Sun 10 Oct 2010
If by chance you missed this over at Nathan Bransford’s blog, Valerie Kemp has written an excellent guest blog on the subject of first chapters.
It’s got me thinking of my own first chapters from my finished novels and analyzing why they succeeded or failed. Ms. Kemp makes the excellent point that a first chapter is a promise to the reader about what the rest of the book is going to be like. If it’s a high-action chapter, the reader probably expects the rest of the book to be high-action. If it’s leisurely and contemplative, then that projects into the reader’s mind a much different book.
She makes a number of excellent points which I won’t reiterate here—go read the original. But that concept up there in my previous paragraph is one of those should-be-obvious things that often gets overlooked. I know I’ve overlooked it many times. Sometimes I catch it in the rewrites and make good on that promise to the reader, sometimes not.
I’m thinking in particular of my third novel, Shivery Bones. The first chapter was an action-filled chase scene involving the hero, Ezra. Very in media res, and at the end a burst of unexpected magic. Which was gripping, but not reflective of the story as a whole. Oh yeah, there were actiony bits, more fights and chases, and throughout the book I like to think there were bursts of unexpected magic, but the bulk of the story was much more about the internal journeys of the hero and the heroine, Jolene. She has to learn to love and trust again after terrible tragedy and to accept the natural cycle of life, and Ezra…well, pretty much the same thing, with the added twist of realizing that true love is sometimes about sacrificing your own best interests for the sake of someone else.
None of that was in my first chapter. An early critter said something of the sort to me. “If I didn’t know you wrote more contemplative books, I probably wouldn’t have read on since this chapter has a lot of adrenaline going on.” I ignored that criticism, thinking it beside the point. Very late in the game with this novel, after I’d sent it out many times, I realized the truth of this insight. But it took a rejection from an agent to drive that nail home: “The rest of this book wasn’t what I expected from the first chapter.”
I wrote a new first chapter which at least had a more contemplative and mysterious vibe to it—centering on Jolene this time rather than Ezra, then transitioning into the action chapter. I think it makes a stronger novel. Unfortunately, during the years I tried selling it with its original first chapter, the market has become saturated with certain tropes used in the story, making it a hard sell, with diminishing chances it would sell. I’d moved on to novels four, five, and six so reluctantly trunked this one.
Would it have fared any better in the market if I’d taken my early betas advice and written a new chapter one back then? Absolutely impossible to say. There are probably other flaw bombs in there that haven’t yet exploded in my consciousness. But I do know that writing a new first chapter was the right thing for this book, and the right thing in terms of that implied promise to the reader.