So I have this second draft that is coming back from readers with feedback, and consistently they are saying something is not right with the first chapter. Surprise, surprise… the infamous first chapter. Is there anything harder to write? My writing partners’ comments include things like:
1) The writing in the second and third chapters is SO much better than the first chapter.
2) The pace really picks up after the first chapter.
3) I just couldn’t get a visual on the first personal narrator in Chapter One.
4) You were establishing so many new things in Chapter One that I couldn’t get my bearings.
Yeah. So back to Sara Zarr for another one-on-one lesson with me and my copies of all her books! Here’s one thing I figured out.
(Caveat: I’m skipping over her prologues here… prologues are a whole other issue!)
The opening scenes of Sara Zarr’s books start right in on the central problem at the white hot center of the story. She doesn’t work up to it. She doesn’t foreshadow it with a smaller version of the problem. She goes directly to it:
How to Save a Life:
Dad would want me to be here.
There’s no other explanation for my presence. Sometimes it’s like I exist –keep going to school, keeping coming home, keep showing up in my life –only to prove that his confidence in me, his affection for me, weren’t mistakes. That I’m the person he always said I was. Am. That I know the right things to do and will always do them in the end, even if it takes me a while to get there and even if I fight the whole way.
She starts right in the marrow of Jill’s problem. It would be so easy to get lost in the circumstances of Jill’s mother adopting a baby after losing Jill’s dad, but Sara starts in the marrow.
There are things I want to remember about Cameron Quick that I can’t entirely…. He’s a story I want to know from page one.
My brain doesn’t seem to work that way. Most specific things about Cameron are fuzzy…. But when it comes to Cameron I always want more than I have, would like to be able to take hold of at least one or two more pieces, if only because I’m convinced there are parts of myself hidden inside them.
You can easily get lost in the mesmerizing details about Cameron that I left out with the elipses, but Sara directs all of them right toward Jenna’s need to reclaim these old pieces of herself.
Story of a Girl:
Okay, Story of a Girl has my favorite opening of all times, and I have to say, Sara wows me with both her prologue and her chapter one so here is a little from each:
I was thirteen when my dad caught me with Tommy Webber in the back of Tommy’s Buick, parked next to the old Chart House down in Montara at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night. Tommy was seventeen and the supposed friend of my brother, Darren.
That’s her battle right there –is she this story? Can she break through to her dad now?
They made us clean out our lockers on the last day of sophomore year….The only stuff I kept was from Honors English. I would deny this is asked, but I thought I might want to read some of my essays again. There’s this one from when we read Lord of the Flies. I really got into it, the savagery and survival-of-the-fittest stuff. A lot of kids in my class didn’t get it….
Then Caitlin Spinelli was all, “Yeah, didn’t they know their chances for survival were, like so much better if they worked together?”
Hello! Walk down the halls of your own school for three seconds, Spinelli: we are savages. There is no putting of the heads together to come up with a better way. There is no sharing of the bounty with those less fortunate. There is no pulling the dead weight so that we can all make it to the finish line. At least not for me….
Anyway, Mr. North wrote on my essay…
Deanna, he wrote, you clearly have much of importance to say.
And at the heart, in the marrow, that’s what the story’s about. Are we just savages? Can Deanna find something more?
When I've got nothing, literally nothing, no draft or anything, I know I need to just start somewhere. But when I’m staring at another blank screen, ready to write draft three of Chapter One (or to be honest draft eleven because I’ve written this chapter so many more times) and all those threads of the story are lying out there, it’s so easy to be tempted to just pick up the obvious one --the concrete circumstantial hook. Let’s get started, let’s fill the reader in on everything that’s going on. But Sara Zarr reminds me to be patient and take my time choosing. Which thread runs right through the marrow of the story? Pick that one up. Start there. Let the rest weave in around that.
Of course, then it’s time to start brainstorming the infinite scenes that could embody that marrow, right? At least my brainstorming doesn’t feel so random. I’ve got a purpose, and that puts just enough pressure on my brainstorming that the more vivid scene ideas start coming faster.