The first chapter of any novel is perhaps the most important. After all, if an agent, editor, or reader isn’t hooked in that chapter, they’re unlikely to read on. But it’s easy to get stuck on this chapter, especially if your goal is to make it perfect before you continue on. One thing I’ve learned for myself is to just get the chapter down then keep writing, because no matter what I write, I’ll completely revise it, if not totally rewrite it, once I’ve finished the first draft. By then, I know not only my story better, but also my characters. Even the setting comes more into view. I’m currently working on my first time travel historical romance. It’s daunting, hair-pulling tricky, and the most fun novel I’ve written so far. I’m writing it from both the hero’s and heroine’s POV, alternating chapters…sort of. I’ve received comments back from my wonderful critique group, and now comes the really tricky part, compiling and studying all of their comments and suggestions. In the draft I gave them, the first chapter was written from the heroine’s POV. The hero from the nineteenth century had already time traveled to present day by the time she meets him. That meant that the reader did not live the time travel experience, just heard his account of it later. Several of my critique group members wanted to experience the time travel journey along with him. So I went back to the drawing board, or rather…computer, and wrote the first chapter from the hero’s POV, but other members of the group pointed out that they believed romances should always begin from the heroine’s POV. I thought about this, but decided to stay with the hero telling his story in the first chapter. Upon discussion with another wonderful writer, Pamela Mingle, I came to realize that when I added the the new first chapter showing the hero’s time travel journey, I’d followed it up with a short chapter from the heroine which made her look almost like a secondary character which was not my intent. So I rewrote that chapter, too, putting her on more equal terms with the hero as far as their individual challenges and goals, and tried to highlight their respective situations and personalities. And for now, at least, I believe the beginning of my story carries the intrigue and the hook it needs, but it was no small task getting it there.
I always find it interesting to talk with other writers about their processes. Of course, some are strict outliners while others, like me, write mainly by the seat of their pants, letting the story unfold as they go along. Of course, even us pantsers do a lot of planning, thinking out plots, scenes, and characters in the early stages of a new project. I find that I need to get a pretty good handle on my characters very early in the process because they actually help me tell the story and make it unique. I generally have at least a vague notion of who my main characters and important secondary characters will be by the time I start writing, and a general sense of my story. Then I dig in and write around 40 pages just to become more acquainted with my characters and to set the stage for what’s to come. At this point, I stop writing and dig into research because I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself only to learn that there’s no way the story in my head could possibly happen. My current manuscript, GHOSTLY EMBERS, is a YA contemporary novel with historical, romance and mystery elements, all of which needed to be juggled and intertwined in an “it could happen” sort of way. There were definitely times I wanted to tear my hair out. Instead, I went for a walk, or if it was cocktail hour, I drank a glass of wine. By now I know I’ll work out the kinks, even if it means a major rewrite. I sometimes envy writers who can sit down and plot out their entire book before typing the first word. I know it must save many hair-pulling incidents, but it just doesn’t work for me. I tried it once when I was about a third of the way into my manuscript. I sat down and outlined what I’d written so far with the intent of outlining the rest of the book. Unfortunately what I learned was that I had to write the next chapter in order to figure what to add to my outline. I knew immediately there was something wrong with that picture. So I went back to the way that comes natural to me, and let the story flow from my characters. You’d think outlining would come natural to someone who spent many years working as a researcher, and actually it did in that job. I guess it’s just the difference between writing non-fiction and writing fiction…at least, for me.
I just completed final (or very close to final) revisions on my new YA paranormal romance novel, GHOSTLY EMBERS. This was one of the most fun and most difficult books to write. Funny how those two things can go together, but they do sometimes. What made this particular story hard for me was that I put myself a bit out of my comfort zone. First, I wrote it from two points of view, the two lovers, Lanie and Xander. I’d never tackled this before and while challenging, it was great fun getting into each of their heads to let the story unfold, especially since they have the same goal, which makes them competing goals…they are both after the lavish Remyson mansion, a 200-year-old colonial estate which each believes they should rightfully inherit. Of course, while both are aware it contains some valuable Revolutionary War relics, neither realizes that one of these relics is the ghost of the original owner, Major John Patrick Remyson. Which brings me to the other elements that made this hard to write. I needed to juggle the ghost story, the mystery surrounding the major’s reason for haunting the mansion, the developing love story, and historical elements from The Revolutionary War, all pretty major storylines in themselves. Still, what fun to work on a ghost story, mystery, history, and love story all in one! I hope I’ve accomplished what I set out to do and that a wonderful agent will fall in love with it. Now to look toward another fun and hard story to write.
Readers expect non-fiction writers to conduct extensive research: checking facts, adding to what they already know about their topic, and documenting their statistics. What many readers don’t realize is the amount of research fiction writers do as well. We’d look pretty silly if our princess entered her British mansion built of clapboard. While my good friend, fellow critique group member, and award winning author Pamela Mingle made numerous visits to England, and even toured Hoghton Tower, the setting for her magnificent time-travel novel KISSING SHAKESPEARE, she also did a tremendous amount of research on sixteenth-century England. Such research was necessary to accurately portray the tension between Catholics and Protestants during that time, the persecutions that took place, even to know whether the church then would have been equipped with chairs or pews.
