Monday, August 3, 2015

The Kick-Ass First Chapter?

I'm sitting writing this after having done all my chores (I was a good girl today, even got in my yoga and made the beds--power to me!), including vacuuming. Drinking Vita ICE, Cucumber-lime. Not bad. Takes a bit of a getting used to the cuquie taste, but not bad and refreshing.

I was looking through my bookmarked pages, trying to get rid of some--I'm a hoarder, what can I say?

I came across this one, and I really don't remember it but the title caught me and I had to go and investigate. It was called "25 Things To Know About Writing the First Chapter Of Your Novel". This is author, screenwriter, and game designer, Chuck Wendig's blog, Terribleminds. He is one of those Writer's Digest authors. Has a number of novels out, has an impressive background, including an Emmy nomination, so his practical advice on his blog (and several ebooks published by Writers Digest), had me digging in. I think it's his voice that caught me, but advice is, like those at Writers Digest, as sound as a bongo beat.

I wanted to explore with you a couple of the points in correlation with my first chapter.

From Wendig's 25 Things To Know...

1. EVERY BOOK A HOOK (AND THE FIRST CHAPTER’S THE BAIT)

A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter before anything else. At least, that’s what I do. (Then I smell the book and rub it on my bare stomach in a circular motion and make mmmmmm noises.) Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere — Amazon, the author’s or publisher’s site, your Mom’s Myspace page — I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me.

I wouldn't recommend any how-to writing articles unless it grabs me by the throat, like this one did. Admittedly, Wendig gets silly at times, but also uses the vulgar language that simply gravitates me to his words, for some reason. Plus, it was timely for me to find it because I am sort of wrestling with a first chapter of the fifth book in the Sabrina Strong Series.

For the past couple of weeks now, I've gone weeding through my novel-in-whatever-draft, and found that the first chapter really needed to be tweaked. I've worked on it, but I'm still combing it for not just mistakes, but the need to fine-tune.


I know there's tension in my firsts chapter, and I do believe in his advice that the "first chapter is the beginning of the book but it's not the beginning of the whole story". Which was why I opened not with Sabrina, but with a different character, Leif Sufferden, the vampire, and in 3rd person. Instead of opening up the book in Sabrina's head, I'm in Leif's head. Here is the first paragraph. But as written I've found my error. Do you see it?

Chapter 1
én garde

The man with shoulder-length, dark blond hair and edgy smile sat motionless in in the shadows, in a wooden bar chair, waiting. No one had really noticed him, but then he had made sure that they would not. Wearing a black suit and silk shirt, his white silk tie almost glowed. He was a tad over dressed for the rough-neck bar in Batavia where several fist fights broke out on a nightly bases, stabbings were not unheard of, either. The police had had the place shut down for various violations in the past. Only in the past week someone had been stabbed to death, right here. There had been shootings, too. But, tonight, “Side Winders” happened to be open, and its customers couldn't be happier, unless they were high on something other than liquor and weed.

Here, I'm going for a seedy bar. I don't want to over do it. I get it across to the reader what it's like there. (I have been in this bar, just for argument sake, about 30 years ago, and it was bad then. At least one fight broke out and the police did come to break it up.) (I drank one beer and won a pinball game with the guy I was with--go me!)

Okay, here it is, the mistake: I should have put Lief's name in the first sentence. I found in my last reading that throughout these first several pages I didn't identify either him or the blonde that comes into the bar. I left out their names until a couple of pages in and saw that was a bad idea. If you don't identify your characters, your readers won't know who they are, and they may not give a flying crap and put down the book.
But watch what happens when I slap the name down, and the reader is a follower of the series there should be recondition.
Thus, it sounds like this...

The man with shoulder-length, dark blond hair and edgy smile sat motionless in in the shadows, in a wooden bar chair, waiting. No one had really noticed him, but then he had made sure that they would not. Wearing a black suit and silk shirt, his white silk tie almost glowed. Leif Sufferden knew was a tad over dressed for the rough-neck bar in Batavia where several fist fights broke out on a nightly bases, stabbings were not unheard of, either. The police had had the place shut down for various violations in the past. Only in the past week someone had been stabbed to death, right here. There had been shootings, too, of course. But, tonight, “Side Winders” happened to be open, and its customers couldn't be happier, unless they were high on something other than liquor and weed.

