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.