Friday, March 13, 2009

The Problem With My Novel Opening

Since a bunch of you counted your suddenlys yesterday, I was reminded of a nice tool available online. It's called Wordle. You paste your manuscript into this program and it gives you a nice list of all the words you use and how many times you use them. It also gives you a really nice pictorial diagram that emphasizes your most used words. Not only is it pretty, but it's quite useful. When I put in my novel, the top three words I used were the names of the three main characters in my book in the order that I would have predicted, which was nice to know. I also saw that some other words I used a lot were the other characters' names, the word "hands" came up, the word "back" came up -- which is appropriate since the book explores returning to the past, and the word "something" came up, which let me know that I had some imprecise language. Thankfully, there weren't too many of those and I was able to change a bunch of them. So go get your Wordle on!

On the publishing front, I have been working on revising the first chapter of my novel. Here is the dilemma I face. I'd love to get your opinions on it.

My book is about a man, Bao Phamduong, who ran away from his hometown of Ra-nong, Thailand to escape from his abusive brother, Daeng. Twenty years later, Daeng is killed and Bao goes back to Ra-nong to try and reunite with the family he left behind. His brings his wife and son, both of whom have their own histories and conflicts.

(I tell the story through alternating past and present chapters. I use a third person point of view where I allow myself to go into the heads of Bao, his wife, and his son.)

I originally started the story from the moment when Bao got the news that his brother was dead. It was sort of boring -- phone call, internal struggle. Then, one night I wrote a chapter in which Daeng's killing is actually shown. It gives an initial glimpse of the antagonist of the story right before he dies. It's sort of his one chance to defend himself for the reader. Here's my problem. I've let about twelve people read most or all of the book, and all of those people say to keep the first chapter the way it is. I've let about ten people read just the first few pages, and some of those people say the first chapter is misleading because it seems to be about Daeng rather than Bao, and because it sets up a tone that this book will be violent and graphic, which it isn't. So, while I like the book as a whole the way it is, I'm worried that the first chapter will turn off too many readers, including agents who request small partials, such as the first five pages. Does anyone have any thoughts on what you would do in this situation?


  1. It sounds like the phone call version suits your book best.

    And while it's not action oriented, receiving a call about your dead brother is certainly dramatic and should pull readers in just fine.

    As long as that phone call is well written (does it include his emotional reactions, which sound like they'd be mixed and conflicting?) it should be good.

    You don't need physical action for there to be plot action. Sounds like your original opener would hook readers just fine.

  2. What genre is it? I'm guessing literary fiction.

    Priority number one in selling is to know your target audience.

    If your phone call first chapter would not be enticing to a suspense/thriller audience, but the depth of character revealed through the internal struggle would appeal to the literary audience, then you are on the right track.

    Ultimately, go with your gut. Seek and listen to advice of your peers and professionals (no disrespect to unprofessional peers ;-), but after you weigh those opinions, do what you think is best. It's your story, and only you know the best way to tell it.

    Here's food for thought: What is chapter 2, and how does the content and ending of chapter 1 impact chapter 2?

    WORD VERIFICATION: nomator. Nomator what we say, you are the ultimate judge. Trust yourself, and write what you like to read.

  3. Well, you've read my first chapter, so you know I'm no expert. But will that stop me from discussing your first chapter on your blog? Not so much. Also, I haven't read any of it so what I'm about to say will be even less useful. Enough caveats?

    I think it's a good idea to have Daeng appear in the novel. Where he appears is another problem. But if you want to defend him against what's to follow, you need to put something in that scene that is morally defensible on his part.

    You can make it clear that the book is not about Daeng by starting with something like, "Bao Phamduong was sleeping safely in his bed the night his brother Daeng was murdered" or something. It's just the order of th elements that's bothering you, I think, and not anything you've actually got on the page. If you worry about the level of violence, I think that if you balance it with a complementary set of images, it won't necessarily seem like a violent book.

    I also like the technique of having a scene at the start that shows the theme/conflicts of the novel in miniature, because I'm a big fan of foreshadowing. That's what the eel-fishing scene is supposed to do in my book. Though I have messed with that somewhat in the rewrite.

    Mostly, though, I think that if your query pitch is about Bao and you make mention of him in the first five pages even if those pages tell the story of Daeng's killing, it'll be fine. An agent will have read your pitch, and a reader of the book will have more than the first five pages.

  4. How fun... I have a list of these sorts of words that I do a search for (just, any, etc). But this sounds much easier, Davin!

    Well, you're obviously starting with the inciting incident. There are plenty of books that start with something darker, only to reveal the true voice later. As far as an agent finding it misleading, your query letter would state clearly the genre, the focus and flavor of the book, and he might be intrigued that you know how to grab the reader's attention. You can always find a very clever way to revisit the initial inciting incident that brings it back around, making the opening inclusive to the story. If you're worried about it being gratuitious, maybe find a way to add in a tertiary character who has the piece of this puzzle that your main character will need.
    Just some thoughts... but I would not worry about it being misleading if it's dramatically relevant and you're clear in how you represent your novel to agents etc.

    ~ S:)

  5. If your beginning is five pages of gore followed by two-hundred pages of peace, you have a problem.

    If your beginning is five pages of someone pacing in a circle and info-dumping, you have a problem.

    Essentially, if you can make your first five pages interesting and representative of the rest of your novel, you're set.