Now that we know Leif is here in this seedy bar, one must wonder why, since he's all dressed up. The second paragraph gives a little clue:

A smile crimped Leif's lips while he watched the blond woman strut in from the street on four-inch heals into the dank bar. They were blue to match her eyes, not that anyone would notice this little detail, but he did. Their eyes met. He slid his eyes in the direction of the pool table closest to him. She gave him a small nod. Her smile broadened to reveal white teeth. Her fangs hadn't come out as yet. She always did have great control over this one thing. It was one of the things Leif admired about Darla. Her control.

When Darla is introduced, the clue she's a vampire is the line "Her fangs hadn't come out as yet."
Okay. If the reader hadn't known Darla was a vampire, it's clear now. This is where the reader is saying, "Okay, what's she up to?" and wants to read on. There is only slight tension, here. 
But that's when I do this...

All male eyes in the room were zeroed in on Darla like lasers on drones. Who could blame them? Wearing a halter top and the shortest possible micro-mini, her heavily made-up eyes darted across the faces of four men who were playing pool. Conversation around the pool table had come to a halt. She had suddenly become the one and only highlight in their uneventful evening. She boldly eyed them right back. They noted she was by herself. A lone woman who walks into a bar—especially one of this ilk—was just asking for trouble. On top of it, she looked like a hooker. No matter what, it looked like their luck had changed quickly as she twitched her way toward them, her movements more pronounced. Looking hungry, her eyes became more cat-like as she licked her lips, like she might take a big hunk out of one of them.
She stepped around their stilled bulks, wiggled her small ass with exaggeration, smiling and making eye contact with each one as she strutted by, sliding the fingers of one hand across the bumper of the table. Pausing next to the biggest one, she looked him up and down. He had the usual biker tats—a lot of skulls and spiders—and a skull logo displayed on his clothing. His hang-over beer-gut gave the impression he did more drinking than anything else. An ugly scar down the left cheek that interrupted the two-week old beard sprouting around his chin and jawline told the story of a guy who had seen a bar fight up close and personal.
Hullo,” she purred, licking her lips. “How's the game?”
Oh, fine,” the large man said and the others pumped their heads and chimed in agreement. “In fact, I think it just got better.” He and the others rumbled with agreeing chuckles.
Mind if I join you?” she asked, her hand sliding up his sausage sized fingers.
Not at all,” the large one said, motioning toward the table. “Here, you can use my cue stick.” He held it out to her, showing his more gentlemanly side, a wide grin to sell it.
Thank you.” She took the cue stick from him, holding his gaze for a long ten seconds. She fingered the tip with a red lacquered nail and returned his gaze. “I know just what to do with it, too.”
The men all chuckled as though they were in on the joke.
She propped her ass onto the bumper portion of the pool table, and settled the larger end of the cue stick between her parted legs. The men leered and chuckled at her act.
Hey! No sitting on the pool table!” the owner cried from the back of the bar.
Aw, shut the fuck up, Hank. We're just havin' a little fun here!” shouted the large man. He looked down at the blonde, almost expectantly.
She wiggled a finger in the universal “come closer” signal. He did.
What's your name?” she asked.
Stan,” he said. “Stan Baker.”
Hello, Stan Baker,” she said. “Let's get to know one another.” Putting the cue stick down, she spread her legs further apart.
Okay, pretty little girl,” he said, moving in front of her, but not yet touching her, while the others looked on, making groaning noises, wishing they were in his spot.
You want me?” she asked.
Stan let out a bark of laughter. “Does a bear shit in the woods?” The men laughed. By now some of the men at the bar had turned around to watch the scene.
Come here. Kiss me,” she said, leaning forward. She puckered up her rubied lips.
Alright.” The other men made sounds of encouragement as their large companion placed his hips between her knees. His large hands went around her small waist as he nudged himself between her thighs. Her legs wrapped around his large girth while her hands went up his chest. Her fingers twined behind his neck. She didn't flinch from his bad breath, or his over-powering body odor, but allowed him to bring her in for a kiss. His buddies made noises again, nudging one another. They didn't notice Leif had risen from his chair in the far corner. Arms folded, he watched with passive interest while the man pressed Darla onto the pool table. The kiss lasted for more than ten seconds.

