Her Bark is Worse Than Her Bite

I wrote, then tossed, then wrote and tossed again, until I finally wrote and kept a first chapter for my Karnie mystery #2, THE STEAKS (STAKES) ARE HIGH. First chapters are like that for me, and I let myself fiddle with them until they at least get most of the things I want right I wanted to start Karnie out married to Matt and devoted to his two children. I wanted to remind readers that Karnie works in her family’s butcher shop and that in the last book, she helped solve the murder of a woman propped against the shop’s back door.

I know the chapter’s not perfect, and I know I’ll have to fiddle with it again, but getting the first chapter right sets me out in the right direction. This time, I have the main characters introduced, the setting, a whiff of the problem that has to be solved, and the tone I want for the story.

I don’t want Karnie to be too much like Jazzi from the Jazzi Zanders cozies. I want her to be a little pricklier than most of my protagonists. She’s not as patient, not as tactful, but she has a big heart.

I admired a woman like that. When our girls were little, we belonged a small church that cooked a lot of church suppers to raise money for charity. A small group of retired women organized most of the meals. One in particular, Mary, scared the girls. She always sounded gruff. Always raised an eyebrow when they ran into the kitchen to ask about something. Heck, she scared me, too. She assigned me the messy jobs of dredging, slicing, cutting, chopping. As a young mother, I had a low rank in the kitchen, not even high enough to be a sous chef. But I noticed how many hours Mary worked, how many people she helped. And I remembered something my mother had told me when I was little. “Her bark is worse than her bite.” So I told the girls, watch what she DOES, not how she says things. And that opened our eyes to the true beauty of Mary.

Karnie was like that. She thought of herself as drab and boring–a hard worker. Her brother’s friend, Matt, thought of her that way, too, until his little girl lifted her arms and wanted Karnie to hold her. Divorced, Matt paid attention to what Karnie DID. He looked past her prickly attitude and saw the beauty inside her. And once he spotted that, it was on. Karnie thought she’d stay single for life. She was wrong.

That made it fun for me as a writer. In Jazzi and Ansel’s last book, they decide to start a family. Karnie marries Matt and inherits an instant family. His almost 5-year-old Jackson and 3-year-old Chelsea don’t think of her as the evil stepmother. Their pretty, social mother left them for Matt to raise. They want someone solid, and they choose her. She resists for a while, but how do you turn away from a wonderful man, two great kids, and a lovable border collie?

Now, if only both couples could quit tripping over dead bodies…. But then I wouldn’t have a mystery:) So I don’t give them a choice. Protagonists can’t have it all. And once again, Karnie’s going to have her hands full.

First chapters hate me

My critique partner busted her fanny to read through A Cut Above and get it back to me quickly so I could take my time with rewrites. She made me ecstatic when she told me that she liked it so much, she stayed up to one a.m. to read its end. She works early hours, and it’s a sacrifice for her to lose sleep, but she said she loved the story. Then she added, “But your first chapter is crap.”

Now, some people might not take that well, but I always worry about my opening pages, so I was happy to get an honest opinion. And isn’t that what critique partners are for? She and I have known each other way too long to mince words. But bless her, she told me what I did wrong and THEN, she told me a great way to fix it. A win! And once I looked at the pages again, I knew she was right. And now I know what to do to make those pages better.

While I was waiting for her feedback (I still need comments from my second CP), I struggled with plot points and ideas for a straight, serious mystery that I want to write: VOLUNTEERING FOR TROUBLE. And I got excited about what I’ve come up with, so decided to write a few chapters to meet my characters and “hear” them speak. The ideas were flowing and the characters were walking and talking, so I made it up to about chapter 6. And then I realized the beginning of the book was too “happy.” It set the wrong mood for the story I want to tell. So guess what? I fiddled with the first few chapters, and then I fiddled with them again. I’ve already played with them so much, I’m not sure at this point if I’m making them better. Only time will tell.

First chapter crap syndrome is something I know well. I almost always end up having to rewrite the beginning of my books. I dump too much info too soon. I give away clues I should hide for later. I try too hard, and it shows. So it’s back to the drawing board. Many times. I write for a while, then look back at the chapter and tweak it, write some more and tweak it again, all through the book. Once in a great while, a miracle happens and the first words I write are the right ones. But that’s few and far between.

It’s worse when I start a new series. I haven’t hit a comfort zone with my style or characters yet. Beginnings get easier the more books I write in the same setting. A Cut Above is book one in the Karnie Cleaver series, and I tried for a different pace, a little different tone. It took me a while to settle into it. I haven’t written a serious, darker mystery for a long time. That’s been even harder for me. I had Laurel smiling and waving at her two neighbor girls across the street. No, no, no. I need the two girls to remind her of her daughters when they were little. They’re fully grown now, and when her husband died before Kendra graduated from college, that left Laurel alone. She volunteers now to fill her days, to give her life meaning.

I’m sure when I reread my first chapters once I’m halfway through the book, I’ll find things to tweak again. The only books that start easily for me are the urban fantasies I write for fun. I think that’s because they percolate in my mind and I ignore them until I can’t resist writing them anymore. I’ve already thought about them for months or more before I sit down to bring them to life.

I’m thinking about my middle muddles while I’m finishing this blog, and I realize that I complain about them, too. Hmm, maybe I’m masochistic. I enjoy writing so much, maybe I ignore how hard it is. But whatever! It’s worth it. Keep hitting your keys!