Ask me what I’m reading these days and I’ll tell you, “First chapters.” That’s not the title of a book—I’m reading the first chapters of some of the books on my favorites shelf. Often, not even the entire first chapter, but the first few pages.
Since the move from Michigan to Washington took over a month (and maybe I should write a book about incompetent movers and Draconian mortgage lenders), I wasn’t able to work on my latest novel attempt. After all that time away from the ms I figured I’d better go back to the beginning, and reorient myself into the story.
It wasn’t quite what I remembered.
The first chapter was beautifully written; it was profound in places… and it was kind of boring.
This is what the people in my former critique group told me, but of course I wouldn’t listen. It’s also what an agent who judged a contest I recently entered wrote about it.
So I’m reading first chapters of successful books, trying to absorb how the writers established their stories and characters, while creating desire in the reader to know more about them. As I’ve read so many times before, a writer has only a few pages to entice a reader, or an agent, never mind how good the story turns out to be later. It’s a product of our instant gratification culture, but it’s what we’ve got, so I’ll have to adjust.
I’m seeing aspects that never registered before. I just reread chapter one of Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. I remember that novel as a fascinating exploration into the workings of the brain. But the first chapter started with a flock of cranes, an auto accident, and a sister desperately trying to reach her injured brother.
Even that intellectual giant, Umberto Eco, found a way to pull his reader into an extremely complex story, by having two children explain the science in chapter one of Focault’s Pendulum, so that even the most naïve reader could understand it.
I’ve always shied away from what I see as overused tropes to begin a story, the ones that, to me, border on the sentimental or gimmicky. When I start a story in medias res, I go all the way—I don’t fool around with backstory and explanations. But that can leave readers ungrounded. Maybe I could find a compromise in technique.
Maybe, finally, I’ll get the need for a more engaging pull into my head.
Maybe the time away from writing was a good thing.