Some thoughts about Chapter One

IMG_0690I’ve recently begun a new, as-yet-untitled romantic thriller. The story has been rattling between my ears for a while, but it’s a departure from a girl-meets-girl romance, since it opens with a couple who have been together for several years. I finally worked out the ragged spots and managed to outline 80% of the plot. In a pleasant surprise, that missing 20% isn’t at the end, which means I won’t have to create a miracle to pull all the threads together. I just have to build a sturdy bridge to it.

So with my notes in place, I wrote Chapter One with a clear vision of where the story would go. My practice is usually to write the first draft of the entire manuscript as fast as I can. Why? Because as any writer knows, self-editing as you go can be paralyzing. The doubts overwhelm the process, and pretty soon, nothing you write is good enough. So I plow on, issues be damned. I drop notes to myself in ALL CAPS to go back and change a detail, to insert a scene that foreshadows the action, to introduce a doubt that explains a character’s motivation. This process has helped me stay productive.

But something went wrong this time. Just as I’d planned, Chapter One set the stage for the developing conflict, dramatic finish and resolution. But it isn’t Chapter Two that’s holding me up. It’s that I can’t get happy with what I’ve written so far, and I’m afraid that will have devastating consequences on how the rest of the story unfolds. I even know what’s wrong — both of my main characters leap out of the gate with flaws that must be overcome. Unfortunately, that means they’re at their weakest when you first meet them. Natalie Chatham (Sea Legs), Daphne Maddox (Playing With Fuego) and Amber Halliday (West of Nowhere) started their character journeys in a deep hole, with traits that rendered them unlikable from the get-go for many readers. That they grew to conquer their flaws and become better people isn’t even a footnote to those who didn’t bother to read further.

I’m reasonably confident I’ll get there eventually — a comfortable balance between strength and flaw that, with luck, will keep you turning the pages. Diagnostics are a good first step.

What makes you put a book down? I know … sloppy writing. But what else? Is it always fatal if you don’t care about the characters right away?

**********

I’m very happy and proud to share the results of my Lambda Literary fundraiser, which I detailed in my last blog. You guys snatched up ALL of my author’s copies of Trial by Fury, and even forced me to order more. As promised, I matched your donations and we raised over $5,100. That’s just all kinds of … *check thesaurus* … splendiferous! Thanks to Nancy, Sandra, Laura, Sandy, Ann, Dawn, Jo Anne, Meryl, JJ, Danielle, Silke, Darla, Carleen, Norma, Jeanne, Sylvie, Jen and Bolo the Magnificent.

10 Responses to “Some thoughts about Chapter One”

  1. I can’t remember the last book I gave up on, that’s how forgettable it was. There are books which I’ve finished and wished I hadn’t. The one I’m thinking of was simply boring. There was no conflict worth caring about and the characters had no flaws. It was all too goody goody. Give me a character with flaws and secrets and a conflict or two to resolve and I’m a happy reader.

  2. Hello KG, I’m a little sad to hear that some readers didn’t bother to read through the books mentioned above. You must have hit a nerve in reminding them of themselves or someone they know well, which isn’t always the easiest thing to deal with, I know.

    But how could you or any other author ever keep this from happening? How could you possibly avoid stepping on someone‘s toes? You as an author create your characters, they’re alive in your mind, and you make us get as close to them as possible. Still they’ll always take on their own life in our minds, based on our experiences, our imagination, our culture. It’s such an individual thing. But isn’t it this most magical thing about books in the first place?

    What makes me want to put a book down are never unlikable characters, but pages filled with clichés and meaningless repetitions without a trace of wit or humor in them, fiction or non-fiction alike.

    It’s a wonderful thing to know that those things won’t ever appear in one of your books – so please dive head on into chapter two with full confidence and turn critics into compliments for creating real people 🙂 Flaws can be charming, perfection is a bore, to quote my Oma.

    P.S. Loved The Paying Guests, didn’t know what to do with the Little Stranger, though

    • We can’t know what’s going to push someone’s *specific* button (e.g., some who says, “I don’t want to read about nurses because my ex was a nurse!”), but it’s helpful to aggregate some of these reading quirks in case there’s a pattern. It doesn’t mean changing the story or even the character, but maybe a tweak to the presentation that can make it more enjoyable. That’s what I’m trying to do with my current revisions, but only because *I* don’t like it yet as a reader. That challenge comes from readers like you who hold my feet to the fire. 🙂

  3. Hi KG, congrats on starting another project!
    I read way more books than I write 🙂 so I’m responding as a reader here. I’m one of those picky (impatient?) people who will give up on a book after the first 50 to 70 pages if I’m not hooked. I can get hooked by a sufficiently interesting/intriguing plot (in which case I’ll follow the characters on that journey through the plot whether I love the characters or not, or while I’m waiting to love the characters). I can also get hooked early (regardless of the plot) if I really like/empathize with/are entertained by/care about the characters. Ideally I want to care about both plot and characters, but hey, no book is perfect ( an neither am I, lol)!
    I don’t mind some flaws revealed early on, as this gives me a more realistic portrait and an honest portrait of the character, rather than piling on the flaws late in the book, which seems a bit disingenuous. However, for me, there has to be something I strongly like or feel for the character early on. A sense of humor really helps. If she’s witty, sassy (but not a mean, negative way) and smart, I’ll like her, and I’ll love her if she shows some vulnerability too (so maybe some self-deprecating humor). Or maybe there’s something about her that jumps right into my heart, like she once saved a dog who broke through the ice or something (even as she fires underlings at work on a month basis), I don’t know, something like that.
    Writing is hard… it’s the reading that’s the easy part! Good luck, you’ll work it out. Hope I’ve helped!

    • Tracey, you’re not too picky if you’ll read 50-70 pages. LOL. I’ve been known to give up way sooner than that. Saving a dog, taking care of an aging parent, even suffering a tragedy like a miscarriage … I think of those as “rooting interests,” since they make you want to root for someone. Hey, you know all of this!! It’s absolutely necessary if you start with a character who’s deep in the hole with her flaw. I did that with Amber in West of Nowhere — she was a hot mess, but man, she loved her little dog.

  4. I can relate to this in terms of writing. My most recently published novel, The Circle Dance, almost didn’t get past the first chapter stage. It had a promising start and I liked the situation I’d placed the two main characters in – but then I got stuck. I had an idea of where I wanted the story to go, but wasn’t sure how to move things on. Fortunately I did get past that eventually, but it was a bit of an uphill struggle. From a reading point of view, there haven’t been many occasions when I couldn’t finish a book because I didn’t like the characters. The most recent example is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. A lot of people raved about the book so I thought I should give it a try. But I found it very hard to get into – and although her writing is very good, I just found I really didn’t care enough about the characters to want to read on. (I did finish it – but skipped through a fair bit.)

    • Anything I find is an uphill struggle generally means I zigged when I should have zagged. Then I have to go through the painful purging of perfectly good words and start anew. My partner Jenny read The Paying Guest — liked it, didn’t love it. She said it didn’t seem to know what kind of book it wanted to be.

  5. I don’t have to like the main character to keep reading as long as there is something in her that I can relate to, some flaw, some character trait, some worry perhaps. There are times when I find that characters who are somewhat unlikeable in the first chapter but who grow considerably become my best and longest lasting friends. I look forward to seeing what happens with Chapter One!
    Ona

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