Whiny Baby and First Chapters

Oh my God. Critique group was brutal tonight. This was the first time anyone has seen part of Will ‘O the Wisp. I learned some things, and most of it is easily corrected. My first chapters are always like that, and I should be used to it by now.

I may have made a research error, and that bothers me. I do a ton of research, and never mess up like that. I’ll be on it later with my favorite researcher, George Dickel.

The crowd was split pretty evenly. The two who write stuff similar to mine, liked it. The other two didn’t. In fact one of them really didn’t like it and had nothing nice to say about it.

I can live with that, I just wished there were more suggestions to improve it. The best writer we have was on the didn’t like it side, and I know it needs improvement.

The two who liked it weren’t overly jazzed about it. This creates a consensus of sorts. I’ll talk about that down the page a bit.

Like I said, first chapters are a bitch. Here are the goals I always try to meet in the first chapter:

  • There is a person.
  • The person is in a place.
  • The person has a problem. (Or two, or three.)
Let’s start with the person. This has to be much more than a name and physical description. It has to involve what kind of friends she has. Patty is part of the outcast group. What is her career? Patty is going to high school. What hopes and dreams does she have? Patty is infatuated with the space program. The person has to have a personality. Patty is dealing with a lot of problems, but she’s got some spunk even if she mopes a bit.

There has to be a place. Patty lives in Virginia, but this isn’t enough. It’s 1974, and this tone has to be set early. (Readers will be confused if this doesn’t come in fast.) She’s just outside a small town, and is a farmer’s step daughter. It’s early Fall, her home is surrounded by fields, and backs up to the forest. This is a first chapter, and place gets fleshed out much more as the story goes on. To do this, Patty has to move around. This can’t all come at once.
 
There are problems. Patty has to wear corrective leg braces. High school is a cruel place without this problem, her problems are bigger. Her father’s dead, but her mother remarried. She fights with her mom. She has a huge assignment to do, and there’s a ton of pressure here. Then she’s a witness to an event that seriously hurts someone. In later chapters it will get much more personal.
 
All of this gets on the page pretty quickly. Here’s where it doesn’t work:
  • She’s too whiny for my critique group.
  • My descriptions may tell more than show.
  • The first paragraph doesn’t grab the reader.
Patty has to be a little bit whiny. She’s a teenage girl, for crying out loud. This will also be part of her character growth. The question is how much is too much. From a marketing standpoint, readers have to care enough about her to turn the page. She’s also a pretty good manipulator. I think the first chapter needs work here.
 
I will always struggle with showing vs. telling. I’m on record in an old blog for saying it’s a pretty bad name for a pretty important topic. I don’t know how to introduce a sign, other than to have a character read it. I can’t figure out how to detect a smell, other than having a character smell it. I need to work on this, but I’m open to suggestions. Seriously, I’m open to suggestions. I’ve cut out all the instances of “he saw”, “she heard”, and such. Now it just happens in character view. When the kids get on the bus, it’s nothing new for them. Readers are seeing the small town for the first time. I feel the need to show them a bit of it.
 
The first paragraph doesn’t grab the reader. I agree. In fact the important part drops in paragraph 3. They’re short paragraphs, but it needs some work. I need to get Patty, in a place pretty quick or it’s just a white page. I did this, but it still doesn’t grab a reader. I have a few ideas here. I’m pretty sure I can do better. One of her problems has to come sooner.
 
Critique groups seem to work this way. There is a concensus on some of the problems. These must be taken seriously. There’s a split on some problems. These also must be taken seriously, it usually indicates I’m on the right track, but could present the issue better. Then there are issues that only one person brings up. Pay attention to these, but many times they don’t have to be addressed. Consider who pointed the issue out, and what others thought here.
 
I also like to get my genre out there fast. This is a paranormal piece, and that element comes in at the end of chapter one. I want readers to meet Patty, her friends, and her situation before this can happen. Other genres, it can go on the first page. Dwarves can get the genre established in the first few words. Robots are the same way. Paranormal comes more at a simmer.
 
I’m going to make this work. I’m too invested already not to. It’s part of being a writer.
 
What problems do the other writers have with first chapters? I’d also like your hints on showing vs. telling. Maybe I need to find that blogger who does First Page Friday.

