The song: This one took more rewrites than any other. Every time I thought I had it, my editor would read that draft and make a note that it still didn’t flow. She was right. It was often frustrating work but I like how it turned out. So much of polishing a book is finding the right verbs. I like “beg,” “cling,” and “peel” here.
The opening: While I did twelve drafts overall of this novel, the first chapter went through at least thirty. First chapters are so important.
The action: Originally I started with Miri already bartering with the traders. Something I mourn about my storytelling style is that I’m not good at starting in the middle of the action. I need to unfold slowly, set up the mood, the characters, the setting first. This is a turn off for some readers. Even though I failed to start en medias res, it was important to me that on the first page, the reader is already given something to hope for. Something the character longs for or needs to do. It may not be the central action of the entire book (or it may) but as I reader I need something to grab on to right away.
Pea-shuck mattress: A bit of trivia! Some readers have noted that at the end of the book, Miri said she’d never had a fresh pea. So where do the pea shucks come from? They do eat dried peas they buy in sacks from the traders. The peas are still in their shucks, and the villagers use these shucks to stuff mattresses.
Jokes: Humor is hard enough to write, but even riskier is to try and write something a character says that makes another character laugh. It can come off flat, and if the reader doesn’t find the joke funny, it can make him/her buy out of the story. I tried to do this on page 10 with Miri and Marda. Still amazed with myself that I dared. But trying to make people laugh is just something that Miri does.
Character: So much of this first chapter is revealing Miri’s character. Always best to do it through action. But I also needed to show in this chapter what a normal day was like in the village, since everything was about to change, so there isn’t any high action. I was hoping readers would be interested enough in Miri and her mountain to keep turning pages. Tricky. One reason why this chapter took so many rewrites.
Her mother: The line “she thought of that week when she was held by her mother as the most precious thing she owned, and she kept the idea of it tight to her heart” always make me tear up. Yeah, sometimes I cry at my own stories. I know, it’s even more embarrassing than laughing at my own jokes. I had my first baby while writing this book. I wrote that line before he was born, but it didn't make me cry until after.
Pages 12-17: The action=Miri Thinking About Things. This is a really bad idea for a first chapter. Never, never spend five pages of your first chapter on your character Thinking About Things! I struggled with this every draft. The story very likely loses many readers in those five pages.
Page 18: Again, Miri has to say something that makes another character laugh. This first chapter is full of red flags and broken rules! It succeeded for some readers and not for others, I imagine.
The chief delegate: Lots of talking. I added the drama with the hat feather to make it a little less boring, more visual, and underscore the pomp. I like little bits of visual action like that if they don’t interfere too much.
That was a long post. And here I thought I was restraining myself from saying too much. I'll try to be more succinct next time. Feel free to share any of your thoughts, and if you have questions about the first chapter, I’ll answer some in tomorrow's post.