chapter one · Competitions · Drafting · e-reading

Chapter One

It seems very appropriate for the beginning of the year to be discussing how to write the opening chapter of a novel.  I always imagine a new year as turning over the first page of a book – the adventure is all before us and anything could happen!  And something nice already has happened, as I was honoured yesterday to attend the New Year’s meeting of Harpenden Writers to set their in-house competition entitled ‘Chapter One’.

The first chapter is a real challenge for any writer.  It is as important as the climax of the book – even more so, because it has so many other jobs to do.  As well as introducing characters, setting, the style of the author and the bones of the plot, the opening chapter also needs to perform a double wow – hooking the reader and also attracting the attention of agents and publishers.  No wonder it can be so hard to write.

What are considered the greatest opening chapters in literature?  It’s a hard list to make, but after sifting through my own choices, various opinions on the internet (most of which are based mainly on the first line) and suggestions from the Harpenden Writers, I’d suggest the following top ten in no particular order:

  • The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
    Celie is raped by her step-father.  She relates the tale in her own matter of fact way.  If this is what happens on page one then things are going to be tough for her and for us as readers.
  • Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    A fatal ballooning accident kickstarts an obsessive relationship.  Killer opening which some believe the rest of the book never quite matches up to.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
    Mrs Bennet tries to persuade Mr Bennet to visit the new young bachelor in town and get him to marry one of her daughters.  Deceptively simple, perfectly pitched.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
    A man sells his wife at a country auction.  Great example of a cataclysmic event which creates a stomping good plot.
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
    Nick has dinner with Tom and Daisy and hears of the existence of Gatsby.  Eloquent, elegant, understated.
  • 1984 by George Orwell
    The clock strikes thirteen and Winston Smith is living another day under the boot of Big Brother.  An immediate plunge into another world that is terrifyingly possible.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
    Huck’s unique voice pulls us straight into his story.  After sketching out his new life with the Widow Douglas he is off for more mischief with Tom.
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
    ‘I am Born’ – the first chapter does exactly what it says on the tin.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    Starts as it means to go on – bleak, uncompromising, sad almost beyond words.  Line breaks indicate changes – there are no chapters because the normal divisions of time have disintegrated with civilisation.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    One page of gob-smacking prose which raises horrifying questions we simply have to know the answers to.

To help us identify what makes a great opening chapter, we examined the beginning of Pride and Prejudice.  Giant hailstones rained down with a deafening clatter as I attempted to read aloud from my Kindle and I just hope it wasn’t divine intervention engineered by Jane Austen in response to my portrayal of Mrs Bennet!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line by itself is in possession of every quality an opening chapter needs: the characters (single, rich man); the plot (fortune hunters are after him); the style (dry, arch) and the hook (so who will catch him).  Few but Austen could pull this off in one line.

The rest of the chapter deftly places us at the heart of the story by showcasing Austen’s brilliant characterisation.  We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Bennet and we understand their relationship and the inequality of their marriage.  He has become a long-suffering husband who is reduced to scoring victories through quiet sarcasm, which she is a nag, a gossip and a social climber.  Nevertheless, Austen loves them and we can see that in her affectionate treatment of their foibles.  Impressively Austen also manages to introduce through the Bennets’ conversation no less than ten other characters!  Of course we hear about the impressive Bingley and his four or five thousand a year, but we also learn that the Bennets have five grown up daughters, we hear the names and main character traits of three of them, we know which ones each parent prefers and we even have the first mention of Sir William and Lady Lucas as a rival family the Bennets need to keep up with.  There’s also a couple of side characters thrown into to the gossipy mix.  All this is done in so natural and deft a way that we happily throw ourselves into chapter two with a good basic knowledge of and fondness for the family.

We also have the bones of the plot in place: Mrs Bennet needs to marry off her daughters and she needs to act quickly before anyone else can pinch the best prize.  We don’t know yet about the Bennet estate being entailed away on the nearest male heir but we do sense that the family needs outside help if it is to survive in the manner to which it is accustomed, and that there are various cumbersome social barriers that need to be broken through before this can be achieved.

