Our Pages

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Packing a punch with your first chapter.

I’m taking a dynamic class right now on getting past the slush pile, and one of the instructors, Lynn Rae Harris, gave us a homework assignment. We are to strip all back-story from our first two pages and then post it for everyone in our class to critique.  Lynne’s point is that back-story severely limits the pace of a story and should be sprinkled in like salt and pepper in your chapters. I think this is a great analogy. I had the brilliant, or perhaps not so brilliant, idea to do a version of this for my post today. I know we would all give our first-born, just kidding, to know the magical secret of getting an agent to pick your manuscript out of his or her slush pile of thousands of other hopeful writers. I’m going to be brave here and post my first two paragraphs of one of my stories right here where I've given Lynne's suggestion a try. Judge for yourself which example would make you read further, and then I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE if some of you other brave souls would share you tries with me and others reading this post.

Caveat**** No negative critiques please! You can say it works for you or it doesn’t, but we are not doing this to crush anyone’s honest efforts! Thanks!!

Example One – Includes Back-story

Paris, France 1806

The ties of love and family would kill Arianne because her brother was a Royalist fool bent on assassinating Napoleon. She had always suspected a time would come when she would have to give her life to save her brother, but she had not expected to sacrifice herself tonight, or at the hands of the Minister of the French Police, or in such an extended and torturous manner. Arianne folded onto the cold stone floor of the prison, wishing with all her heart that she were back in her warm bed in her mother’s house. Why had Remi, that fool of a younger brother, not listened to her warnings about the Royalist party? Unable as of yet to garner the desire to actually move her battered body, she sighed and concentrated on disregarding the pebbles of dirt digging into her cheek and the mouse that scampered in front of her as she lay sideways on the ground.

Fouché’s polished black boots appeared in her line of vision, moving the stale air around her as he kneeled. She cringed and prayed he had not seen her sign of fear. Parting her mouth ever so slightly, she sucked in a long draft of air to quell her quivering nerves. It distressed her that the man scared her so. The head of the French Police said nothing, but his daggered stare made her shiver. Did he want her to beg? But of course she would be more than happy to beg to end the torment. “Please.” She swallowed, choking out the words past her raw throat. “My brother was not a part of any plan to kill Napoleon.” Even now, she could hear Remi plotting Napoleon’s demise when he was en route to the Opera.

Example Two – No back story

Arianne folded onto the cold stone floor of the prison, wishing with all her heart that she were back in her warm bed in her mother’s house. Unable as of yet to garner the desire to actually move her battered body, she sighed and concentrated on disregarding the pebbles of dirt digging into her cheek and the mouse that scampered in front of her as she lay sideways on the ground.

Fouché’s polished black boots appeared in her line of vision, moving the stale air around her as he kneeled. She cringed and prayed he had not seen her sign of fear. Parting her mouth ever so slightly, she sucked in a long draft of air to quell her quivering nerves. It distressed her that the man scared her so. The head of the French Police said nothing, but his daggered stare made her shiver. Did he want her to beg? But of course she would be more than happy to beg to end the torment. “Please.” She swallowed, choking out the words past her raw throat. “My brother was not a part of any plan to kill Napoleon.” Even now, she could hear Remi plotting Napoleon’s demise when he was en route to the Opera.

Bring on the examples! I can’t wait to see what stripping the back story does for you ladies.

Have a great day!

Julie Johnstone, The Marchioness of Mayhem

7 comments:

  1. I've actually never been accused of too much backstory in my first chapter, in fact I had an editor recently tell me to add some in because it left too much of a mystery and I needed to explain some things to intrigue the reader. I've scoured three of my stories for backstory and it really doesn't come until the second chapter. I guess I'll post first! Never let it be said that I am afraid! lol.

    This is the first two paragraphs from the wip I'm sending out to agents now. Wrong Kind of Paradise

    1689 a tiny isle off the coast of Cuba

    Angel De’Haviland had become a threat—to herself.

    At eighteen, the lass had turned into a flirt and a perpetual tease. Blac Barclay, captain of the Serpent and English privateer, squinted under the heavy noon sun. Waist deep in pale cerulean water, he shook out his wet hair and sighed.

    I need to save Angel’s wayward neck again.

    Logan had asked him to keep her distracted today, but the task proved impossible as the only distraction came from her.

    How the hell am I supposed to keep my men on task with her around?

    The salty breeze dried droplets of water from his flesh as he waded back to shore. A steady rhythm from the tide mixed with the droning gusts of wind. The Serpent, a double-masted Brigatine, lay on her side while members of his crew — or the members who were still on task — worked to scrape the barnacles from her hull. They had less than two weeks to get the task done and off this isle.

    Not really sure I could cut anything here. Any suggestions?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Julie, I am amazed at the difference in your two paragraphs. I never thought anything was wrong with the first one, but now that I see the difference, I have to say I do like the second one better.

    Melissa, I don't see what could be cut either.


    Healing Home – my current WIP.

    England, 1811

    Wesley Kincaid reached for the stack of books on the table. His hand hovered over the Bible. In his old life, this is what he would have read first. Not anymore. He was still too angry over the abrupt changes in his life. Again he demanded answers from God. "Why did you give me a passion for medicine, the knowledge to understand healing? Why did you have me live all those years with my mother and doctor Kincaid, only to take it from me?" He huffed and sat down in the chair. "Why did I ever let on that I knew the truth of my birth? Why did I have to be the next blasted Earl of Artemisia?" He glanced toward the ceiling. "Is it really your desire that I become a worthless fop, not unlike so many I have encountered since being in London?"


    I looked the two I have been submitting and happy to report there is no backstory. Whew! Great post, Julie. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hmmm, there should be a paragraph break (2 paragraphs instead of the one) in the above example, but it didn't show up in the final. Oh, well.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post, Julie! You know, the only thing that bothered me in the first one was the use of "because" in the first sentence. Lol! You have a way with words, so it doesn't bother me that it's slightly wordier :) But you mastered succinct and to the point with the second one. Either way, your voice really shines :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Julie,

    I love the second one! Great job, girl. I'm getting out my pompoms! I hope others post more. The examples are so fun. I'll take a look at a couple of stories I've started a long time ago and try my hand at it. Surely, I have at least two paragraphs. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. You ladies are so funny! Amy and Melissa, you guys are back story avoiders! Good for you. Jerrica, where your example??? Michelle, I love having a cheerleader, lol! The next step is to go through your entire first chapter and eliminate ALL backstory then pepper it into your other chapters. That's too long to do here, but I challege everyone to try this. I know I'm going to give it a try!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Okay, Julie. Here it goes. This is an unfinished, old work with no title. Usually I have to go in and strip the backstory in my writing. I don't mind. It helps me to know what's going on.

    Sidney Blake grasped the bodice of the ruby gown her guardian angel had insisted she don and tugged it up to cover more of her décolletage. The garment surpassed the tattered dress she’d had been wearing at the workhouse, but she knew it not to be the attire of a lady.

    Pacing the length of the opulent drawing room, Sidney chewed her bottom lip and contemplated running. Can I truly do this? She studied the intricate pattern on the Oriental carpet muffling her footfalls. It reminded her of the one that had graced the floor in her father’s study. She stopped and studied the room around her. Cobalt blue curtains flowed from the ceiling, creating a velvet puddle on the floor. When drawn, the heavy material close off to the world outside, no light or sound would penetrate the barrier. The Grecian couch upholstered in the plushest ivory silk beckoned to her to stretch out on it with one of the gilded books lining the mahogany bookshelves. Oh, how she'd missed luxury.

    ReplyDelete