I promised you all that I would comment on some of my frustrations with the publishing industry, so today I thought I’d comment on my least favorite: The first chapter hook. Now, I’m not saying that a first chapter hook is always a bad thing. Quite the contrary. If your book has a natural hook that can open your story and simultaneously pave the way for everything that follows, you should absolutely start there. If you’re writing the next great horror novel, that first chapter should bleed…literally and figuratively.
However, if you’re writing the sort of book that demands exposition for the sake of a greater story that gradually unfolds as the reader takes the journey you have planned, well…most agents won’t give you the time of day. This has been my experience. I have every confidence in my first book, “The Notice”, but I know that the book takes about three chapters to get going because I have to introduce historical context for readers who know nothing about the Bosnian War and, well, frankly, I just felt like giving my story some read to breathe. No one who has read my book has had any problem with the decision. Agents, on the other hand, seem to act as though my story is fatally flawed.
This leaves me extremely disillusioned with the art of agent finding. Agents seem to want nothing but murder, sex, vampires, or all of the above on that very first page or else your book is obviously a dud. The only people who seem capable of getting past this are established writers, who can take all the liberties they want with their narrative. In my book, a young girl witnesses a brutal crime against an elderly woman in her neighborhood. Some agents have insisted I should start with the murder in the first chapter, but I’ve been under the impression that the scene will hold more meaning if the audience knows the girl and the woman first. Starting with the murder, to me, just feels…cheap.
Let’s look at some of the classics and how they stack up. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov spends seven chapters sulking around before he finally kills someone. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the main characters sit around smoking pipes and saying borderline incomprehensible gibberish for about the first 80 pages. In Wuthering Heights, the heights are not wuthered until…I forget, somewhere towards the end. Confession time: I’ve not read the book since I was like 14. The point is that it seems like a tremendous double standard that indie writers have to resort to gimmicks to impress agents who aren’t willing to invest the time to identify quality.
As a result, you would think that more and more novels are being written to agents than to one’s reader or audience. It is just assumed that the agent speaks on behalf of the audience. I’m not sure this is a always good thing. On a personal level, I’ve never been concerned with whether an agent comes across my query letter and decides to take a thirty minute leap of faith that ultimately tosses my novel aside after twenty pages. I want casual readers to take a chance on my book and ultimately fall in love with the story I’ve decided to tell. As a whole. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that were relatively painful experiences for roughly the first sixty or seventy pages, but which I ultimately ended up revering because of the full picture. Who says that when you look at The Mona Lisa you have to start with the smile?
I call the first page murder the “Gallagher Technique” to writing. Whip out your sledgehammer and explode that story right in the reader’s face. It implies that the reader is not patient or intelligent enough to absorb the story as it unfolds and makes me feel like I’m Michael Bay trying to tell a subtle coming of age story in a foreign land. Imagine “The Secret Garden” by way of John Woo. Let’s face it, sometimes you have to read a few chapters in before random doves start flying out.