Thursday, March 19, 2009

Revising My First Chapter

Early this week I had the chance to visit the surprisingly humble grave of my Broccoli Writer. Even just thinking of him cleaned up some of my recent prose. Sadly, I was not the one to give him the flowers or to write him a nice French note you can glimpse on the right border of this shot.

I really appreciate all of the comments you left me last week regarding my novel opening. Honestly, you gave me a lot to think about.

I haven't quite settled on the opening yet, but I wrote a new version of it. My book has two story lines, one when the protagonist, Bao, is a man and one when he is a boy. I had always started the book with him as a man, but I thought it could work to have the first chapter be about boyhood, about the last day when Bao and his brother Daeng (the antagonist) got along with each other.

Here's my original opening paragraph:

A gunshot roars through the Chiang Mai bungalow. The flash of light catches Daeng Phamduong's smug, fat face. He tumbles out of his teak recliner, making it skid across the polished floorboards. He has been hit in the side. He tries to cover the gash with one of his meaty hands, but the blood comes out between his fingers. A lung has been punctured. Its collapse is like a knot, massive and tightening, in his chest.

Here's my new trial paragraph:

The dirt is perfect. A light powder blankets more densely-packed soil underneath. It stays settled down, even when the boys jump on it to feel for its spring. They are poor boys in this fishing town of Ra-nong. Their feet are bare. Their T-shirts are thin. The soccer ball is worn to the threads.

I haven't made any final decisions. The original paragraph sets up a pattern of violence that will come up again twice in the book. It's one slice of bread in a violence sandwich.

The new paragraph gives a better sense of the general tone of the book, so it might help to orient readers sooner. The new paragraph also allows some of Bao's happier moments to come out before his life goes downhill, which is the rest of the book.

P.S. Feel free to post your own writing samples in the comments at any time. If anyone wants to submit a sample with a question as a main post for discussion, let me know. I think it would be great to use the blog as a workshop space.


  1. I like the second paragraph at least as much as the first one. I'm not sure why, but I'll throw out some possible reasons.

    1. Paragraph one has more adjectives, including a double adjective attack!

    2. Paragraph two reminds me of simpler times. Not only because of the subject but also because of the shorter sentences.

    3. Somewhere in the my brain, a cell screams, "Paragraph one fails to show the true spirit of your novel, Davin!"

  2. Davin, I like the second one because it shows us something about your MC before the violence enters his life. And the reader will care about him when the other stuff happens.

    And yeah, adjectives but I use them too much too. :)

  3. You could almost flip a coin. I think either would be a good opening, but I'm inclined to go for option A.

    For option A, even though your book is not about violence, if this one violent act helps to define Bao's motives throughout the rest of the novel, then it has strong merits as an opening passage.

    Is your novel literary fiction? If so, I don't think you should be concerned with the action overshadowing the genre. It's not the action or lack of action that defines the genre, but how you write about the action that elevates its literary merits.

    When I read the first opening, I don't expect there to be a lot of shooting in the rest of the book. I expect an exploration of who was shot, and why, and who did the shooting, and why.

    This could very reasonably be the only shot fired and it would not give me a negative impression of the work, or make me think it's a red herring of action misplaced in a literary work. In my mind it raises questions, and I will keep reading to find the answers.

    On the other hand, for option B, providing a happier opening sets the stage for Bao's internal conflict, the contrast of the happiness he once felt to the shame of his self-imposed exile and desire to make things right again. With the rest of the chapter for option B, I think you need to introduce that conflict. If it's just happy childhood, you run the same risk of misleading the reader when the tragedy is introduced.

    I hope I didn't misinterpret any of the key elements of your story!

    One last thing...I think the last sentence of Option A would read better as:

    "Its collapse is like a knot in his chest, massive and tightening."

    Or delete the second comma:

    "Its collapse is like a knot, massive and tightening in his chest."

  4. I'm not going to get nit-picky about either of these paragraphs since I believe what you are asking more about which one to use than for critiques on each one. If you would like a critique, I'm more than happy to help, but the others above have done a great job with some of the technicalities.

    Both openings are well-written and pin something important about the plot and your main character, which is why you are having a hard time, I think.

    Rick is correct. It is how your story is written, now what you start it with, that determines its level of "literary". I wouldn't let that determine which one you choose.

    The one point I consider when choosing an opening is to ask myself which story it is starting for the character. In this respect, I would choose B. I feel that it starts your MCs story where HE would see it beginning, not with violence, but with a relationship. I have a feeling your book is more about relationships than anything else.

    I begin Monarch with the butterflies. This image ties my MCs memories to two important women in his life. And that's really what the story is about - his relationships in the novel. That's why I start it there instead of the fight.

