I love my writers’ group. I’ve probably said that so often, you’re sick of hearing about it. But I’m back to work on my mystery, and I finally read the first chapter to them on Wednesday. I’ve rewritten the stupid thing so often, I was happy with the content, but I’d lost all feel for it. And, as always, they let me know what worked and what didn’t.
When I start a book, I’m in plot and character mode, and I have to concentrate on description. I never get enough in there, so I have to go back and add it. Now, in our group, each person has their niche of what they nail best in critiques. Mary Lou is a whiz at word choice and hooks, adding backloading for each paragraph and the ends of chapters. Kathy Palm–a YA author–makes me think about emotions and description. There were a dozen people there on Wednesday, and each person gave me good feedback. I left my chapter at a happy place–a stupid thing for an author to do for the first chapter. You want a hook to encourage the reader to turn the page and read chapter two. So I fixed that.
On Thursday, I rewrote the entire thing, and it’s LOTS better than it was. Thanks to Scribes. It might even be good enough to survive the entire manuscript. I’m pretty happy with it. I admit, though, I go back over and over again to tinker with my first chapter, so it might change again.
The whole process made me think, though. Even when I read books, I tend to reread most of the first chapter again. What do I look for in them? Characters I care about. That’s probably as important to me as everything else. Sure, I need a hint of what the book’s problem is going to be, but I don’t mind slow starts. As long as I have a character I care about and a hint of where I’m going, I’ll keep reading.
I just picked up two new authors to ME. Almost everyone else in the world has read John Grisham, but I’m not a fan of lawyer books, so I’ve avoided him. Except he’s been around long enough, I thought I might want to give him a try. So I picked up Sycamore Row and read the first few pages in the book store. Then I bought it. Why? I liked his writing style and his voice. Yes, he started–bam!–with an intriguing hanging. But that, in itself, wouldn’t hook me. It was his choice of characters that reeled me in.
The other book I chose is a good, old, 1811 London mystery. with all of the fog and cobbled streets that go with that era–WHERE ANGELS FEAR by C. S. Harris. The book starts with a prologue–a beautiful, young woman walking into a trap, and you know she’s going to die. It brought back wonderful, fond memories of Martha Grimes’s pub mysteries and her fabulous prologues. I love them, but I kept going and read the first chapter of the book to see if I wanted to read more. This sounds cruel, but it’s easy to kill a person in a dramatic fashion. It’s harder to keep the rest of the book interesting. And I liked Harris’s main character so much, I started her book first and I’m waiting to give Grisham a go. (My daughter’s reading that book, though, and she’s loving it).
In both books, the first chapter ends wih a mesmerizing line. C. S. Harris ends with He’d promised Melanie he wouldn’t kill her husband. But she hadn’t said anything about not making the bastard suffer.
The other thing that intrigues me in a first chapter, I have to admit, is the setting. It can be mundane, as long as it offers something a little unusual. For Harris’s book, she says, “She blamed the fog. She wasn’t normally this nervous. This afraid.” A great hook. But Jenna Bennett sets her Savannah Martin series in Nashville, Tennessee and makes her small town of Sweetwater, an hour away, sound intriguing because she grew up there and knows almost everyone. The setting becomes personal.
For my chapter, I tried to include a great main character, some interesting side characters, a Midwest setting, and a story question that would pull you in. And some humor. What hooks you when you pick up a book?
It’s cold in Indiana. I hope you can hibernate as much as possible. Happy writing! And happy reading!