The tension has gone up a notch or two here. Who's in trouble here? Darla? Or the biker guy? Who do you think? Also note I used words that sort of make for the scene, like ass, leer, tip, I have Darla put the cue stick between her legs--yeah. No mercy here, I'm pulling in the reader. What do you think is going to happen next?

When we read the next paragraph, consider this first line:

Three vampires stepped into the bar, and scanned the room until their eyes met Leif's.

Now, maybe another writer would think that should be the opening line of this book. No. It shouldn't. Even if I went and put that in and then place everything else afterward, it would sound too trite, too much like one of those bad jokes--a rabbi walked into a bar.

Timing is everything when you put down the words to your first chapter. Here is Wendig's words: 

2. FASHIONABLY LATE TO THE PARTY


Bring the reader to the story as late you possibly can — we’re talking just before the flight leaves, just before the doors to the club are about to close, just before the shit’s gonna go down. Tension. Escalation. Right to the edge of understanding — no time to think, no time to worry, no time to ponder whether she wants to ride this ride or get off and go get a smoothie because too late, you’re mentally buckled in, motherfuckerThe first chapter is the beginning of the book but it’s not the beginning of the whole story. (This is why origin stories are often the weakest iterations of the superhero tale.)

You don't want your readers to get bored, but you don't want them scratching their heads asking what the fuck? While you do want to lead with a mystery, don't make it so mysterious, or so frustrating to understand that the reader puts it down and goes to the next book on the shelf. In these first few paragraphs, and maybe the first page, I've given the reader enough information to go by. The where, what, who, and eventually the why.

Also, I'm not one to do too much backstory and I don't like books that start out that way. That gets boring. It's why, with my series, I gave the story of how Sabrina came to be the sibyl, in the first book Ascension. I didn't want do it in backstory just so that I can plop the reader down into some big exciting moment, or have her in the middle of trying to get out of a scrape. Some books can do this, and get a way with it, but not in the very first book. Sabrina does get into a bad scrape, and it gets worse before it gets better, but it doesn't come before we learn who she is, why she's there and who she's meeting. I do as he suggested: "Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it."

I'm going to skip ahead to number 16:

16. A FINE BALANCE BETWEEN CONFUSION, MYSTERY, AND ILLUMINATION

It’s a tightrope walk, that first chapter. You want the reader drawn in by mystery but not eaten by the grue of confusion, and so you illuminate a little bit as you go — a flashlight beam on the wall or along the ground, just enough to keep them walking forward and not impaling themselves on a stalagmite.

Oh, what a line--"just enough to keep them walking forward and not impaling themselves on a stalagmite".