    As you consider my words, realize I've never gotten an agent.

  6. Oooh, I love playing with Wordle! I had never before thought to use it as a useful tool though, instead of something pretty to look at.

    I think starting with the action could work, especially since I think most readers are savvy enough to realize that once a character dies it cuts down his chances of being a main character throughout the rest of the novel.

  7. Hmm I'm not sure which opening would be better, I guess it really depends on how it's written. As long as the phone call scene is hooking, I'd say go with that, since the story isn't actually about his brother's murder, but about how he deals with his brother's death.

    And Wordle is awesome! I think everyone should make a Wordle of their MS and post it in their blogs! It would be fun to see what words come up the most in everyone's manuscripts, and it seems like it would give you a pretty good feel for the story.

  8. Anette, Thanks for your opinion. I really appreciate it. And thanks for reminding me that the phone call can in fact be interesting. It does go back to the quality of the writing doesn't it?

    Rick, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it is good to keep my readers in mind. So often I'm trying to win over the world when, in fact, I know that the things are interest me are only favored by a small fraction of people. Regarding your question for the second chapter, that actually also gets adjusted depending on what the first chapter is.

    Scott, Thanks. I always wonder how much weight the query has over the first five pages. In the query, I feel like I do make clear that the book is about Bao and not the guy that dies. But, for clarity in point of view, I've kept from doing that "Bao was sleeping peacefully in his bed," thing. The structure of the book is a bit complicated, so I'm trying not to make it more complicated in the beginning. But you bring up a really good point. I could still have the death scene without the graphic violence. There are different ways to write the same scene. I also really like the idea of the miniature story to echo the bigger one. I think I do that in both of the openings I'm writing. I'll have to post the two at some point to get your opinions.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Shephard and thanks for coming by. Yes, try Wordle and let me know what you think. You're right, along with Scott about the query letter as clarification. That makes sense. It might just be my own insecurity that is making me feel this way.

    Justus, Yeah, my problem is the gore is echoed twice more in the book, at key points, but the rest is quieter. So, it kind of works and kind of doesn't.

    Kate, I always thought the death would signal to people that that character was out of bounds for the main character competition, but I recently got a lot of people asking me how the main character could die so soon. They didn't put it together!

    Kat, thanks for your vote. I think I have some work ahead of me. I should probably try all these alternatives and see which is best. Although I've tried it before, maybe I'll be more inspired now if I try the phone call chapter as opening again. Hmmm...

  9. Davin, I started reading your post earlier today and went over to Wordle. I got sucked in and then went off and did the rest of my day without finishing your post. How inconsiderate of me!

    Well, here am now. It's almost one in the morning, so forgive me if my thoughts are not coherent.

    First, I think that when I read I've read stories in the past that begin with an inciting incident that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the novel, I sometimes feel like I've been cheated or tricked into being hooked into the story. If that makes sense. I feel like it was just a ploy to suck me in.

    Honestly, that sounds like what your second beginning might be like. I think it boils down to you asking yourself why you really want it there. It may be where your character's story actually begins, but that does not mean you have to start telling the story there. And don't start telling your story there just because it's exciting and has more action. I've made that mistake before.

    I think the phone-call scene sounds like it might work better to set up your novel. Beginnings are so difficult, I agree.

    These thoughts might not mean much since I have not actually read your two chapters. If you want, I'd be more than happy to take a look at both and give you a better opinion.

  10. Thanks a lot, Lady Glamis. I really do appreciate your honesty and your opinion. I'm working on all the options so that I can judge it more concretely, if that makes sense. I think I'm going to take your idea of putting my book up as a blog, so then you can view it whenever you like.

  11. Sorry I'm weighing in a little late on this. Rick said it best. It depends on your audience. I'm guessing the literary audience isn't use to seeing a murder scene at the beginning of a story. Consider how other literary novels start. Also, considering the minimum time an agent gives a writer to make a first impression (say, a query letter and 5 pages), you don't want them to make a quick judgment such as oh, this is a thriller type, I don't do thriller. Give it a literary novel feel from the beginning. You could always interject the brother's murder somewhere else in the first few chapters.

  12. I heart Wordle as much as I hate it. My most overused word on my manuscript was "back."

    I also heart Word's "find and replace" tool. Heh.

  13. A well told scene with a phone call could have a lot of tension.

    On the other hand, just because you are writing literary, does that mean you are not allowed to explore all areas of human existence, including brutality, murder? A murder doesn't automatically make a book into a thriller any more than a love scene automatically makes a book into a romance.

    A principle of mine is to Begin as You Mean to Go On, but you must ask yourself what that really means. You mentioned there are some violent scenes later in the book. Surely at that point the voice of the novel doesn't suddenly veer into a Sam Spade voice-over, so why should the scene in the beginning not capture your voice?

    On the other hand, there may be other reasons for not starting with the antagonist's PoV. If, as you say, it humanizes him, perhaps this gives away too much. Perhaps the reader should not learn to see him as human until the protagonist does. You might still include the murder scene, but only toward the climax of the book, when the MC is starting to understand his brother -- it might even be ambiguous whether the scene is really from his brother's PoV or only as the MC imagines it.

    Just random thoughts, worth every cent you paid for them. ;)

  14. As usual, I see I used up three hands to make my point. See, there's a reason I write science fiction. :P

  15. What if you start with the brother's cruelty in the past--and then the reader has a connection to him when the phone call comes


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