Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Perfect Start, a guest post from Chanda Stafford, author of First

Once upon a time—sc ratch that. It was a dark and stormy—nope, overused. It was the best of times; it was the worst—really? Come on, Chanda, you can do better than that. Gunshots blared—what are you thinking? Gunshots don’t blare. Horns blare. Car alarms blare. Alarm clocks blare. Not guns. They bang, boom, and pow.  Maybe you should start with a splash of blood. You know, have the main character drenched in it. And then, to add suspense, don’t tell the reader whose blood it is until halfway through the book. Just—stop right there. You’re an idiot. Maybe you should quit this writing thing and go get a job at Wal-Mart. A full service gas station works, too. You never have to worry about the perfect starting line. All you have to say is, “Would you like a car wash with that?”

As a reader, it’s easy to overlook the grueling work an author puts into those first few pages. If they’re good, you buy the book and will likely enjoy the rest of the ride. If it’s really good, you’ll read it again and even recommend that book to your friends. The best case scenario is you love the book so much, you’ll look up the author on the internet and purchase everything he or she has ever written. I’ve done that. I absolutely fell in love with Mira Grant’s zombie books and subsequently devoured everything she’s published to date.

But if the beginning is awful, you put the book down and forget about it the second you walk away. If it’s really terrible, you steer clear of that author’s work from then on. I remember being forced to read Moby Dick by my high school English teacher. That one still makes me cringe. It starts out, “Call me Ishmael,” and it doesn’t get any better after that.

The beginning of any novel is definitely the most important. Before the book even makes it to the stands, that initial offering has to attract an agent and/or publisher. If that first glimpse into the world you’ve created isn’t good enough, your book will likely never see the light of day. It’s sad, but true.

In my novel, First, I rewrote the beginning more times than I remember. Seriously, I had the chapter memorized and could recite it in my sleep. Then, when I still hated it, I added a new chapter in front of it to try to alleviate my torment. After Red Adept Publishing signed me on, they asked me to add a prologue.  This new chapter also underwent several revisions, just to get the elusive hook. But when we finally got it, it was like the heavens opened up and angels started singing! All the hard work, tears, and swear words (on my end, only) were worth it.  I’ve never been a fan of prologues, to be honest, but the one in First really fits. It adds a sense of urgency, danger, and suspense that would have been missing otherwise.

While I used to underestimate the power of a book’s first chapter, I now pay close attention to how the author chooses to start his or her masterpiece. What hook does she use? What plot devices? What techniques? Is it one that I’ve seen before or something totally new? Then, when I find something I really like, I rip it apart and use that technique in my own writing. It’s like literary cannibalism. I’m pretty sure every author does it at least a few times in his/her career. It’s hard not to. When you find something that works for someone else, you want to make it work for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure that you pick the good ones and steer clear of the white whales. Your readers will thank you. 

Get your copy of First from Amazon US (ebook or paper), Amazon UK (ebook or paper), or for your Nook from Barnes & Noble.

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Chanda Stafford said...

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for your blog. It was a lot of fun!

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks you for doing it, Chanda.