Tuesday, April 30, 2013

First Chapters

I had to make a tough decision lately in regards to the first chapter of one of my WIPs. The story is written from a third-person limited perspective, and for a long time now, the first chapter "looked over the shoulder" of my story's villain. I loved this because it gave the opening of the story an ominous feel. The exposition didn't feel forced because it's reasonable for the villain to discuss and work on his master plan, especially since he's "winning" at this point in the story. Comparatively, the hero of the story isn't such a reliable source for exposition as there isn't as strong a motive for her to give it; she's not even entirely aware of the villain's plans. And finally, in this particular story, my MC is beaten down at the beginning. She's kind of a ghost of her former self, with all of her strength and talent eroded by years of abuse by the villain. Because she has no agency at this point in the story (of course, her agency only increases after Chapter 1) it made sense for the villain to be the one to introduce her, rather than have her introduce herself.

Here's the problem with my method: anybody - be it a prospective reader or agent - who picks up the book is going to judge it within the first few pages. I don't expect them to feel invested in my villain and keep reading for his slimy sake, plus the story isn't about him anyway. But a wisp of a young woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome probably isn't going to hook many readers either.

I discussed this problem with one of my fellow Big Sur attendees and she pointed me toward a fantastic resource, which I'm going to share with you right now:

In the above video, agent Lara Perkins discusses how to write a gripping first chapter. She reinforced a lot of things I already knew, like the narrator should be assertive and confident, but she also had some great suggestions that hadn't occurred to me, like using a puzzle or a mystery in the first chapter. By raising questions in the reader's mind, you're compelling them to read on and get answers to their questions. As an avid reader myself, I love this method. It's like creating a contract with the reader:  
You have a bunch of questions which you're dying to have answered, and if you read on, I promise to give you answers. 

After watching the video, the solution to my problem finally arrived. I didn't want to start the book with a browbeaten protagonist, but she hadn't always been browbeaten. Before she met the villain she was vivacious and lovely and definitely the kind of person a reader wants to root for. So that's going to be my first chapter - how did the villain and the MC meet, and how did the MC get to the point where she is now. This seems logical anyway because I want the reader to know that the MC's behavior is not a reflection of her natural state. She wasn't always like that, and she's capable of becoming herself - becoming better than her original self - again.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Saw My MC Dancing on TV

Perhaps because I've grown up surrounded by movies as well as books, I'm very visual when I'm writing. Even before the revolution that is Pinterest, I searched for images of my characters and settings using Google. I've heard people complain that a lot of new fiction is too "cinematic", but given how much authors who are writing today watch movies (even if they don't love them, they have access, and it's hard to avoid movies completely in our culture) and how many books are turned into movies, I don't find that surprising. I don't even find it objectionable. It combines two things I love!

One thing that thrills me as a writer is finding real-life images of things I've already imagined. Here's an example: Ever since I started writing my current WIP, I have used this image as inspiration for my main character. But last Monday night I was exhausted and found myself lying on the couch, practically catatonic, looking for something to watch on TV. Now, don't fall off your seat when I tell you this: Derek and I don't have cable. Aside from Game of Thrones and HGTV (which I eat up at other people's houses), everything I want to watch is on one of the basic channels.

While I was flipping through the 5-6 channels we pick up with our antenna (that's right, don't judge), I came across Dancing with the Stars. This is the kind of show I've only seen at my parents' house when my mom is watching it. But I caught this girl Zendaya Coleman dancing. I thought she was great, but it wasn't until I looked her up on YouTube later and saw her previous dances that I thought, This Girl is Amazing. And what's more: I felt like I knew her. It took me a while to realize why.

She is my MC.

If my book is ever turned into a movie, I would faint from overwhelming joy if Zendaya Coleman played the role of my main character. It's not just because she's gorgeous - I almost hate her for how perfect those eyebrows are - it's the expressions she makes, especially when she's being serious, and it's her dancing. You see, in my book, the MC dances. It's not a central part of the plot, but it's something she's done since a kid as part of her heritage. The dance in the video below reminds me of exactly the way my MC would dance. I particularly love how Zendaya smiles when she's dancing, not like she's being seductive or sexy, but like she's feeling real joy.

And that's how I saw my MC dancing on TV.