As was pointed out to me, I forgot about chapter seven. Hee, hee. Sorry. But it happens when you drop back and add a chapter you weren’t planning on and everything moves forward. The chapter I added actually goes before six, and I added it because I got tired of putting out clues and decided to do the reveal I wasn’t planning on until chapter twelve or so. I wanted to own it. Go big or go home, and all that jazz.
But before I share it with you, I want to tell all of you who have been putting your chapter’s first paragraphs out there, Bravo! I know that some of you are used to sharing your work and have thicker skin, but some of you are first-timers, and I’m trying not to bruise you while still nudging you into picking up more tools to make your work stand out. I love words and the patterns they make, and I know it’s hard. We have all levels of skills here, but every single one of us begins writing crap. (laugh) I have three years of exceptionally crapy crap carefully, and lovingly, tucked away.
One thing I’ve noticed is that with a lot of you, there’s a lot of telling me what has happened in the few hours before the action really starts, presumably somewhere on paragraph three or four. Sometimes, it’s necessary, but trying to put too much in front of the action tires the reader and cheats you of a chance to connect your reader with your main characters. If you think you are guilty of this, and trust me, I am, go back and find out what’s important in the first few paragraphs, and put that right up front. Start with the pop, whether it be a thought, action, or place setting, and work backward adding all the other stuff you skipped as you go along. Take your time and show us. It’s a chance to flesh out the world and characters. Slow. Down.
I guess what I’m saying is that while we perceive and process information by peripheral stuff and moving in, don’t write that way. Give us the gut feeling, then move out. It will naturally ground your reader in the character and action.
If you’re not sure what I mean, try starting with dialog. It naturally pulls you into action. And if you don’t like it, throw it out. Nothing is ever really wasted.
So, bouncing back to a previous, added chapter:
The heat of the noon sun cut off sharply as Sam left the drive and slipped under the old-growth trees. It took several more steps, careful in his flip-flops and with that glass of water, before he got past the tangled cluster of vegetation at the edge and the humidity vanished to let the cool of the forest envelop him. His path suddenly easier, Sam followed his intuition as he looked for Fenix.
But his thoughts, as he moved ever deeper into the silence, were on Natalie: the way her utter exhaustion had vanished in the excitement of discovery, the dirt on her chin, herself covered in grass and flushed from exertion. She’d looked marvelous, and a pang of loss suddenly struck through Sam. It wasn’t fair. Now that he knew he was going to live long enough to have the time for a relationship, he wasn’t “allowed” to have one.
As you can see, I am breaking my rule of trying to start with dialog, but the action in the first paragraph is taking place as the reader reads it, not in the past. We don’t see what happened a few hours ago until the second paragraph, and even that is tied back to the present with Sam’s pang of loss being actively felt, followed by his thoughts.
I also give you a good grounding in what the day is like, and that it is in fact, day. There needs to be at least one reminder every page until it’s well set. (sun, shadow, birds song, etc.) I remind you he’s in flip-flops, and therefore his slow movements are because of twigs and sticks. I don’t really have to tell you about them because anyone who’s been walking in the woods with flip-flops knows.
And most important, when he gets past them and moves faster, the reader will naturally relax, pulling them deeper into Sam’s character. Manipulating the reader this way is tricky, but wow, it has a lot of impact when done well. What I’ve got here is kind of middling, but it’s there.