First Chapter Friday #7 (October 2016)

#FirstChapterFriday October 2016 | Every Friday, I read the first chapter of a book I’ve never read before to learn how to write a first chapter that will make readers want to read chapter two. These are the lessons I learned in October 2016.

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#FirstChapterFriday Cinder
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Cinder, Marissa Meyer

Engaging first sentence?

The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle.

I found this sentence to be a classic “I overestimate how much my reader cares about my story and its characters”.

I could picture something, which was great because I like starting stories in a scene and not some abstract vision/dream/thought that I can’t imagine. However, the content of the sentence screams that the author expects her readers to be intrigued by the fact that the character has a screw in her ankle and want to read on to find out why. But I know why because the blurb says shes a cyborg. Cyborgs aren’t new. In fantasy and sci-fi “different” isn’t necessarily going to grab your reader’s attention.

This might not influence the average reader’s first impression but as someone who critiques writing for a living, it irked me that the author assumed she’d hook me with a cyborg protagonist. It wasn’t a terrible first sentence and I’ve said before that first sentences aren’t make-or-break, but they’re the first impression you give your reader so put in the effort to not screw them up.

Engaging first chapter?

Overall, it was. Meyer was generally good at avoiding the tragic info-dump and, apart from the first sentence, didn’t expect me to be interested in her character just because she’s a cyborg. She introduced that extremely important detail by showing me that the character was dealing with a current every-day problem that involved her prosthetic leg, and seeing her deal with this problem was what made me like her. Meyer described many of Cinder’s features without breaking the narrative. There was some clunky dialogue and an irritating character who I couldn’t stand one more page of, but two things happened and a mystery was introduced.

Verdict?

I know what the plot will revolve around because something happened in this chapter that will take the character time to deal with and the minor stakes mean she’s unlikely to turn her back on it for now. This means I can expect action as she moves towards completing this task. Additionally, the chapter introduced some mystery around this task and I want to know if the guy paying Cinder to fix this robot is good or bad. Finally, something happened at the end of the chapter that wasn’t resolved, and the character is now in an inconvenient situation that requires immediate attention. If I want to know how she deals with this situation, I’ll have to read the next chapter.

With all this said, this chapter should be a 5/5 because it gave me 3 reasons to keep on reading; however, it didn’t make a big enough impact for me to read it immediately so I’ll give it a 4/5.

Update August 2017: I did end up reading this book.

#FirstChapterFriday Ocean at the End of the Lane
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Engaging first sentence?

I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.

Normally I wouldn’t like introductory sentences like this, but I liked the second half of the sentence because I knew that it wasn’t the dress-up game I used to see in a lot of fan fiction, which I admittedly read in high school. I loved the “pretending to be an adult” because I think a lot of people can relate to that and I started to hear the character’s voice coming through the text.

Engaging first chapter?

I’ve only read one Neil Gaiman book (which I also read for #FirstChapterFriday), but I can read a single chapter of one of his books and know he’s a talent. The fact that I knew the POV character had attended a funeral pages before it was even mentioned is the epitome of storytelling Show Don’t Tell (i.e. not descriptive Show Don’t Tell) . It makes the writing flow wonderfully.

I felt a connection with the character almost instantly given the funeral situation, but also the way he’s feeling between the service and the wake. I could relate to him, which isn’t always necessary, but it does help to involve the reader. Alone, the character (whose name I don’t even remember finding out) drives to his childhood home, then further until he gets to a lane. Given the title of the book, I homed in on this and my focus increased because I expected something important was about to happen. He arrives at the end of the lane and the prologue ends with him finding a pond, which a girl from his childhood called an ocean. I’m intrigued. I want to know more. I wouldn’t be intrigued if the novel was titled something else, which goes to show how powerful novel titles can be.

While he’s trying to find this pond, he’s trying to remember how old he was when he saw it for the first time. Remembering, he thinks “it was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.” The wording here creates mystery around this birthday. I want to know why this one sticks out in his memory thirty or so years later. Why does he still remember it?

I do want to mention that as soon as I see “prologue”, I lose a lot of interest because of how bad so many prologues are. I expect great things from Neil Gaiman; however, the prologue still has to work harder to make me like it to counteract that loss of interest. It makes me extra critical, too distracted to really get lost in the story. I’m constantly thinking “is this going to be relevant? Would this have been better as chapter one? Am I going to skip forwards or backwards in time? Should I not be invested in this scene, then?”.

Verdict?

I know the pond is plot related. I want to know what happens next, while he’s standing in front of it. However, I’m almost certain I’m in for a time jump and that chapter one won’t follow on from the prologue. I don’t feel like being dragged around like that because I’d settled into the scene in the prologue. For that, I give it 4/5.