    I hope this helps just a little. And wonderful job with your writing! Present tense third person is.... wow. I don't know if I could pull that off. You are doing it flawlessly!

  5. You know I have a tendency to be pedantic in my comments, but I'll try not to be today. Also, I think we writers filter critical assessments of other writers' work through whatever we're working on ourselves, so take that into account.

    Both beginnings work, based on the snippets here. Which one you pick (or if you write a different beginning entirely) might have less to do with mood than with the overall structure of the book. If you have ideas about a long-range rhythm of violence and consequence, maybe the first one is better. If you have in mind some other long-range plan, maybe the second is better.

    I think you can start with Daeng's death and not so much worry about the overall mood of the book. Likely you'll take the reader through many moods. What you've got sort of reminds me of the way "The Satanic Verses" opens, with a dramatic gesture that catches the reader unaware, confused. I would change "a lung" to "his lung" and make it all very immediate and personal to Daeng. His death, not our witnessing of it. But you know better than I what you want to do.

    Probably you can use *both* beginnings, introducing Daeng at his death and then Bao in childhood, if you wanted to. The version with Bao is simply lovely writing.

  6. I prefer the second one, mostly based on the first sentence, which i kind of love. I like it's quietness and simplicity, especially as compared to a gunshot.

    Also, it seems important that you think the 2nd one is truer to the tone of the whole story.

    And props to you for posting it on the www for everyone to see. I had a tough enough time posting a short story on my blog yesterday, I don't think I could handle putting my WIP out there for all eyes to judge.

  7. I I like the second one better....but I tend to like short, choppy sentences more. :)

  8. And that is really great that you visited Proust's grave. I'm very jealous!

  9. Wow! Lovely writing. Glam just made me aware of you and your blog. I'm guessing you're going to be distracting me from my edits for quite some time. Thanks a lot!

    Seriously, some good stuff here. I may be one of the few out there who actually likes Proust. I have to take him in small doses, but... I read Swann's Way forever ago in French.

    I was once told that I wrote like Hemingway and should read his stuff. At the time I was offended. Now I realize it was quite a compliment.

  10. I like the second one better. Part of it may be personal preference--an easing into the story, if you will. But the second version seems less forced, more as though it just flowed, like you were in a groove writing it (and therefore I am in one reading it) and also, even though it is a less jarring approach, I find the second scene more interesting somehow. The details are unusual--the focus on the dirt in particular-and I want to read more. I want to know what happens in this place that I can picture because of that detail.

  11. Hi everyone,
    I want to thank you all so very much for your input. It's extremely heartwarming to know that you care enough to read about my story and to really consider what you think is best. It means a lot to me.

    I know that it is impossible to truly judge the writing as the rest of the book is unknown, but I think that what you all said is still very useful, more from the perspective of a person just reading the book for the first time. Scott, you're right. Both starts could work, and I think there are good structural reasons for both. That's why I'm a bit stuck. Lady Glamis has also given me a ton of additional feedback, which I appreciate so much.

    Thank you to everyone; Justus, Robyn, Rick, Lady Glamis, Scott, Kate, beth, lotusgirl, Jennifer.

  12. Davin,

    I'm weighing in late as usual.

    I think both pieces are well written, but for something literary I think starting with the second set a mood for the reader. I am more drawn into the second one and I already have the feeling that it could turn out to be atmospheric (pardon my spelling) and yet simple and a matter of living, which is what I see when I do get about to reading literary work. So basically I'm saying, I think the second had that literary feel.

  13. Hey Davin,

    I've been reading your blog, but haven't dared to post. Nevertheless, I can't let this one go.

    I am fortunate enough to have read more of your novel and even though I am far from finishing it (hope you could post more than one chapter per week), I think the second option works better for me.
    My question for you: why do you want to start with Daeng dying? What would that bring to the story? Is he that important? I think there's so much more to Bao's life, than just the relationship with his brother.

    I feel your first option is a strong scene, very well written, but somehow it's just a cheater. It definitely hooks, but other than that, I don't see why start with Daeng.

    On the other hand, the second option sets your tone perfectly, the place and your voice from the beginning.

    When I first read your first chapter, I didn’t know whether it was going to be an action story or a deeper book about family ties and relationships. I felt sorry for Daeng. I didn’t know whether he was good or bad, but since I, the reader, start out in his POV, I tried to identify with him. Who wouldn’t, when the poor guy is being killed in such a cruel way?

    Also, the first option doesn’t really show us much about that character (and nothing about the MC). Your second option promises so much more.

    Having said all this, I think you are a strong enough writer to be able to publish it either way.


  14. Now, I'm no author myself,
    But I am definitely appreciating the present tense. It feels like I'm reading a script for a movie, and automatically, I see it in my head as one, since I'm around them more often than books.
    I also give you props for not being afraid to start with action straight on!


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