The Dreaded First Chapter

I have noticed recently quite a few writers posting about first chapters, either offering #writetip[s] or lamenting the fact that their opening did not catch fire. Despite oft-crushing self-doubt, I had convinced myself that my opening is just fine: I introduce the necessary characters, establish their chemistry with one another, and fire off a few laughs. None of my readers have given me any criticism or feed-back concerning my opening scene.

No one, that is, until my brother took me to a bar. My brother is the kind of person who is brilliant and talented, and surrounded by brilliant and talented people, and they are all the kind of people – like me – who are so crushed by self-doubt or disillusionment that they are doing little with their potential. And they all hang out at bars. So, while we are at his preferred bar, Tin Roof Cantina in North Druid Hills, I rope one of his friends in to read my revised draft. He said that he couldn’t tell immediately why the characters were being introduced, and he found it difficult to engage with them. (He added, by way of apology, that he was also very drunk.) He also added a couple of other tidbits that should not be so difficult to resolve, but he cracked my confidence in my intro.

As if to reinforce this feedback, publication on Wattpad does not seem to be very successful. I’m posting a chapter every Tuesday and Thursday. I started posting on 06/16. Chapter one has 25 views, while chapter two has five. I have one follower (You know who you are – Thank you!), and no comments.

Initially, this appears to reinforce the drunken criticism I received. I, of course, took to Twitter to lament having to re-write the first chapters, and a follower offered another tidbit: It’s not me, it’s them. He described Wattpad as a “short attention-span theater,” which sounds accurate, and advised me to write for myself, not an audience.

While there is no one who could accuse me of catering to an audience with my material, and these words did make me feel better, I still need to cater to readers of all attention spans. I want to engage my readers, but I also don’t want to change the meat of the introduction I have. My new quest is to identify the flaws in the scene I currently have, and fix it.

Meanwhile, I’m considering making a chapter from Two Guns the introduction for Colossus. The only drawback of this would be revealing the antagonist to the reader immediately, rather than the reader discovering it when the characters do. However, it does answer several questions readers would have, and establishes the tone of the book.

If you could, dear reader, take out some time to read my introduction, and then the scene in the link above, and let me know your opinion, it would be greatly appreciated.

My current introduction:

There were only two more weeks until freedom. The halls of Cheatham Hill High School were full of excitement and anticipation. No one felt it more than the graduating seniors. With college and careers ahead of them, they were able to avoid or mediate the tension that was endemic among the underclassmen. When fights broke out in the halls – which is common before summer break – it was usually a senior who broke it up. Normally, they would have watched, or egged it on, but hope on the horizon made them unusually magnanimous.

None of them anticipated the shadow that would fall over their high spirits.

Heather would be dead in a little over a month, but when she entered the classroom for Anatomy and Physiology, she was not thinking of the future; she was wondering why they had a substitute. Where was Dr. Creighton? Teachers were not supposed to take any days off within the last two weeks of school, due to the heightened tensions. It must have been something serious. Her concern drifted away when she caught sight of the substitute’s face. He was handsome in a painfully stereotypical way: tall and dark-featured. The sight of him made her stomach flop. He was half-smiling as the principal, Dr. Magee, went over substitute plans with him. His eyes flickered over the students who were entering, eyes so dark, they looked almost black. When his gaze met hers, she realized she was staring. Lowering her head to hide her flushing face, she turned and went to her desk on the far side of the classroom.

A group of girls walked in the door, wearing the purple-and-white tops of Cheatham Hill’s cheerleading team. They were the only sleeveless tops allowed in school, and the team exploited that caveat almost daily. Monica Shatterthwaith, despite being the shortest girl in class, and surrounded by fairer girls, stood out from them. Her cream-and-coffee complexion and wide hazel eyes were magnetic; Even the substitute stared as she crossed the room. She took her assigned seat next to Heather, and her fellow cheerleaders attempted to occupy the seats around her. This was thwarted by students who actually wanted to sit in their own seats. After a moment of protests, Heather’s corner of the world quieted down.

“I’d like a piece of that,” Monica whispered to Heather. Sometimes, when none of her other friends were around, she remembered that they used to be best friends. Heather cherished these moments; She had recognized a long time ago that Monica was candid with her in a way that she wasn’t with others. It was probably because they had known one another since before they could walk.

“You should have seen him staring when you walked in,” she whispered back. Monica looked pleased with this response.

Between rumors that there was a substitute and the fact that summer was two weeks away, the class that day was unusually small. Only twelve of the twenty-five students enrolled in the course decided to attend. As stragglers shuffled in and took their seats, Dr. Magee took his leave, and Heather closed her eyes and prayed that Witt would neglect to come. She hissed between her teeth with disappointment when his freckled face appeared at the door.

