Sunday, August 11, 2013

That Awful First Chapter

As many of you know, I am seeking an agent for my latest Miss Havana novel, The Trophy Wife. I am going through this pain for two reasons: (1) my publisher, Solstice, is not taking full-length novels at this time and (2) I can learn a lot from rejection (the same was true when I dated).

I have made five submittals so far. One agent actually took the time to send back a very helpful comment: “It’s well edited, but I just didn’t get into the writing.” Well, that sucked, but it got me thinking. Where have I had the most difficulty with every story in the past? The answer should have hit me earlier: in the first few chapters.

There is a good reason for that. When I begin a story, I only have a vague concept of where the story will end up. That is a problem with authors like me who write from the seat of their pants. In fact, in every Miss Havana novel I have published, the editor required considerable re-write of the first several chapters. In other words, my own thought processes are responsible for weakness at the beginning of my draft stories. Once I get focused, the story and characters take over and the writing gets better.

As a result of the agent’s comment, I have re-focused on the first three chapters of The Trophy Wife. Those chapters are the most important because (no surprise here) they are the ones most publishers and agents ask to see. Publishers and agents have experience. They know where weakness lies.

I have also put much effort into creating a strong first sentence for the book, trying to ensure it has a “hook.” I have read many times how vital the hook is. If the first sentence doesn’t catch the publisher’s/agent’s attention, the first sentence might be all he/she reads. At the present time, my first sentence reads, “Beads of perspiration formed along Miss Havana’s hairline as acid glue etched her skin.” I hope that’s enough to get them to read the second sentence.

So here is my advice for today: re-read your first three chapters, over and over, until you are convinced they cannot be any stronger. They need to sweep a publisher or agent off his or her feet if you are to be accepted.

The first few paragraphs of my new book are presented below. If you have comments to make the paragraphs stronger, I would appreciate them.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch

Excerpt – the first few paragraphs of The Trophy Wife

Chapter 1 ---- Nemesis

Beads of perspiration formed along Miss Havana’s hairline as acid glue etched her skin. Stabbing bladder pain exacerbated her discomfort. She squeezed her legs together and gritted her teeth, trying to delay mortifying embarrassment. She glanced at the clock—three-fifteen, only one minute since she last checked. Time had ground to a standstill. She wanted to scream, but mustered her fading self-control and announced in a steady voice, “Ten minutes; make the most of them.”

The odor of nervous sweat mixed with pheromones clogged the air, the uncomfortable residue of twenty-eight high school students taking their chemistry mid-term. Miss Havana expected her charges to study hard for her tests, and she prepared for those who didn’t. Dressed in a dark form-fitting knit top, grey cotton skirt and black petite heels with suede soles, she could move panther quiet among the desks, ever vigilant for cheaters.

On test days, students picked up a test from the corner of her desk as they filed into the room, and then proceed to their assigned desks. All remained silent until she announced, “You may begin.” As heads dipped down, she would take up a surveillance position behind them, a strategic location from which she could make unexpected forays up the aisles.

For two years, the routine worked without flaw, but today it failed before the first student arrived. Miss Havana now sat at the front of her class, imprisoned by Superglue smeared on the seat of her straight-backed wooden desk chair. Her eyes riveted on one student after another. They all looked guilty. She continued scanning for the slightest movement or knowing glance, anything that might reveal the perpetrator.

At precisely 3:25 p.m., Miss Havana pointed her whiteboard stylus to the far side of the room. “Pencils down! Miss Pickering, beginning with you, students in your column will file out and deposit their test on my desk.”

As students shuffled by to drop off their papers, Miss Havana made eye contact with each one, looking for any sign of complicity. Although a few smiles seemed sincere, most faces remained as blank as the minds behind them. And then … a glimmer of smugness. Miss Havana elevated one elegant eyebrow as Lily Thompson placed her test on the stack. She leaned forward; her voice dripped with knowing sarcasm. “Are you satisfied with your performance, Miss Thompson?”

Lily’s smile broadened, revealing stark-white teeth beneath charcoal lipstick. Her response oozed with insincerity. “Oh, yes, ma’am, I worked hard on your test. Nothing is worthwhile without a little pain.”

Had glares been daggers they would have murdered each other. Lily broke eye contact first. She grinned and dipped her head toward Miss Havana before turning to strut out of the room, being nudged forward by the gaggle of students anxious to leave school for the day. Miss Havana could not restrain her thoughts. I wish that bitch would fall on her face.

In the next instant, Lily’s shoe snagged on a slightly raised floor tile, and she flailed forward into an awkward sprawl that sent her books flying in all directions. Had Miss Havana been able to stand, she would have helped Lily to her feet. Being glued to the chair, she simply relished the image of Lily splayed on the floor. Karma’s a bitch, Lily, when you are. Although Lily’s screech and following epithets lifted Miss Havana’s spirits, she showed no emotion. Not one student could tell she wanted to make Lily’s birth certificate a worthless document.  


Tina Donahue said...

Good insight, James.

I've always marveled at those who just sit down and start to write and end up with a book.

For me, I have to plot. I begin with choosing character names, their backgrounds, what they'll look like (I copy/paste photos from the Internet so I can use them to describe the people later), their conflicts (most important), what drives them (equally important), and their histories (always important.

I then begin an outline, chapter by chapter. My outlines are often longer than the actual novels. Yes, it's painstaking, but when I start to write the first draft, it flies by because I know my characters intimately, their fears, longing, what makes them tick.

That's not to say that I don't run into occasional obstacles and the characters take a path I hadn't conceived of earlier.

However, I find - for me - this is the easiest way to write.

I liken what I do to mapping out a trip from California to New York. With a map, I'll get there that much quicker rather than hopping into my car and simply taking off.

artlover said...

LIked your excerpt a lot...I'm more of pantser myself, although I get about a third of the way through and then have to stop and plot. Not a good floor plan, but it's what I do.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina. Thanks for the insight. I'm not sure my mind is organized enough to be, well, organized. I usually spend a lot of time working in the yard, letting ideas ferment, before I write anything. In the past, I rarely knew how a book would end when I started, but all that is about to change. I'm going to attempt a factual story about a survivor of the Baatan march, and his brother who rescued him from a Japanese labor camp. This time I will need to do a heck of a lot of research. It will be a huge genre shift for me.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Artlover!

Thanks for the input. I'm on my fourth edit pass now, and hope to have the book ready for publishing by the time I finish this pass. Fortunately for me, I still hear the voice of my former editor in my mind every time I begin reading. Cheryl Nichols was excellent; she taught me more than I would have thought possible. I hope I can make this novel as good without her, as we made the previous novels together.

I'm going to try planning my next book, from start to finish, before I write the first word. Because the novel will be historical, it must be accurate relative to known times and events. It will be interesting to see if I can do it.