23 November 2010

Their First Chapter: Learning From Your Favorite Authors

by Carrie Bailey

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 10th Anniversary Edition (Harry Potter)I just put down Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone having re-read the first chapter to see what mine was missing and I don't mean a boy with a scar. My sister, co-editor for Peevish Penman, had given me valuable feedback about my writing via a text message a few weeks ago, the only difficulty lie in the fact that I had no idea what she was talking about. Descriptions is what she said, and also comparisons. Secretly, my hope that I had arrived, that my first novel was nearly ready, had been crushed like a holiday nut by those 150 characters.

Just a few pages reminded me why Rowling's first book had changed the world and mine wasn't even ready to share with friends (family can't leave you even if they're embarrassed by your writing-hence, why my sister had the first look at my work).

  • Rowling's narrator had temporarily adopted a minor character's point of view
  • She had woven detail about the world into almost every paragraph.
  • She had taken risks going so far as to describe the character Hagrid's feet as baby dolphins.  
I asked myself why I had not included much description in the world and my answer was that I had been told to start with action and remove all extraneous material that did not advance the plot. I obeyed. What I did not consider was whether or not the advice applied to my work.

Many months ago, I had sent the first five paragraphs to the Evil Editor and eleven random strangers suggested ten different directions. I tried to go in all. Had I listened to the Evil Editor who suggested merely switching paragraph two and three, I would not have eliminated the extraneous detail from my entire manuscript only to add it in later.

My aspiring writer lesson: Not all writing advice applies to all writers all the time.

In my pursuit of understanding why we worship certain authors, and decoding my sister's text, I download and listened to "Wee Free Men" by Terry Prachett, the book and the author who had renewed my passion for reading a few years ago. His book, too, had a few features mine lacked:
    The Wee Free Men (Discworld)
  • His character spent significant time in their own thoughts, opinions, and memories
  • Not a single character was pleasant and they were all unapologetic about it.
Why had I shied away from writing any opinions, unpopular or otherwise nasty? Again, I had taken that one piece of advice to focus on action too far and avoided allowing any meaningful insight into the character's thought processes.

Lord of the Rings, The: The Fellowship of the RingBecause I was writing a YA Fantasy, I then turned to the master, J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Rings." If you are going to discover what entertains the most people and endures in their hearts for all time, he would be the author to reveal it. But most remarkable about each of the three authors I studied and dissected was that neither their wording nor their knowledge, or anything about their first chapters seemed extraordinary. Tolkien even less so than Rowling or Pratchett. Was that their genius? I flipped the pages. Was it??? What was it??? It's not just clever marketing. It had to be in their somewhere...

I decided the special secret ingredient that my favorite authors possessed was storytelling. My book lacked that quality. I was so eager to produce a work correctly that I allowed the magical element which makes readers of every age feel captivated by a story for hours, forgetting the feel of the rough library carpet, drifting off to sleep already having been transported to another world, to be an afterthought.

As a painter, I know that too much instruction and adherence to the rules and the formulas and the techniques, and obsessing over proper brush maintenance, drives the muse away... But I did not have writer's block. I had lost sight of the art form. Instead of a mural of a forest, I was painting a fence. Flat paint. Up and down. A fence.

My other aspiring writer lesson: balance technique with creative expression.

Today for the 8th time since last September when I began writing my story for Nanowrimo, I revised my very first chapter. I'm committed to producing a novel worth reading and prepared for the next round of evaluations, but also, I'm ready to be a story teller and not just an English Composition student (which I never was as I studied philosophy in college). But I'm sure my sister will agree when she's subjected to the new revision of my novel's first chapter that finally, this time, this painstaking rewrite has been the one and that I have arrived.

Maybe not, but I did add a few pages worth of detail about the post-apocalyptic world where my characters lived in and added numerous "X is like Y" statements to intensify the depth of the sensory expression. And I learned (again) that hearing feedback and even advice from trusted sources improves my work. So do I regret going too far with the advice I received from the writers on Evil Editor? No, focusing on the action taught me how to create a plot-driven framework for a novel that will make my next book much easier to write.

Just as in painting, mistakes can transform into the most creative, unique, and memorable aspects of your work if handled persistently, I suspect.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Although we should listen to the experts much of the time (they probably really do know what they're talking about ...) I agree that there are times when every author doesn't 'fit' the norm. Ultimately we need to go with our gut much of the time.

  2. This is a very insightful post, Carrie. Indeed, we are bombarded every day with writing advice - it's hard to figure out when to apply it and when to let it go. My early drafts tend to be very flat ... i try, revision after revision, to beat the flat out of them. I don't always succeed but i'm getting better at it ;-)

  3. Yeah, I'm starting to see it like health advice... yes, most people need to eat more vegetables, but there are some people who already do and honestly need more protein.

    Advice shouldn't be seen as one size fits all... though a lot of it is actually quite good to know.

  4. I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God bless, Lloyd

  5. Well done, Carrie! And thanks for mentioning my part in your revelation. :) You've been entertaining me with made-up worlds and crazy ideas all your life, and I look forward to seeing the revised manuscript!

  6. I'm glad there's no pressure there.