“A substitute – yeah!” He made a show of mock appreciation by shaking the sub’s hand, then promptly took a seat that was not assigned to him.

Zachariah followed Witt in. He could not have presented more of a contrast to Witt, with his brunette hair and green eyes. A mixture of bitterness and a quickened pulse filled Heather’s chest at the sight of him, but she shifted uncomfortably and forced them both away. Zachariah did not mimic Witt’s show of bravado. In fact, he avoided the substitute’s gaze, gripping the tattered strap of his book bag, he trudged to his desk, right behind Heather. He looked impatient with Witt’s gimmicks, but wasn’t about to say anything; he had forfeited that right long ago.

They settled down surprisingly fast when the substitute called for attention. His voice was not booming, but it was sharp with authority. It commanded obedience in most of the students, but for others, it presented a welcome challenge. Witt sucked on his bottom lip as he stared at the sub, waiting for another opportunity to draw attention to himself.

“My name is Avery Rhodes –” he began to introduce himself, but was interrupted.

“‘Road’, like you drive on?” Witt asked.

“No, ‘Rhodes’, as in ‘Colossus of’,” he shot back. Monica giggled, taking this out of context. When some of the other students realized why, they made a muffled chorus of amused noises. Rhodes, realizing what they must be thinking, gave an amused half-smile. “OK, calm down,” he said, before diving into calling roll.

Most substitutes called out the names as if they were asking a question; Rhodes called out the names as if he were commanding them to respond. He had gotten all the way to Monica without incident, but she wanted to become more to him than just another name on his roster. She wanted to give him something to remember her by.

“Monica Shatterthwaith.”

“It’s not ‘Monica’,” Monica snapped, as if annoyed. “It’s ‘Moné-sha’.”

He smirked, and retaliated flawlessly. “Thank you for correcting me,” he said slowly, writing a note on the roll, “otherwise I would have made a fool of myself by pronouncing it phonetically all day.”

“I know, right?” Monica gushed. “You’re so welcome!”

“And Heather Stokes.” He had noticed that the students were supposed to be sitting in alphabetical order, and turned to Heather. “Is it ‘Heather’ Stokes? Not ‘Hater’ or ‘He-ăther’ or ‘Hee-ther’ or anything like that?”

“Well, now that you mention it…” she exchanged a glance with Monica. Heather was eager to see more of his banter, but was not about to victimize a teacher – especially a substitute. She glanced at Witt. Refusing to stoop to his level, she shook her head. “No, it is just Heather.”

“Thank you, Just Heather.” It appeared that she had broken the trend, until he reached the end of the alphabet: “Zachariah Vlasov.”

“It’s just ‘Z’,” Zachariah replied.

Sensing no humor in his voice, Rhodes nodded. “The ‘-achariah’ is silent,” he observed.

Z smirked. “Yeah,” he nodded, making a mental note to use that one later.

Rhodes continued on to “Charles Witt.”

“It’s ‘D’,” Witt replied. He had leaned far back in his chair, and rolled his head, making a great effort to look and sound bored.

“‘D’?” Rhodes repeated, double-checking the name on his roll. “‘D’ is short for Charles Francis Witt?”

There was giggling all over the classroom; Witt loathed his middle name, and they knew it. He shot them dirty looks. “No,” he said, “I just like the letter.” He gave Rhodes a look that dared him to challenge his reason.

Rhodes chuckled. “Well, in that case,” he replied, making a note on the roster, “I’ll give you the D.” The classroom buzzed with giggles and muffled, shocked gasps. Heather’s eyes went wide. A few teachers were relaxed enough to use colorful humor when speaking privately, but she had never heard one crack a lewd joke in class. Rhodes continued on as if he could not have possibly meant anything other than acquiescing to Witt’s desire.

“Your assignment is the complete chapter six review, and the chapter eight review. According to Dr. Creighton, these chapters were especially difficult for most of you.” There were muted groans from around the class. “It’s a two day assignment, so take your time. I’ve looked over the material myself, and it is… fairly dense.”

“Gaaaay…” Witt moaned, rolling his head.

“Is it – D?” Heather shot before Rhodes could respond. “Is it really?”

“Don’t start,” Rhodes warned.

Witt ignored him, turning to Heather. “I mean, it’s stupid,” he elaborated.

“You should apologize to that poor assignment,” Heather replied. “It might actually be gay, and struggling with its true identity.”

Witt’s face reddened, and he scowled. “I would ask you if you were proud of being gay,” he sneered, “but we all know that’s not the case.” He cocked his head toward Z.

