Friday, March 13, 2015

What I Learned During Week 2: First Chapters & Character-Driven Story

Week 2 has been a little crazy for me. Teaching, preparing for the Tucson Festival of Books, feeling ill, editing, writing the book, and trying to keep up with this blog. I have mixed feelings about week 2.
How did you feel about week 2? I have mixed emotions on the productivity... Image: Soren Rajczyk
1. The process of looking at first chapters has been enlightening for me.

I have really only read one book at a time and thought about it on its own. I have never read several first chapters, one after the other. Nor have I ever dissected a book, scene by scene, and recorded each scene on a notecard. (I always thought this would be a good idea, but I was too lazy and thought I could trust my own brilliant mind to internalize my analysis.)

Since I have been working on a coming of age story, I looked at a series of them that were published over many decades. I'd classify these as maturation plot, and mostly what we call literary--though one is not literary and they tend to cross over to young adult at times.

So here's the thing. There are all these ideas of what is needed in the beginning of a book. I used to think a reader needed an engaging character, sense of where he is, and the establishment of the narrator. The rest could build.

Now, with genre so prominent and everyone writing a novel, it's almost as if you have to do a thousand things in the first chapter. I've had it in my mind that it's not necessary to reveal all themes, the story question, the character's motivation and all her flaws, the setting, the tone, the narrator's point of view, a conflict, the inciting incident, the antagonist and all the secondary characters, and the protagonist's goal.

I mean, that's a little unweildy. It asks the reader to grasp onto a lot at first. And then what do you do in the second chapter?

In reading the first chapters of six books (I might be a little obsessive in this process) I found that very few of these first chapters even attempted to do all of the above. Phew! 

In fact, I can't say that I see much similarity in any of them other than the introduction of the character, setting, tone, and the establishment of the narrator. To Kill a Mockingbird was closest to doing everything, but it didn't get there--and that was from 1960. I'm glad it didn't do everything, by the way, because there was already so much there.

More current books did decidedly less with their first chapters.

Also noted: Every single one of these books is told in first person. Hmmn... I am using third. Am I writing something weird again? I don't think so. I'm over 300 pages in and right now I don't feel like third person is wrong for my story. I also feel like first person would be annoying and possibly cloying. So I don't care that I can't think of a coming of age story told in third person.

I'd be interested to know how the breaking down of first chapters has worked for others.

2. I discovered that the spreadsheet in which I broke down my novel scene by scene with characters, setting, action, and theme--the spreadsheet that I spent a month working on--was gone. Or rather, it was there but it was empty. Where did it go?

My subplots are difficult to keep track of and I lose them a lot.

Now what?

I don't know. New #&%#! plan, I guess. Note to self: Don't depend on a computer.

3. The 30 minute outline: For me, this process was less usefulthan I had hoped. It seems to focus more heavily on an external plot of some prominence. While I do have an external story to some degree, it is much more of an internal plot that branches out in various directions.

For this reason, and #2, the next week will be focused on sub-plots. Yep, the process is about me. All of it. Really, it's these multiple storylines that I have been having trouble reining in because so many things work together to add up to one story about my protagonist. The sub-plots are the reason, (I'm pretty confident in saying this) that I have been working on this novel for so long. I want the draft to be done.

Understanding sub-plots is critical to a story. I am in a gazillion writing groups and I often find that sub-plots are underdeveloped or appear to be an afterthought. Sub-plots forward the story and the protagonist's emotional progression. They support the middle, when a lot of stuff is going on and you aren't sure how to keep things from getting claustrophobic. They can affect the main plot, too--either emotionally or physically. So don't go thinking that it's just a sub-plot. It's improtant. 

How has week 2 been going for you? What do you feel you need to work on next?


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