If we're supposed to be doing things normal, then I'm picture-perfect right now. It's approaching 1 a.m., the sand timer is about half-way drained (or is it half full?), and I'm editing the opening chapter of my WIP because I've only fixed it a dozen times so far.
Which segues into my question, and you are the perfect person to answer because who sees more first chapters than a good agent? (Answer: Nobody.)
I read and hear lots of conflicting advice about all aspects of writing, but perhaps none more than a particular piece of advice about first chapters.
One school of thought says this: Ground the reader in your protagonist's ordinary world. Then, get your reader to care about your protagonist. Because if they don't care about your protagonist, then they won't care when some inciting incident occurs to upset their ordinary world. After your reader is grounded in the ordinary world, they've met and liked your protagonist ... THEN the inciting incident occurs that obliterates the ordinary world and your protagonist is given a challenge that they will either accept or refuse.
A second school of thought says: Open with action. Pull the reader in immediately. Why wait until Page 3 to deliver an inciting incident when you can do it in the first page, first paragraph, first sentence? Hit them over the head from the first word and don't let up until they can't put the book down anymore because they're invested in your character.
For me, it doesn't feel like you can do both. You either jump right in or you paint the picture of an ordinary world that will soon be shattered.
You see chapter 1's and page 1's ALL THE TIME. Which version do you prefer based on the knowledge of which version editors and publishers prefer?
Thank you, as always, for your wisdom. I'm still recovering from previous fin slaps, so if this question is too obvious, I'm asking for a friend ... who doesn't swim.
The answer is of course: it depends.
And what do you call grounding?
Take a look at this:
When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean's kitchen smelled like a fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.or this
One lonesome winter, many years ago, I went hunting in the mountains with Gene Kavanaugh, a grandmaster hitman emeritus. Sinister constellations blazed over our camp on the edge of a plateau scaled with ice. The stars are always cold and jagged as smashed glass in the winter in Alaska. Thin air seared my lungs if I inhaled too deeply. Nearby a herd of caribou rested under the mist of its collected breath.
We weren't there for them.
The last camel collapsed at noon.
It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.
They climbed the leeward side of a small hill, man and camel planting big clumsy feet in the inconstant sand, and at the top they stopped. They looked ahead, seeing nothing but another hillock to climb, and after that a thousand more, and it was as if the camel despaired at the thought. Its forelegs folded, then its rear went down and it couched on top of the hill like a monument, staring across the empty desert with the indifference of the dying.
The man hauled on its nose rope. Its head came forward and its neck stretched out, but it would not get up. The man went behind and kicked its hindquarters as hard as he could, three or four times. Finally he took out a razor-sharp curved Bedouin knife with a narrow point and stabbed the camel's rump. Blood flowed from the wound but the camel did not even look around.
The first, from Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, is pure background or grounding. The fathers don't figure in the story after the first section. But it gives us a sense of where these boys came from, and that's the blood of the novel.
In the second example from Blood Mountain by Laird Barron we know a lot about the main character from the start. Background yes, but also very very quickly the start of the story ("we weren't there for them.")
In the third example, The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, we don't know anything about background or the character, or what's going on other than what's on the page. But that's enough to hold our interest.
Which is what you want: engage and hold their interest. If it's background (Mystic River) or start of the story (Black Mountain), great, use that.
But if you can, you write something so utterly compelling that I don't stop to wonder about anything. I just keep turning pages (Key to Rebecca.)
It's a whole lot harder than it sounds, of course.
It's one of the reasons you want to read widely: see what the other guys are doing, and assessing if it works (or not!) and more important, is it a technique you can utilize in your story.
If you haven't read Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, maybe this will persuade you:
Doug MacRay stood inside the rear door of the bank, breathing deeply through his mask. Yawning, that was a good sign. Getting oxygen. He was trying to get amped up. Breaking in overnight had left them with plenty of downtime to sit and eat their sandwiches and goof on each other and get comfortable, and that wasn't good for the job. Dough had lost his buzz--the action, fear, and momentum that was the cocktail of banditry. Get in, get the money, get out. His father talking, but fuck it, on this subject the old crook was right. Doug was ready for this thing to fall.You know something about Doug MacRay, and you get a solid hint of what's about to unfold.
In other words, the answer to your question is do what works best for your story.
Which may mean writing and rewriting, and starting over.
Who am I kidding, may?
Of course it means writing and rewriting and starting over.
That's not failure.
And be very careful about anyone who tells you there's one right way to start a book. Either they haven't read enough to understand they're wrong, or they're so intent on being right they ignore when things don't work.
Trust your own artistic vision and voice. If something isn't working, change it.