but it wasn’t easy.  I liked her, too, but I wasn’t sure that I should keep her.  The talk with my son and feedback from my critique partners convinced me that I should weave her in fully instead of plucking her out.  I found a good place to introduce her and found a way for her to be a “mirror character” in the plot.  Her interactions with Thom would reflect back on the main plot and theme. This project hasn’t been acquired by an editor, but it was one of the projects that helped the woman who is now my agent decide to offer representation. 

Since then, I’ve inserted other characters into other projects.  In fact, I’ve been doing just that for most of the summer and early fall with the new fifty pages to a fantasy.  But now I’m doing it with STAND-IN FOR MURDER (working title), which could be coming out in Fall, 2010.  My editor felt that I needed at least one more teenage character.  She can’t be plopped in like Sofia was in that first draft.   Instead, the reader has to feel like she’s been there all along.  As far as my editor was concerned, the earlier I introduced her the better.  After ruminating on their past for awhile, I decided that at least a reference to this new character would actually work very well on the second page.  It would make sense, given what Id recently discovered about what had happened between the two characters.  As I said in an earlier post, this kind of revision really does feel like I’m working in one of those STAR TREK alternate time lines.  Maybe it’s the one where Mr. Spock has a beard…