Saturday, April 25, 2009

First Chapters

Someone was asking me how my WIP was going, so let me give you a little status report. The draft is finished. And it is dreadful. But that's okay. It is supposed to be. I've been taught to get it on paper and fix it up later. And that's what I hope to do. And to that end, I got my first professional critique from a writer a week or so ago. One big comment: my first chapter lacks tension.

He's probably got a point. I think. But after attempting to fix it, which I presume will involve tightening it up and/or adding content that increases the tension, I have seven new versions of my story, none of which are any better. I also have a handful of hair, and several new bald spots. But if I comb it just right and spray it... You get the idea.

How much tension do I need in a cozy mystery anyway? (And yes, there is a little bit of a whine mixed in with the question.) Unlike their suspense, thriller, and even mainstream mystery cousins, cozy readers are looking for other things. They want a cozy environment that they can crawl into, and a character that engages them. Cozy readers are perhaps the most tolerant of lull in action, but only up to a point. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) what I need is not more tension, but more SOMETHING that will engage a reader, especially in the first chapter. Or perhaps there is something inherently wrong with my structure that causes the reader to feel he is being drawn away from the story. Maybe it's more than one of these things.

So rather than pull out any more hair and create more versions only to crumple them up later, I need to step back and take some lessons. It's time to go back to school. So, the next few blog entries will consist of the analysis of first chapters of the first books in successful cozy mystery series. How does the author engage the reader? What draws me into the story and makes me want to continue? And how does the writer spend those precious few first words for the maximum effect?

If you're reading this blog, feel free to do these exercises with me, or comment if you have insights that I've missed. Even if you don't have the books in question, most of the first chapters can be found for free on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Stay tuned...


  1. Barb: My fav is Agatha Christie, whom I consider cozy, even though her sentences go on for miles.
    I think she focuses on characters more than tension, though. Am I right? I'm not the greatest analyst.
    Can you get a 2nd and 3rd opinion on your first chapter?

  2. Well, I could just keep getting opinions until someone tells me what I want to hear, but that kind of defeats the purpose, right? LOL. Just kidding.

    I don't know that I disagree with the crit. I think he had some valid points. I'm just not sure how to fix it--hence the study.

    And I actually do have some other opinions coming in, since I entered the same chapter in the ACFW Genesis contest, so we'll see what they have to say about it.

  3. You wrote - Perhaps the thing that engages most (and this is subjective) is the identifiable nature of the protag. She feels inferior. She can't remember when she had a date, and her mother drives her up the wall. Her sister outshines her.

    Tension doesn't have to mean a murder, dead bodies, or a Hannibal Lector on every page. Not at all. In the paragraph you wrote (above) the tension is in the protagonist's feeling of inferiority. Her mother is driving her crazy. Her sister is better at everything. That's real tension.

    Agatha Christie created tons of tension in her stories. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie opens the book with, "Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September - a Thursday."

    She ends the next paragraph with, "But my instinct told me there were stirring times ahead."

    There's no mention of murder or serial killers, yet the author created tension using the narrator's tension-induced thoughts.

    By the way, I'm a big Agatha Christie fan, and I love her books because of the intricate way she used characters, setting, and dialog to create tension.

  4. Thanks, Lee.

    Yeah, you caught me whining a little, but I'm still trying to figure out how to fix it. I'm beginning to think part of my problem might be structural, and I'm looking for ways to raise the stakes and engage the reader in those opening scenes.

    If I were to follow Fluke's blueprint, for instance, I'd start out with the church service and picnic, and leave out any reference to the missing woman until the end of the chapter. Only my protag would have to pop out of the page. And right now, admittedly, she ain't poppin'.

    Perhaps I need a way to raise the stakes and get people interested in Wendy before they are interested in the victim. I was advised by another contact (multi-pubbed) to focus on the main character's goals and the obstacles to those goals (my version of the mother who drives her up the wall and the sister that outshines her) and the tension that creates. I'm playing with a couple ideas to do that, but I'm resisting the urge to make any changes willy-nilly until I finish my "study." I want to see how more authors have done this successfully.

    I have a feeling I'll pull out some Agatha before this is all over with.

    And probably pull out some more hair too. Now if I could only funnel that tension into my writing!

  5. - I was advised by another contact (multi-pubbed) to focus on the main character's goals and the obstacles to those goals.

    I like this (above) advice. Goals and hurdles can create the tension and hook that's needed to keep readers turning the pages.