Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Notes on Opening Chapters with Agent Natalie Fischer ~ Segment II

In SEGMENT I of my webinar with super literary agent, Natalie Fischer, we discussed The Query Letter. Today, I'm going to delve into her critique and advice on first chapters. By using myself as a guinea pig, I'm hoping to give you some insight into your personal troubled areas in opening up a story.
My opening chapter began with subtle action, encapsulated by a car accident. Although opening with an accident can sometimes be cliché, as she read she saw that I'd used it in a different way.

The scene was character driven with little focus on the accident itself and more about the innards of my lead female with a hint of what might be in store for her. I knew using an accident would trigger the fear and pain buried inside this girl--which remains hidden throughout most of the story--and would also afford me the opportunity to give the reader a glimpse into a special talent this girl possess but ignores. AND yes, a little of her past, but just enough to make the reader go Hmmm?

However, there was one point in the chapter where she went Whoa and question my reasons for not starting the chapter there.

I found it so interesting when she asked me that. Let me set it up for you: girl wakes up in backseat with unconscious friend + sees strangers just outside vehicle. At the end of the scene, the lead female (who's vision is blurred) senses someone near...too near. She hears his voice and exhales what she believes to be her last. Her world then fades to black. But the reader is privy to the fact that something is being done to her and it's not death taking her.

Originally, I hadn't included her waking, seeing someone outside the van, etc... It was simply her feeling someone near, not knowing who or what it was. This was the place Natalie felt the chapter reeled her in. I told her that I'd lengthened it because I was afraid someone would interpret the shortness of the chapter (which was only two pages double-spaced) for a prologue, which I didn't want. She assured me that it didn't read like a prologue as long as the story moved forward in chapter 2, which it does.

So here, I needed to either cut the beginning out entirely or take out some extraneous phrases and descriptions of the scene to speed up the intensity, tighten my prose, and completely hook the reader. Note: my Oasis Ladies had read the chapter prior and each of them had the same assessment as Natalie. Smart chickies. 

Natalie's advice was universal to all five of us writers who met with her.

The Breakdown
~Opening Chapter~
  1. A chapter is a chapter despite the length. YOU may chose to keep it short - as I had originally - for impact. That doesn't necessarily make it a prologue. 
  2. If you're going to start with a bang - start with a bang and keep it rolling.
  3. Use shorter sentences to create tension and suspense.
  4. Step inside the scene. Tell what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Use it all.
  5. The reader only knows what the writer tells them. Think carefully about what you want to reveal or keep hidden. That, right there, could be the hook which makes your story irresistible. 
  6. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, especially in the opening scene. 
  7. In any story, but especially young adult or middle grade literature, speed is a necessity. Keep your scenes and chapters moving quickly. In today's world, most readers between the ages of 11 and 19 could find an abundance of other activities to do other than finishing your book.
  8. Shorter chapters work well for keeping suspense and attention spans. 
  9. While editing after your first draft, be sensitive to tightening your prose by discarding extra details or repetitive details. (Yeah, we hate to chuck a beautiful sentence. But if it's not moving the character, scene, or story forward ditch it. But do create a folder for unused material. You never know when it could come in handy.)
  10. This is my personal deduction: trust your instincts. I knew where I wanted to start the chapter and what I truly wanted to communicate, but was afraid to push the envelope, step out of the normal box, or take a risk. Ultimately, Be True To Yourself and someone will believe in you and your work. 
Overall and much to my delight, she was intrigued and wanted to read more. Yeah, that was way cool to hear. In the near future, I will share with you how I applied her advice and rewrote my opener. That will have to come after I submit it to our way-so-cool Query Kick-Around on YAlitchat. If you haven't checked out this amazing writing community, please do. You won't be sorry. *grins and bats lashes then chokes on her coffee*  Grace...yup, that would be me.

Please feel free to add to my list. I'd love to hear some of your experiences with first chapters.
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  1. Wonderful tips! Still looking forward to beta reading this manuscript! :)

  2. Great tips. I can't think of anything else to add. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the great tips. Can't wait to hear more. Good luck with Natalie. Sounds like you really got her interest.

  4. What a fantastic post. I totally agree with staying true to yourself. And good luck with the agent! Wow! fingers crossed for you honey! :o)

  5. Great advice. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Great post! Number five is driving me nuts right now. Based on agent feedback on my previous first chapter and someone else's feedback on my new one, I included a lot of info that I hadn't before because I wanted to build suspense. They said no, that I needed to "tell" the reader what was going on so she gets it. But a beta reader just read it and felt I should cut most of it out. She loved the suspense of not really knowing. Fortunately, not everything is revealed in the first chapter, it just might seem that way. There's a lot more to come as the story unfolds.

    It definitely is hard to please everyone. The main thing is to make sure your readers care about your character by the end of chapter one (or the sample pages). If that doens't happen, you won't get requests. No one will read chapter 2. ;)

  7. That's some awesome advice - and it is definitely hard to know which advice to take and which to keep. That's part of why this is art! :)

  8. Those are fantastic tips! Really helpful... matter of fact, I'm copying them down for my personal chapter 1 checklist. How cool she wanted to see more of your work!!
    Coincidentally, there's a car wreck in the first chap of my new WIP... I din't realize it was so cliche. :s But it's not what my chap is all about, just an added caveat, so sounds like I can keep it in there.

    Thanks for sharing!!! :)

  9. I'm so excited!!! I just finished my third manuscript and I'm now officially ready to revies and what perfect tips to start out with!!!!

  10. It's so cool that she wanted to read more! You'll have to tell us how it goes.

    Thanks for these great tips!

  11. Yay for you and Natalie!!!! This whole experience gets better by the post. I can't wait to hear what happens next. I'm having all sorts of problems with my ms right now so this post was timely:)

  12. Oh man, great stuff here! How cool to have such an in depth critique! I wonder how short is the right amount for chapters. I always try to keep mine around ten pages, double spaced...

  13. Hi! Thank you for dropping by my blog and for your cute comments. <3 I really love your valuable advice here.

    Like Carolina, I usually keep my chapters to 10 pages. I like short sentences, but I know it would be crazy if that's all I used, wouldn't it?

    As far as the first chapter approach, I really wouldn't know. It's like trying to recognize something I'm faced with every day and don't know anything is wrong with it unless someone steps up. I do feel like I apply what you mentioned here, but it may be because I'm feeding my ego.

    Thanks for your wonderful post! :)

  14. That is so interesting! At least you got to keep your first chapter. On my latest critique, my critiquer advised me to throw that first chapter out altogether. Thanks again for sharing her awesome tips!

  15. Oh, terrific list, Sheri! Can't wait for the next post - keep it up, girl!

  16. Wonderful post! Thanks so much for sharing what you've learned. :D

  17. Awesome post! Thank you for sharing your experience!


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