Update August 2017: I did go on to read it.

#FirstChapterFriday The Green Mile
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The Green Mile, Stephen King

Engaging first sentence?

I can’t remember it; however, I knew by the end of the second sentence that this story was going to have something to do with the electric chair.

Okay, you caught me, I’ve seen the movie. I knew what the story was about. But I still think the first two sentences were a great way to introduce the subject.

Engaging first chapter?

I also knew by the end of the second paragraph of the second page that I was going to keep reading this book. It hooked me on the second page. The first few hundred words included:

  • a reference to the warden’s wife’s illness, which I thought was genius. Yes, I knew why it was important; however, the fact that King put this in the reader’s head so early on is great storytelling and it told me that I could expect even more great storytelling from this book.
  • a blunt and shocking description of what it was like to watch a man sit down in the instrument of his death: “The realization came then (you would see it rising in their eyes, a kind of cold dismay) that their own legs had finished their careers.” I couldn’t even imagine what it must have felt like to come to this realisation, but thinking about it hooked me. It promised me that this story was going to challenge my thoughts and feelings and be one that stuck with me. I was in for a ride, and I was thrilled about it.
  • a clear indication of how much this story would revolve around the electric chair and death row:
    • “You know murderers, even if they finish up as old lady librarians in dozy little towns. At least you do if you’ve spent as much time minding murderers as I did. There was only one time I ever had a question about the nature of my job. That, I reckon, is why I’m writing this.” Without giving me any details about the plot, this tells me what the story is about. I like direction.
    • “The wide corridor up the center of E block was floored with linoleum the color of old limes, and so what was called the Last Mile at other prisons was called the Green Mile at Cold Mountain.” Again. See how easy it is to tell the reader what they’re in for without spoiling the story for them? Now they know why the book is titled the way it is.

Verdict?

It trailed off toward the end of the chapter and I wasn’t given much more in the way of direction. I think it mentioned John Coffey, but not in a context that had me wanting answers immediately. I still wanted to continue reading it, but not as urgently as I did on page 2. For that, 4/5.

I’ll tell you what happened when I finished this chapter: I put the book down. I left it open, but it lay face-down on my coffee table as I got breakfast, did some social media, watched some coverage of the pre-game stuff of the AFL grand final (while complaining loudly that I just wanted the game to start), and organised my 500+ DVDs. I didn’t pick the book back up again for about 7 hours. I could have read while waiting for my precious AFL game to start, but I just wasn’t that hooked. I think I would have gone longer had I not seen the movie.

There are about 25 books I’ve opened for #FirstChapterFriday that I’ve not continued reading. Some of them I’ll probably never open again. Do you still underestimate the importance of a strong first chapter?

Update August 2017: Although I did put the book down after I read the first chapter, the fact that it was a relatively good one meant that I did pick it up again.

#FirstChapterFriday The Dinosaur Lords
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The Dinosaur Lords, Victor Milan

Engaging first sentence?

Blegh. Too many adjectives. There were like 9 and the sentence was 31 words long. That’s too long.

Engaging first chapter?

Ahem. So:

  • I generally don’t like prologues in fantasy novels because they’re the novels that mostly misuse them.
  • I also don’t really like maps at the beginning of novels because a) I don’t know where the protagonist is going to start the story, so these places mean nothing to me; b) do I really need to know the layout of the entire world this is set in? Really? Do I?; c) If I do, can’t you just shove the maps in the back like JRR Tolkien? When I see a map, I think, “Oh great, now I’m going to need to keep flipping back and forth so I know where things are relative to other things.”
  • Can’t stand it when there are little factoids under chapter headings. I don’t want to learn. I want to be told a story.
  • And finally, I can’t stand it when chapters a headed by a place name or a date. I don’t read it. Get on with the story.

Check, check, check and check.

This prologue was awful. Here I am thinking “Yay, dinosaurs! And George R. R. Martin likes it! It’ll be great!”. Nope.

Before the prologue opened, I was given a vocabulary lesson. If the author wanted me to know that they call pterosaurs “dragons”, he could have written the prologue better.

Then, the writing was way too clunky, had way too many adjectives and adverbs, and the sentences were so long and dull that I had to keep rereading them to make sense of them. After about a page of this, I gave up. By the end of the prologue, I don’t even know what happened. An “angel” showed up and said something enigmatic to someone. Whatever.

Verdict?

The writing didn’t flow, what was happening was either dull or confusing, and I have no idea what the heck is going on or what good things I can expect from this book. 1/5.

Can someone point me to a dinosaur book that’s actually good?

Update August 2017: Still haven’t read it, nor have I thought about it.

Louise

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