Thursday, November 3, 2011

Crafting an Agent-Catching Chapter One

I was given the news by the editor at my publishing company.  It was a shock, even in these shocking times in publishing.  "We only read the first two pages of chapter one," she said.  "If it doesn't grab me, it doesn't get further."
What intense pressure for writers these days!  To craft a chapter one that
sings loudly and uniquely enough to catch an editor's (or an agent's) eye.  To keep them reading past the first two pages.  To make them fall in love with your story, be it nonfiction, fiction, or memoir.
Chapter one is perhaps the hardest chapter to write. It has to establish three essential elements that pull the reader into your story. These elements are key to successfully placing your manuscript with an agent. If you don't have them securely in place, you won't get a contract. They exist in any genre of book, if you know how to find them.

Dilemma is the conflict, the question, the quest.

Players are characters, or the narrator, or anyone on stage, whom should we care about.

Container is where everything happens, both outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment.

These elements create a kind of tension cord. It pulls the reader through your book to the last page. If they are not all in place, the cord is slack and your manuscript doesn't make it past the round file.

Be Aware of Your Natural Strength
Every writer gravitates toward one of these three elements.  It is her or his natural, almost unconscious, strength. I've worked with many mystery writers, for example,  who dream up plots--dilemma--without any effort. One writer I worked with came to class each week with a new plot twist that had the rest of us envious.  She would enter her story from the question What happens? And that question always led toward new ideas.  
Another writer might dream of characters.  A psychologist in one of my weekly groups loved to analyze how people ticked (no surprise, given his profession) and was adept at writing them on the page.  
Then there's the writer who loves setting.  Who goes deep into the details of a culture, defining the marketplace or the mountain range or the English garden without any effort.  We salivate at her descriptions of weather and sounds and smells and the lattice work on a wall, details that bring the environment of her story alive.
So we first need to recognize what we do best, and keep doing that.  And at the same time, bring the other two elements into our awareness too.
Otherwise, the mystery writer might have a fantastic plot that comes across completely ungrounded:  she has  overlooked the place it happens, and the characters who are complicating things and getting deeper into trouble. So her story is interesting but the agent or editor might say, "Your prose needs tightening." Read: "Two elements are missing here; plug them in." Or, most important: "Make us care!"

A medical memoirist might also think of dilemma first--the accident that left him in a wheelchair, for instance. Event is what matters most to him, but the reader engages through first caring about his dilemma--or character. So the memoirist must begin to reveal himself on the page, more and more. Not always comfortable, but essential.
The psychologist writing a book on mental illness might think first of players--the people she counsels at the clinic or hospital, their personalities. She presents their background, their case histories (disguised or with permission), but she can't figure out how to place them in a setting that's believable. She begins to write the setting--a hospital--and suddenly we see the frailty of these people because we smell the antiseptic or hear the intercom paging doctors.

Your job is to think of all three, no matter which strength you build from. And they all must appear in chapter one.

How Does Chapter One Reveal Dilemma, Players, and Container?
In my weekly classes, we use published books as examples of how to craft chapter one.  One of the favorites is the opening chapter--only three pages long--of Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied. Blundell won the National Book Award for this novel. Her first chapter made me want to buy the book, and I'm not surprised that both an agent and editor felt the same way. 
Because that first chapter covers all three elements beautifully.

The chapter opens with the main players, in their unique "container"--a mother still dressed from her evening out, as daybreak slides into a room.  The mother, who smells of cigarette smoke and My Sin perfume,is lying in bed next to the young daughter who pretends to be sleeping beside her.  There's huge tension between them, even though nothing is said.  On the next page, the dilemma is heightened:  a man, Peter, has died tragically, the father who left, the mysterious friend. We learn of the dilemma--a small reference to the beach town and his body pulled in from the sea by fishermen.  We don't know how it happened, but there's enough hint to present the mystery this book will solve.  We also learn (still in the first two pages) how everyone at this Florida resort hotel knows the family's faces because they've been in the news recently. 
So players and dilemma are solidly presented.  How is the container in these two pages?  Expert.  Blundell creates an amazingly engaging container, both physically and emotionally, with lines like "The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast" or "I heard the seagulls crying, sadder than a funeral, and I knew it was almost morning." 
Studying the first two pages of your favorite published book might teach you how writers manage this.  Blundell's book is usually a revelation to its readers, compact and elegant and effective.  It grabs you immediately.  
That's what you want your first chapter to do, as well.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Want to join my writing class--at least virtually--this week? Try focusing on chapter one in one of your favorite published books. Pick one that's been published within the last 5 years, a book in your book's genre, one you admire a lot.
Photocopy the first two pages and see if you can find the three elements:  dilemma, players, container.
Then, once you've seen how it works, try it with your own first chapter.  Can you draft it--or look it over if it's already written--and check it for these three elements? What's missing? What's already present?

To read more about Judy Blundell's book, click .

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