27 Comments

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27 responses to “Whiny Baby and First Chapters

  1. I hate the whole “show vs. tell” thing. I think there are times that you want to move forward in the story and the quickest way to do that is to tell it not stop to show it. I prefer a good balance of both showing and telling, but I can’t stand when that’s the thing that people harp on. What are you doing to show or tell it’s 1974? The very first thing I thought of when you said that was “Oh Patty’s gearing up for the bicentennial in 2 more years.” (Of course I just showed my age there, didn’t I? LOL!) I have a character in the book I’m just finishing that also had to wear a corrective leg brace and I was dumbfounded when I researched it and found they aren’t the metal ones with leather straps anymore, but soft and with velcro! Your story sounds like a very interesting story! I can’t wait to hear more. 😀

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  2. I was going to strike hard against the show vs tell issue, but someone beat me to it.”I hate the whole “show vs. tell” thing. I think there are times that you want to move forward in the story and the quickest way to do that is to tell it not stop to show it.” My thoughts exactly. Tell Dickens and thousands of famous storytellers of the greatest classics of all times that they need to be better storyshowers than storytellers. There are so many people out there with their lists of rules for contemporary writing and there are so few contemporary authors I seriously care to read.There are rules now for character development, setting the scene, phases of the novel, showing not telling, word choice…all those other rules I have become so intimidated by. Maybe too intimidated to write at all. Sorry, but your post caught me a bad time. I feel that I have learned volumes from reading about writing rules on the one hand, but on the other, it seems that everyone who has ever written anything claims to be an expert, and it irks me. Your story DOES sound interesting and I think you should TELL it the way it flows most comfortably from your mind.

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    • There’s one guy that regularly does this to me. I’m sure there are things I need to work on, but offer up a suggestion once in a while, geez. I’m to old to fall into a pout, because someone didn’t like my beautiful baby. I went to critique to make it better. At least the other fellows all had something to offer.

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  3. Lydia Devadason

    I am a writing novice – I’ve finished my novel and have edited / rewritten it a few times but have no writing background. Last week I showed my first chapter to my writing group and the critique was very confused. ‘Show, not tell,’ one person said. That person said she couldn’t feel the peril or the fear in the character (it’s a dramatic opening (or so I thought)). She and another said my first paragraph lacked impact (read ‘lame’) and the others said it was okay, dramatic, exciting and they were hooked. Is so hard! I thought that my novel had a thrilling start – this was an eye opener because I discovered that it doesn’t; the reason it’s thrilling to me is because I know what’s coming, ha ha. It’s actually a slow burn. When only one person criticised the start I had a bit of a dilemma – what if it was just her? As soon as somebody else agreed I thought that was enough – I am going to review and no doubt change the very beginning. But as for the ‘show, not tell,’ I’m not so sure. The others liked it, wanted to read more and my style is my style. I think I will have it in the back of my mind as I prepare for another rewrite, but if the story flows and the meaning is clear that’s all I want. (Obviously the publishers may not agree 😉 ) Keep at it!

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    • Thanks for leaving a comment. I fussed about it for awhile, repaired the items that really made some sense, checked my research and changed up those areas. I even deleted my first three paragraphs and moved some bits around. On a positive note, this is the first thing I’ve ever written in first person, and I didn’t get a single negative comment for that.

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      • Lydia Devadason

        That is really positive. I’ve not yet attempted first person narrative. I am still on a ‘break’ from my book – I’m going to go back, fresh, in a month or so, complete with the views of my writing group and begin the chop… Good luck!

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      • Thanks Lydia, and good morning from Idaho.

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  4. Maybe you could get round it by starting with something like. “Patti left the room with a near to a flounce as her leg braces would allow slamming the door after her. Stupid, homework, stupid step mum stupid, stupid bloody leg braces…”

    OK so that’s shit but what I mean is, maybe if you start it in the middle of a row about the assignment you can have her stomping, heatedly back to her room and she can fume about a lot of the stuff you need to tell us as she hurrumphs back to her desk.

    Sorry if I’ve spoken out of turn but I do know how it feels to attend a writers circle where people openly heave a sigh as you open your pad to read because they loathe sci-fi.

    Cheers

    MTM

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    • Wow, that’s so true. A couple of the members don’t read or write speculative fiction an all. They always struggle with pieces the rest of us bring in. Those who read a lot of similar stuff become a gauge of sorts. If they don’t get it, you really screwed up.