“Shut up!” Z and Monica snapped in unison, but it was too late. Heather’s face turned bright red.

“That’s enough!” Rhodes said firmly, coming out from behind the counter. Everyone fell silent under his stern gaze. “You may think the assignment is stupid,” he continued, “but it’s a large percentage of your unit grade,” he held Dr. Creighton’s substitute plans up as evidence, then added in an undertone, “and I expect you to respect its life choices.”

Heather dropped her head to her desk as she attempted to hide her laughter.

Rhodes’s joke had brought the conflict to a quick end. When the students began to work, or pretended to begin to work, he floated among them to look over shoulders and offer assistance. Each time he passed Witt’s desk, Witt appeared to be asleep, and received a kick in the chair. He “woke” with exaggerated snorting and flailing. Rhodes did not give him the satisfaction of a response, moving along to the next row.

Psst!” Monica hissed at Heather, leaning over. “What’s the answer to number three?” Class was almost over, but only a few students had been working diligently.

Heather flipped back a few pages, then replied, “It’s on page 363.”

Monica should have known better than to ask Heather for a straight answer. She flipped to 363, skimmed it, and turned back to Heather. “Yeah, but what’s the answer?”

Heather flicked her eyes up toward Rhodes. He had taken his place at the head of the classroom, leaning on his elbows over the counter that doubled as a teacher’s desk. He was watching them intently. Their eyes met for a moment, but Heather glanced away as if she were not doing anything wrong.

“Should I just copy this paragraph?” Monica asked.

“No,” she whispered. “That’s not what the question is asking.”

“What’s it asking?”

Z leaned forward, brushing Heather’s shoulder as he reached out to point at Monica’s text book. “You need to figure out, based on the examples, what other uses the practice may have.”

“Oh… Like what?”

“Like taxidermy,” Heather replied.

“Taxidermy?” Monica repeated, forgetting to whisper. They all glanced at Rhodes, who was still watching them silently. He raised his eyebrows, inviting them to pose their question to him.

“Fuck, that’s a good one,” Z whispered. He flipped his paper over to scratch the word into his answer.

“Taxidermy…” Monica muttered to herself, trying to figure it out. Failing, she turned back to Heather, changing the topic. “What question are you on?”

Heather flipped her book closed. “I’m done,” she said.

“It’s a two-day assignment!” Monica hissed as Heather went to the front of the classroom. When Rhodes turned his full attention to Heather, Monica twisted around to look at Z. “Hey, lemme see your paper.”

“No,” Z replied.

Approaching the counter, Heather asked, “Where should I turn this in?” She held her papers up to him.

Rhodes glanced skeptically at the assignment. “Well, Just Heather,” he began, pulling out a manila folder and opening it, “you turn it in to this folder… tomorrow.”

“So… I should just hold on to it?”

Rhodes shook his head. “You can’t be finished. I wouldn’t be able to complete this in 90 minutes.” Heather looked down at her paper, then nodded. She held out to him three pages covered front-to-back with her small, neat hand-writing. He took them with a sigh. “You wrote out the questions?” he asked. “And answered in complete sentences?”

“That is classroom procedure,” she informed him.

Rhodes glanced over her answers, looking increasingly impressed. He straightened up as he flipped the pages over to skim both sides. After a moment, he dropped them into the folder. He considered her for a moment. “Name all the bones of the wrist,” he demanded suddenly.

Heather hesitated, then looked down at her wrist. “Oh!” she exclaimed, surprised that she actually knew the answer. She moved her fingers over the bones as she told him: “Trapezium, scaphoid, lunate, pisiform, capitate, hemate, tri… triquetrum…” She counted, muttered to herself, “I’m forgetting one.” She placed her thumb over the unidentified bone.

“Trapezoid,” Z told her, coming up behind her and tossing his own papers down on the counter.

She looked at him breathlessly for a moment, then nodded. “Thanks,” she said. Rhodes observed them both carefully. Heather pursed her lips and dropped her gaze to the top page of Z’s assignment. “You forgot the questions,” she pointed out quietly.

“God – !” Z stopped himself before he swore. Rhodes and Heather exchanged an amused glance. Holding up a finger, Z indicated to Rhodes that he would be right back, then returned to his seat to fill in the questions.

Rhodes turned his attention back to Heather. “You’re a senior. You’re going to college, I assume.”

“I start UGA in August,” she told him.

“Are you studying medicine?” he asked.

Frowning, she shook her head. She dropped her eyes to avoid his gaze. “My mom was a physical therapist, so medical jobs all seem kind of … thankless, for the amount of people you work with. Kind of like teaching,” she gestured toward him.

“Thankless…” Rhodes repeated, nodding thoughtfully. “I can see that.”

