Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Anatomy of a Chapter
This week I dusted off the first chapter of the novel I’m currently shopping, A Little Disappeared. My last insightful reader, I’ll call her Reader X, gave me some great feedback and made some wonderful comments about the manuscript. She admitted she’s not a big novel reader anymore. She thinks much of the stuff aimed at a thirty-something woman comes across as disingenuous, pandering, and worst of all, unbelievable. I’m paraphrasing, and I’ll let Liz, who was at the critique, correct me (although I am, if nothing else, unreliable). Reader X went on to say that she got my story, and that I presented it in a way that seemed real to her. Very nice things to say.
She also commented that she didn’t really get into the story until after the first chapter. Whoops. The horror. That’s not good. Because as all writers know, it’s the first chapter, the first few pages, the first couple paragraphs, which sell your book. If you don’t hook the reader in the first chapter, than you’ve lost them. I always felt the first chapter didn’t really speak/sing/shout for its dinner as loudly as the rest of the novel. But I hoped nobody would notice. I’ve done been found out.
So I dusted it off for a rewrite. I have a hard time coming back to a piece of writing after thinking it’s finished. I mean, it’s done, what else can I do to it? But I had to rearrange this thinking, approach the pages in a new way. I started by reading it over, and making a few small changes. Nothing major. Then I broke down the structure of it. It’s only 11 pages, but it needs to introduce the main character, show his roadblocks, let us know what he wants, and set him in motion.
Let’s see. Main character: Keith, a tavern manager from Somerville, Massachusetts. Check. His wife, Sarah, has left him. Righto. He needs to figure out why she disappeared and try to save his marriage. Okay. So he heads off to find her. Done. Simple enough, I guess. But if I don’t make it engaging, entertaining, interesting, and show the world I can put words into sentences, and string sentences together in a way that tempts readers to stay with me for 335 pages, then I’m screwed.
The chapter has three parts:
Part 1: When the book opens Keith is already on the road, in an Arkansas motel room. He's brought his wedding video on the road, and takes a look at the vows again, looking for clues about why Sarah left. He marvels at finding new details about his wedding day each time he views the tape.
Part 2: Keith rolls out of his motel bed the next morning. He goes to the motel lobby to partake of the continental breakfast and strikes up a conversation with Heather, a young woman who, as it turns out, is traveling with an abusive boyfriend. She will play a roll in Keith’s journey: in two chapters he will help her escape the creepy dude and she’ll help him find his wife.
Part 3: Flashback to 5 days ago and Keith coming home at midnight from a double shift, finding the apartment empty and all the lights burning. Sarah has left a note saying she’s sorry, she still loves him, but she has to leave. Cue anger, confusion, and desperation.
So, what to do? Scrap it and start over? Not yet. I decided to switch parts 2 and 3. The flashback now happens just after Keith watches the video and ends just before he wakes up and gets coffee and a bagel and meets Heather. Now it feels more like Keith has almost self-induced the flashback of finding Sarah’s note because he watched their wedding video just before bed. And in the morning, as Keith walks through the motel to the lobby, he’s thinking of Sarah, feeling like he dreamt of her even though he can’t remember the dream. So there’s continuity there. More of a logical scene flow.
Why don't I start the book with Keith finding the note, then moving the action forward from there? I’ve been asked that before. And I did try it. But it seemed really over-the-top, it’s like starting a horror movie with one of the main characters getting killed. You got to build up to it a little bit. And surround it a bit with scenes that aren’t at the same pitch to cushion what I’ve discovered is a potentially histrionic gigglefest of a scene (“Sarah!!!! Why did you leave me???? What have I done to make you curse me so????? What will become of me????!!??)
Hmm. We’ll see if it the structural switchero works magic or highlights the need for more revision. Or, maybe it was just fine the way was before I started messing with it. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Meanwhile, let me know how you approach revising work you thought was long finished.