The setting is quite starkly presented, but we do gather that this is a domestic scene and the beginning of the plot suggests the rest of the novel will probably stay in that sphere.  It is obviously historical and of its time period, and the family are of middling wealth – rich enough to be looking for husbands rather than jobs for their daughters, but poor enough to be somewhat desperate.

The chapter also introduces Austen’s style: conversational, arch, humorous, affectionate, fast-moving and deft.  We know what we are getting from the first line onwards: Austen’s voice is always true.

And finally, the hook.  Are we pulled in by this chapter?  Do we feel emotionally involved enough to continue?  All the elements have been expertly put in place, so that anyone who enjoys this sort of novel will feel compelled to continue.

So there we have it: a model first chapter.  We have the killer first line, the characters, the plot, the setting, the style and the hook, all done in an understated, efficiently brilliant way.  For a complete contrast see the opening chapter of Lolita.  And remember, if you want to analyse first chapters of classic literature most are now free on the internet, either through the Amazon Kindle store and other ebook retailers or through Project Guttenberg where you can read classics online or download them.

Good luck to the Harpenden Writers taking part in the Chapter One competition – I look forward to reading your entries and getting thoroughly hooked!

books · e-reading

Digging up Dracula

Having free access to the classics on my new Kindle is a great opportunity to catch up on all those famous titles that I’ve heard so much about but never read.

Crime and Punishment was my first choice, a title that is familiar to everyone, and yet I had no idea what the story was about (apart from a crime and a punishment, obviously!).  I found it  fascinating, a detailed portrayal of what can bring an apparently sane, intelligent man to commit murder – although I did struggle a little with the Russian names.  Everybody seemed to have at least three!  The murder scene itself was quite horrific, even though it was described in a very straightforward and ungarnished way.  The skill of Dostoevsky‘s writing is that he takes you right into Raskolnikov’s head so that you are actually with him in the room, facing the old woman and trying to summon up the courage to do the deed.  With that level of involvement you don’t need excessive gore to make it real.

My next title was Dracula.  After enjoying The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova I was keen to read the original text that has inspired so many novels and films.  Although Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire, he was the first (I believe) to connect the original Vlad the Impaler of the Dracula family with the vampire legend.  The book is an absolute belter, a page-turner with a wonderful growing sense of dread and menace.  The format, a collection of letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings and telegrams, makes it very easy to read, and I loved the settings like the gothic lunatic asylum with its resident spider-eating madman, windswept Whitby and, of course, Dracula’s Transylvanian castle.  There are many seminal scenes such as Dracula’s ship arriving at Whitby with the dead captain lashed to the wheel and the final scene where our heroes gallop after the carriage containing Dracula’s coffin, trying to beat the sunset before the villain can reach the safety of his castle.

Where Crime and Punishment was a fascinating read, it had its own challenges in terms of lengthy backstories, long monologues and confusion between characters, whereas Dracula is just a thumping good read, with some truly beautiful writing.

Visit Parodies Lost to read a bit of Dracula lampoony.

books · e-reading · review

Review of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

I first heard of Incarceron at the 2010 Winchester Writers’ Conference at a seminar about Young Adult Dystopian fiction.  The premise, a futuristic prison suspended from a keychain, sounded intriguing, and it was the first book that I paid to download on my new Kindle.

IncarIncarceronceron is an absolute joy to read.  It is a winning combination of fantasy, science fiction, elements of horror and the hint of a love story.  The world Catherine Fisher has created is dense and rich with myth; a ravaged moon, a fake world of false protocol and suspended development, and, most amazing of all, a new world created to house half the population: a prison that will nurture and reform its inmates and create a paradise.

But, like all good fictional paradises, Incarceron becomes evil.  A theme in the book is whether the corruption of the prison is caused by itself or by the nature of its inmates – mankind itself.  What is freedom?  Are we imprisoned in our own natures?  Or are we always prisoners of society, no matter if we are inside or out?

The book takes two main strands: it follows Finn, a young prisoner suffering from fits and amnesia, as he attempts to find the mythical exit into the Outside; and Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, betrothed to a posing prince and, together with her tutor Jared, determined to find out the truth about her father’s work and what happened to the previous prince Giles, who died in mysterious circumstances.  No prizes for guessing who she thinks Giles could be, but there are plenty of genuine surprises along the way as Finn and his companions negotiate an increasingly traumatic and dangerous journey while Claudia risks everything to prove that Prince Giles was imprisoned and should be the rightful heir.