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  5. Keith

    I think you’re making the creative person’s mistake of focusing on the negative. There were also good things said at the critique group about your story. Yeah, we snarked about the quality of the writing, but that’s what happens with early drafts. And we’ve all seen our work receive the piñata treatment in that group at one time or another. It’s an honest critique group. No doubt about that. But it was also clear in the group, I thought, that you had accomplished the heavy lifting of creating a character that’s worth finding out more about. I probably griped as much as anybody about the writing that I didn’t think was up to your standards. But I also said I was so intrigued with the main character that I wanted to find out what happens next. That I wanted to read more. As a writer, you can’t ask for a better compliment than that.

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    • I agree with you. I always have to pout for a moment or two. This time has gotten shorter as I’ve gotten older, but it never goes away. I thought your comments were actually the most helpful. Then I laced up my boots and went to work. I deleted the first three paragraphs, changed some things to make it work, and did some updated research. (I found out Glenn was defeated in his earlier election bid, and used that date incorrectly.) now I’m in danger of having Patty appear in a white room. I need to think about that before jumping right in, but I’ll get there. I need to ponder how much whining she needs in the early part of the story before tackling that too. It’s character growth, so some has to stay. I don’t want her to sour some readers right off the gate either. First chapters suck, because there’s so much riding on them. I’ve taken the piñata bat up myself, and I expect it to happen. Nobody learns anything from a bunch of empty praise.

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  6. I think anyone who takes work to a critique group is crazy brave. I mean, I have beta readers/critique partners, but that’s all done one-on-one and in private… and where they can’t see my facial expressions when I read their comments. I’d feel like people were ganging up on me in a live group setting. so I admire your ability to deal with that.

    No matter what, I don’t think it’s ever easy to hear critiques of our work. I usually read over comments, let them simmer for a few days, and go back and see what makes sense to me and what I think will improve the story. We’re never going to please everyone.

    As to showing vs. telling… I don’t know. I hate most “classics” that do a lot of telling, and would much rather see a story from a very close character viewpoint, but I think it’s all about balance. Sometimes you need to tell if there’s backstory to get in– to me, telling is far better than “Well, as you know I’m an orphan and my parents died when I was five, and you also know that blah blah blah…” So balance is key. Some people get so hung up on the rules that they don’t consider whether they ALWAYS have to apply.

    Good luck with your revisions!

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    • Thanks Kate. It’s a necessary evil, and it’s hard for introverts to put something out there like that. I imagine it’s hard for extroverts too, but in a different way. There is no other way to improve, so you throw it to the wolves. It’s much better than just publishing it and hoping it resonates with the masses. I already did the bulk of the changes, but some of them need some deeper thought. One of the changes, requires yet another, and I have to think about that for a bit.

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      • It frightens and confuses me when I hear about people publishing without having their work critiqued. Um… reviewers aren’t going to be any kinder than an editor, and they WILL catch every problem and error. In public. On record.

        It IS hard, but you’re right. One way or another, it’s gotta be done.

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    • I agree with Kate! Just because there are “rules” does not mean that they are meant to be applied EVERY time. 🙂

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      • I agree with that thought totally. On the other hand, I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I didn’t choose to present a mess to my group. I still haven’t figured out how to deal with the white room syndrome I’ve created after making changes, but I’m working on it.

        I’m also opening with dialog now, and don’t care for that either. Lots to think about.

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  7. I think the “show, don’t tell” thing got started because there are so many writers out there who believe they’re clones of Siegfried Sassoon. I have news for them: Even Siegfried Sassoon wasn’t Siegfried Sassoon until he wrote “Sherston’s Progress,” which was 8 years after “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” and 6 years after “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.” It takes a long time even for the innately talented to develop the kind of voice that’s required to successfully and effectively pull off page after page of long, first-person-singular paragraphs.

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  8. Hello! Critique groups have their pros and cons, but you seem to know how to handle them well. As far as show and tell I believe there needs to be a balance. You can show through dialogue. Limit your use of adverbs. End each chapter with an ending that leaves the reader in suspense so that they’ll want to turn the page. These are the things I try to adhere to. Good luck and happy writing!

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  9. OMG I hate writing first chapters…first pages…first paragraphs no less. For me I think it’s the hardest part of the whole book! So many jobs to accomplish, all while grabbing the reader’s attention. I too set goals. I recently scrapped the entire first chapter of my manuscript and started with the second. It’s an art. I feel your pain.

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    • I usually have to revisit chapter one several times, including after I finish the story. I think of it as no more than a place to begin these days. I know I’ll revisit the first chapters many times.

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