Now to continue...
Three vampires stepped into the bar, and scanned the room until their eyes met Leif's. He nodded at them, and slid his gaze to where Darla was in a romantic tryst with the large man. The only female in the group cast her light brown eyes to the biker and Darla, then back to Leif. Her name was Kadu Litore, a Jamaican-American. Leif thought she had been one of his better turns. She definitely enjoyed the hunt, now that they were free to hunt humans. She smiled brilliantly, and already her fangs were out. She licked her lush lips in anticipation. Her slightly dusky chocolate skin looked as though it were oiled. Her bare arms and legs didn't agree with the cold weather outside. One would think it was a ninety degree day, but it was only in the twenties with a bitter north wind. That alone should have tipped anyone off what was going on here. But it didn't. Every human was into the game on the telly, their drink, or looking at the scene at the pool table, unaware that they had been invaded by vampires.
Leif watched Kadu, the only other female vampire, approach the bar. The other two, males, waited for a signal from Leif. Licking their lips as they sized up the rest of the crowd. Their eyes had slid to the bar where the only other women sat drinking.
Four more vampires strode in. They each acknowledged Leif with a slight bow. His hand out, Leif gestured with a finger for them to mingle with the crowd in the bar, to choose their warm meals. A crowded bar was something like a smörgåsbord for a vampire. Human's warm blood scent on the air made them lick their lips in anticipation.
Smiling, Leif turned back to check the progress of Darla with the large biker. Suddenly, the biker jerked back from her. Hand going to his face the biker said, “You bit me?” He looked at his hand. There was blood on his face where he'd smeared it.
She chuckled and nodded.
The men around them jeered.
Oh, so you like it rough, do you?” he said more gruffly.
Yes. And you had better like it, too,” she said with a little playful snarl, her delicate nose crinkling.
Oh, I do, darlin'. I do,” he said. His hand went back as if to strike her. It swung down toward her face. In a lightning move, Darla caught his large fist and held it. His eyes became big with surprise that the petite blond could hold him off so easily. Startled, the other men around them shifted, exchanging looks with one another.
In a lightning move, she grabbed his hair and yanked his face toward her, smashing his lips against hers. The biker braced himself against the table with both massive hands from the sudden move, but relaxed into it. His sounds of delight suddenly turned to screams. Dark blood rivered from their lips while Darla held the biker's mouth against hers, both hands behind his head, with a grip like a python's. His hands clawed and grasped her hair and pulled, doing everything to disentangle himself from her. He lifted his and her body off the table, trying to free himself, trying to get the scream past their locked lips. She didn't budge, she didn't give an inch.
Leif felt his smile widen and a chuckle bubble up. “Kitten,” he said quietly to himself. “You are so bad.”
The three companions moved in, about to intervene. Seeing this, Leif shot across the room so fast, he seemed to disappear and reappeared in front of the three with a cue stick braced across his hands pushing them back.
Tut-tut, gentlemen. The lady is busy at the moment. You can wait your turn,” Leif said with a British accent and cocky smile creasing his handsome face.
The man with long greasy hair, lunged toward him. Lief threw a punch to his face, knocking him back where he fell to the floor. He didn't move again.
Like I said, wait your turn,” Lief said, with more warning in his voice. He held the other two men in his thrall. They now had no desire to move or do anything. Over his shoulder he said, “C'mon, Darla, luv. We need to party. Let the poor bloke go.”
His muzzle freed, the biker's screams filled the room. People turned to see what the commotion was all about. Suddenly the blond woman, Darla, pushed the man off her with a force that sent him blundering back, arms cartwheeling. Blood bubbling out of his mouth, he bounced off the wall, and fell to the floor, sobbing and uttering incoherently as though he had no tongue.
The woman sat up, and spat a large red piece of meat out of her bloody mouth. She licked her lips, then took a finger and wiped around her mouth to swipe at the blood. She stuck her finger into her mouth and sucked the blood from it. Flopping onto her side she looked down at the biker and said, “What's the matter? Vampire got your tongue?”

Now, at this point I've managed to ick you out a little, but the trouble has definitely begun. Have I gotten your attention? Are you wondering what happens next?
 “Everyone,” Leif called out, “feed!”
Kadu turned to the man at the pin ball table, grabbed him by the collar, and yanked him backward. Fangs extended, she sunk them into his neck from behind. His surprised scream became one of submission. His knees buckled, and he sank to the floor where she followed him.
The two male vampires at the bar had already put thralls on the women, and now began to feed.
Leif shoved one of the two men left standing toward Darla. She grabbed him and hauled him down on the pool table, arching his back until his throat was exposed. She burried her fangs in his throat.
Leif growled at the last man near by, he grabbed his arm and drew it up to his mouth. Fangs sank into warm flesh. Crimson ichor pooled into his open mouth, and only now he realized how hungry he was.
The man's arm was suddenly yanked away from his mouth. Leif jerked back and found himself looking up at a tall Native American wearing jeans and a blue jean shirt with a southwest design embroidered into it.
I don't think you asked if you could take his blood and I'm pretty sure he would have said no,” the Indian said.
You? You're—”
Dead? Try Undead.” Dante grabbed a cue stick from the table and twirled it like a propeller before Leif could make his move.
~*~
At this point I end the third person POV. I don't like mixing up the POV in the same chapter, unless I've put a small pause. I was thinking of going with a new chapter. I may still. I haven't decided if a full break would get people to turn the page, or if a soft stop here is better.
If I've time I might work a few more of Wendig's 25 Things To Know. But I'm thinking of going ahead and end the first chapter right there. I think the cliffhanger works to bring the reader to want to read on.
If you have an opinion, I'd love to hear it--on anything here.

4 comments:

  1. First chapter, first page, first sentence ... and to think, I was never interested in fishing as a kid!

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's what I thought, William (:

    ReplyDelete

Hey, did I get you thinking? Want to add a comment? Be my guest and be nice about it. Since I've seen too many "anonymous" users I've taken this option off. Sorry, but you are only interested in selling me something. But my regulars are always welcome!