“I’m going to study linguistics.”

He furrowed his eyebrows, perplexed at this perceived waste of potential. “You can name all the bones in your wrist, and you want to study… linguistics,” he said. Glancing at the clock, he began to straighten the papers and books that were scattered across the counter. “What languages do you speak?” he asked absently.

“French,” she answered, “Spanish, Latin, some German, some Vietnamese.”

“Vietnamese?” He raised an eyebrow again.

“My grandmother was a war bride.”

“Ah,” Rhodes nodded. Leaning onto the counter again, he returned his full attention to her. “Well, you should definitely re-consider studying medicine,” he advised her. “You’ll find it’s not all that thankless after all.”

Heather opened her mouth to respond, but the bell rang. The silent class burst into the chaos of scraping desks and slamming books.

“I’ll see if I can’t find a little something to occupy your time tomorrow,” Rhodes told her.

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10 thoughts on “The Dreaded First Chapter

  1. Hi,
    Because I’m time short I’m going to admit straight away to not having read all of your opening – but this is the way to start: land running by opening literally as close to your inciting incident as is possible. So, if your inciting incident for the story is Heather’s death, then make her die in your opening sentence – you can fill in back story details by drip feed as you go on.

    Where do I get this wisdom? From this amazingly brilliant book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hooked-Write-Fiction-Grabs-Readers/dp/1582974578/

    I can’t recommend it enough!

    Tamsin
    xoxox

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My first question is, aren’t they one in the same? But if the answer’s no, then I’d start with the inciting incident for book one as it will probably make more sense – though you’d have to be the judge of that, knowing the details of the story.
        xxx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your first chapter, it’s dense with exposition; it introduces the setting and the characters in explicit detail. That’s important, but like your follower said, Wattpad is a “short attention-span theatre.” The reader needs a hook, not just in Wattpad excerpts, but in novel-writing as a whole.

    It would be nice if readers gave us the benefit of the doubt and committed to our stories, giving the book time to mature and unfold. But this isn’t the case. I know a very successful author who always tells me “the first sentence is the most important sentence in the book, and the first chapter is the most important chapter.” I think you are close to the mark when you say, a few sentences in, “None of them anticipated the shadow that would fall over their high spirits.” Even better, when you add “Heather would be dead in a little over a month…” This is the kind of hook that gets readers interested; I found myself wondering and speculating on what was going to happen to these kids.

    Using the “Two Guns” chapter, I think, is perfect. Not only does it establish a dark, foreboding mood, it grabs the reader’s interest immediately with these characters, inciting speculation into who they are and how they came to be in this situation. Then, once all that is established, with the next chapter the reader is contemplating how the students are associated with these other characters, generating genuine interest, even as you are going through the introductions. Also, by using the “Two Guns” chapter as an opening, you have a much stronger, tone establishing first sentence, which is so important.

    I don’t know how important it is for your book to keep the antagonist from being revealed, but if it’s a deal breaker, you could always rework the “Two Guns” chapter to obfuscate his identity in some way, not mentioning him by name or only using his first name or something along those lines.

    Ultimately, whether you tweak your first chapter or use the alternate, I think you have a strong foundation for the start of your story; you just need to massage the words a little in order to capture the reader’s attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Incidentally, I once put a short story up on Wattpad and Smashwords at around the same time, and it currently has 3000% more views on Smashwords. That’s not hyperbole, that’s literally the number. But it’s still really hard to get any feedback. No one ever wants to leave comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never heard of Smashwords. I’ll look into it. I was also considering posting it here on WordPress, since you don’t have to sign up to view posts.

    Thanks so much for your feedback! You rock.

    Like

  5. It started out too scattered for me, too much info at once. I didn’t feel any chatacter’s real voice until the college question.

    Once there, I started losing them again.

    Very confrontational piece–fights for dominance. It made me feel uncomfortable. Reminded me how much I hated school. Maybe look at that angle.

    Also, I’m with Heather. Medecine? Bleh. Languages is where it’s at 🙂

    Like

  6. I’m short on time so I wasn’t able to read the chapter itself, but I know how you feel. I felt really good about my first scene and then had it ripped apart. It was quite the shock, but I’ve since revised it. Openings are so tough because there’s so much to include (setting, characters, tone, the galvanizing event, etc etc times a million) but must be delivered in the right way! Oof…

    Like

  7. The best advice I have received regarding openings is “Start in the middle of something” – no matter if it’s action, a dialog or else. It forces your reader to take an immediate interest in what he’s reading and pay attention to what happened in your story.
    I hope it can help you 🙂
    If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your pen name on Wattpad?

    Like

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