In my recent middle grade novel, CHANGING TIDES, currently out for submission, I created a fictional town, Sefton Beach, located on the southern coast of Florida. One benefit to creating your own town is that you can construct the layout in ways to better fit your story, but southern Florida isn’t fictional and I can’t just throw in plants and animals that couldn’t survive in that climate. I did a lot of research on the habitat of the area. I even traveled the coastline, making detailed notes that I may or may not use in my novel. And there lies the dilemma. Details add depth to your setting, but too much detail may have the reader saying the same thing a member of my critique group said to me…”Your research is showing.” The protagonist in my story is a twelve-year-old girl, Missy, who is infatuated with sharks and has done much of her own reading on the topic. The trick for me was to show her interest and her knowledge without going overboard with the shark research I’d done. Most fictional writers will tell you that only a small fraction of the information they’ve gleaned through hours and hours of research actually finds its way into the story.
As a recovering professional researcher with a background in technical writing, this has been one of my biggest challenges, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it. Detail shouldn’t sound forced. Don’t put it in just because you want your reader to know how smart you are. It has to fit (and contribute to) the setting, the story, and/or the character, and it must flow naturally in the scene, otherwise it will jar the reader out of the story. So do your research, but use it wisely.
There’s a great article by Michael Kurland in the April issue of THE WRITER magazine. It’s titled “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Mr. Kurland talks about breathing life into your character while adding depth to her surrounding. Often, new writers tend to use too many unnecessary and uninformative words. For example, you don’t need to tell us your character “walked across the kitchen, pulled out the chair, sat down, and ate her dinner.” If you simply say, “she dined at the kitchen table,” we’ll assume the rest. On the flip side, don’t miss an opportunity to enrich the scene with something unique about your character and/or the setting. For example, saying something to the effect of, “paling at the mere thought of food, Kayla trudged across the roach-infested floor and slumped into the chair as ordered,” certainly presents a different picture and allows the reader some insight into your character’s mood, environment, and situation.
Another point Mr. Kurland makes concerns minor characters and using them to eliminate the “as you well know” dialogue. This is a technique writers sometimes resort to in order to relay information to the reader which the character to whom the statement is directed does “well know.” In other words, if that character already knows it, why tell him again. But a minor character might enter the scene who would have no reason to know this, and you can find a reason for your MC to tell this character, informing your reader at the same time. So make use of your taxi drivers, waitresses, etc. I would like to add that even minor characters have distinct personalities, so don’t leave them faceless. A few descriptors, (e,g, appearances, mannerisms, quirks) can make them real people, and real people make your story come alive.
Bottom line – don’t miss opportunities to add depth to your writing. It may be the difference between a story you once shelved and a story you once published.
So what exactly is a metaphor? The dictionary defines it as a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity. So what is a simile? It’s defined as a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds. Sound similar? They are, but while similes are always metaphors, metaphors are not always similes. I know…confusing. Similes nearly always begin with as or like. For example, in my new middle grade novel, FINDING PARADISE, twelve-year-old Emma stares out of the Greyhound bus window at the remnants of the spring snow on the prairie, likening it to “white stubble on an old man’s chin.” That is both a simile and a metaphor. Contrast this with Hemingway’s famous novel “The Old Man in the Sea” in which he talks of the sea as if it “is” a woman…not “like” a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the sea. A simile compares two things that are alike in one way. To say “she’s as slow as a turtle,” refers to one trait, slowness, whereas to say “she’s a turtle” suggests multiple likenesses–slow movements, hard shell, timid, etc. Metaphors and similes can strengthen an author’s writing if used well, and not overused. Too many likes, and the reader may, like, put the book on the shelf. And stay away from traditional metaphors: strong as an ox, fat as a pig, frosting on the cake. I believe the most effective metaphors encompass the tone of the story, and draw on elements in the story, often relating to the theme. In FINDING PARADISE, Emma has run from an orphanage in search of a man who may or may not be her grandfather…thus the white stubble on an old man’s chin. In Katherine Hannigan’s novel, IDA B, young Ida B’s world is perfect. She loves being home-schooled and spending every free second outside with the trees and the brook. So when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, turning Ida B’s life upside down, she compares cancer to “bugs in a tree: one day you don’t see them at all, and the next it seems like they’re everywhere, eating the leaves and the fruit.” For me, incorporating objects and themes from your story into your metaphors, if done well, is an effective tool for enhancing the mood you’re trying to create. So instead of the “frosting on the cake,” perhaps it’s the “tiara on a little girl’s head.”
My friend, outstanding author, and fellow critique group member Julie Ann Peters recently blogged about writing resolutions (www.thewildwriters.com). Each year at our January meeting, we all submit our resolutions (pertaining to writing) for the coming year, so I better get busy as I’m hosting this meeting in just over a week. I’m glad I waited until after I read Julie’s post, though, because I realize how general my previous resolutions have been. Of course, there’s good and bad to “general.” The good is that when you don’t pin yourself down with dates by which you plan to accomplish a goal, you’re free to let them slide until December 31st at which time you generally report it as “goal not accomplished.” The bad is that you have to report it as “goal not accomplished.” This year I plan to be more specific. My first resolution is to complete revisions to my current middle grade novel by April 1 (April Fools Day seemed appropriate). It’s important to make resolutions meaningful, not just easy to accomplish. Last year, I resolved to finish revisions to another middle grade novel, Changing Tides, and send it out to agents. I accomplished that goal, and I now have a fabulous agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, who is currently subbing that novel. Our critique group engages in another interesting ritual at this meeting. On a small piece of flash paper, we each write something down that has haunted us over the past year, our demon, if you will..related to writing, of course. Then we light it on fire. The flash paper disintegrates in the air, leaving nothing, not even ashes. The point is that we are getting rid of that demon for the coming year. I think the important message in all of this, is to take the time to evaluate where you are in your writing goals as the new year begins, and write objectives specific enough to be able to evaluate your progress at the end of the year. That said, I better go write my 2013 resolutions.