I can’t do justice the book by describing the plot.  The action positively fizzes with drama.  But what makes it really special is the unforgettable characters, especially Finn himself and his oathbrother Keiro, a flawed but magnetic character you can’t help but admire.  The gentle tutor Jared, working quietly against the system, is also a wonderful creation.  And of course the prison itself, Incarceron, is probably one of the most original characters in recent fantasy fiction.

The sequel, Sapphique, brings the story to a nailbiting finale.  Filming of Incarceron will be starting shortly with Taylor Lautner from the Twilight films playing Finn.  My advice is to read the books quickly and experience the real Incarceron for yourself.

Writers’ Notes

In each book I read from now on I will be making notes of how I can learn from the author and improve my own writing.  Catherine Fisher’s work is a brilliant example of how to get everything pitch perfect.

  • Characters – each is an individual with their own flaws.  They act in a way that is true to themselves while still managing to surprise us.  Fisher often places them in situations that challenge them and it is satisfying to watch them react in character as they try to adapt.
  • USP – Incarceron is a wonderfully inventive creation – a living prison gone awry.
  • Worldbuilding – Fisher has created two worlds: the world Inside and the world Outside.  As the books progress we see that the two are not so different after all.  She has created a history and a set of myths but does not fully explain either; instead hints and quotes gradually reveal more about the two worlds.
  • Suspense – the books are full of action and surprise.  Survival is never certain and loyalties are put to the test.  There are no ‘dead spaces’; every incident serves the plot.

Kindle experience

As this was my first e-book experience, I thought I should add a bit about what it was like.  I feel the method suited the book perfectly, being a mixture of new technology attempting to recreate the experience of the old.  My only criticisms are that the formatting was sometimes slightly out, with the odd line finishing half way across the page, and also in the sequel, Sapphique, most of the text appeared in italics until after I had read it, which was a shame as length italics can be irritating, and there were genuine small areas of italics at the beginning of chapters which no longer stood out.  Whether that is a problem with the book or my own settings I am not sure.

books · e-reading

I got a Kindle for Christmas!

Why did no one ever tell me how lovely the Kindle is?  It’s sleek, beautiful, a doddle to use, and when you ‘put it to sleep’ (bless!) it shows you a nice little drawing of an author, at random.  Or a selection of fish (the current screensaver, for some odd reason).

This cute little gadget couldn’t really be the murder weapon responsible for the death of paper literature, could it?  It’s so lovely to touch, so pleasingly smooth, and it holds so much in its TARDIS-like case.  Or it will do.  On Christmas Day I scanned the Kindle charts, looking for bargains – until I noticed that these were the PAYING for charts.  There is a FREE chart!  Yes, you can download out of date classics for nothing!  I cursed my recklessness for downloading the complete Jane Austen when I could have grabbed each book individually for free.  A whole 74p wasted!  At these prices, or non-prices, could we see the likes of Dickens galloping back up the charts again, knocking Katie Price off for good?  Music downloads are allowing old favourites to return to the charts, so why shouldn’t that happen in book sales?

In terms of ease of use, the Kindle really doesn’t need much explanation.  From the Home menu, just visit the Kindle store through the built-in WIFI connection, and choose your book.  Your Amazon Instant Click button will tempt you to grab everything you see.  In a few minutes, your book of choice will be sitting there on your menu, ready to read.  Just select it and use the arrow buttons on the sides of your Kindle to move back and forth through the pages.  Your clever new friend will remember where you are when you switch off.

Do I miss the feel of a book?  Strangely, I only miss not having the physical book when I’ve finished.  I can’t show off Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron on my shelves for all to see, even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years.  I can’t lend it to anyone either.  And anyone who saw me reading it over the last few days would never have known what I was so engrossed in.  From an author’s point of view these are points for concern.  Valuable advertising opportunities are just not there when a book is on an e-reader.

On the other hand I think readers will be devouring more books than ever.  One only has to think of a book one wants, grab the Kindle and download it.  Instant gratification.  No more squeezing thick books on to thinning shelf space.  No more heavy holiday luggage or last minute trawls round airport bookshops.  Just a whole library in your pocket.