Sunday, April 1, 2012

Chasing the Elusive Chapter One

As soon as I put Chapter One of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty up on my critique loop, I knew I had trouble. So I listened to my critique partners’ suggestions, took on-line workshops on building character emotion (not to mention all the other workshops I’ve taken over the years on “the beginning of your book”), rewrote, tried other places to start the chapter, cut a huge section of the book. By the time I had finished all my rewrites and polishes (with the whole book) and gotten the thumbs-up from my critique partners and teen beta readers, who loved it, I figured I had a winner.


The five or so agents I queried loved the premise, but returned my partials with comments like “I can’t seem to connect with the characters.”

Arrgh! What does that mean?

OK. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how to hook your reader. They include:
  • Start in the middle of the action
  • Show an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation or an extraordinary protagonist in some way that shows the human/ordinary side of their personality
  • Cut the first three chapters, which are probably back-story anyway
  • Write an intriguing first sentence
  • Show, not tell
  • Work the scene-setting details into the action. Don’t waste paragraphs setting the scene
  • Set up the conflict immediately
  • Set up the characters’ goals by the end of the chapter
  • Start with the event that throws the character into the problem he/she must solve
Yeah, right. So I did all that.

It actually took something Bob Meyers said at his workshop at the RWNZ conference to make me realize what’s been missing. You have to do something to make the reader CARE about your protagonist and whether he/she actually achieves his/her goal.

So I did some more rewrites, went back to square one, took my first chapter to my husband and asked him to read it.

Now Phil’s my alpha reader (if there is such a thing.) He gets every first draft. He’s no literary critic – though he’s learned a lot over the years from hearing me talk about what I’m learning – but he’s great at connecting with the emotion of a story.

So after he read my newest version and he made some comments about what I’d done to change it (see, he has been learning), I asked him whether he cared about my protagonist.

Long silence. Finally, “No.” And he told me why.

A) She was a follower, not a leader. Things happened to her and she let them without taking her own action.
B) He wasn’t convinced she really cared about Viola, but she spends the book protecting her.

Phil summed it up with, “I figure she deserves whatever she gets.”


I thought about it a lot. Protagonists don’t have to be the leader of the pack, but they do have to drive the action. Even the character running from pursuers still has a mystery to solve, something that will get the hounds off her heels.

More important is how much Sophie, my protagonist, cared about what was happening. As Robin Perini, quoting author Laura DeVries, put it in her article in the March 2012 issue of Romance Writers Report: “How much a character cares about his/her goals is in direct proportion to how much the reader will care.”

BINGO. I had to show Sophie’s caring, and that was a whole new ballgame.

So I rewrote my beginning (again), this time going back to what I’d had way back last August, but adding the details that show how much her siblings and family matter to Sophie. And gave it to Phil again, trying very hard not to hover over him as he read.

He closed the file on my computer and said, “I almost cried at the end of this version of your chapter one. I really felt Sophie’s loss.”

“Do you care?”

“Yes, very much.”

Which is exactly want I wanted.

A few more rewrites to succeeding chapters to pull them in line with Chapter One and I’m ready to pitch again. Just in time for the Desert Dreams conference. Wish me luck.


  1. Hi from canada. Just saw your comment on Victoria's blog. Nice summary of what an author should do, and Phil's comments good. Just liek you I'm sending queries and you shouldn't get the rejections personally. The response about not being able to connet with the characters is a standard response that people get .. I got it. Just send many more queries. It's very comptitive out there and because agents get so many submissions, they reject good books all the time. They just can't accept all the good books submittted to them. Good luck!

  2. YEAH!! You're so fortunate your husband can do this. Mine is willing, but 1. has no time 2. really hasn't picked up the knack for telling me why he doesn't like something. However, since he's otherwise unconditionally supportive, I love him to pieces. LOL Really excited for you. This rewrite sounds like you've nailed the problem down. Did it change much of the rest of the book?

  3. Phil is a gem, but he's taken years of educating, so don't give up on your spouse.
    Heaps of rewriting ahead, but mostly minor things to bring the text into line with my new picture of my main character.

  4. Good luck with the submission process :-)