I had an article planned on studying your favorite books, and as luck would have it, one of my critique partners just did this very thing to help her with her current novel. I thought her approach was great, and the way she explained what she did was fantastic, so I asked her to write it up so I could share it with you guys. She graciously agreed, so I'm happy to introduce you all to Ann Meier and her very cool approach to studying your favorite novel to help you improve yours.
Take it away Ann...
How I Analyzed the Differences Between My First Chapter and My Favorite Best-Selling Author’s
I’m a firm believer that when you’re ready for the answer, it will be there for you. On May 5, 2011, Janice posted All the World’s a Stage: The Stages of a Writer. I wasn’t looking for THE ANSWER, but it was looking for me. I found it in Stage 5 - Okay, Maybe I Wasn’t as Ready as I Thought.
My query letter worked. I received requests for partials, but they weren’t turning into requests for a full. Janice’s advice was to study the good rejections. I did. They told me what was working – the premise, (whew –‘cause that would be a bear to change at this point) the writing, (thought so – everything had been through multiple revisions with my crit group and the best in the world crit partners. One of them has the initials JH) the plot, the dialogue, the characters - but something wasn’t working. The initially interested agents weren’t ‘falling in love’. A puzzler, for sure.
Janice’s second suggestion was to look at the first chapter of a favorite book and to analyze how it was different from mine. I chose the first book in a long-running, best-selling series that I think is the best in my genre. And I knew it was a best seller how? Every other person reading at the pool deck on a cruise one summer was reading this series.
Since I know I’m a kinesthetic learner, I took the time to type the author’s first chapter out in manuscript form. This forced me to pay attention to every word. My first comparison revealed that both first chapters were close in word count and pages. Cool. The best-seller’s first chapter had three sections and mine had two. That was my first clue I’d missed something. I zeroed in and saw that both first chapters included two scenes. It was the initial four pages of the best seller that made the difference. It wasn’t a scene or technically a sequel. I scratched my head and kept at it.
I looked closely at both first sentences. We both had cool opening sentences that created an intriguing story hook. Both related to the key story elements and hinted at theme. (Pats self on back)
Time for a bigger picture look—the first paragraph. Ms. Best Seller used just two perfect sentences. Full of impact, they intrigued and focused on the novel’s dilemma. They also introduced the wry voice. So what about mine? I had five sentences. More definitely wasn’t better.
But I needed the material in those other three sentences, didn’t I? Turns out, I did. But not in that first paragraph and not in glib summary. I rewrote my opening paragraph. It now has three sentences that I’m thinking and wishing, hoping and praying, really do intrigue and go right to the heart of the novel’s dilemma.
The light came on when I moved on to my next step where I wrote in the margin the function each paragraph served:
- Give setting details
- Create atmosphere
- Describe characters
- Introduce a goal
- Present an obstacle
- Ask a question
- Provoke laughter
- Set up tension
- Show the character’s take on the world and her place in it
When Land of Oz, the theme park, banished me from my dream job, I hit bottom hard and fast. The final attraction on my job search list was Bungee Jump Orlando—for me, the theme park equivalent to Kansas.I skill kind of like the juxtaposition of hitting bottom with bungee jumping (I do write mysteries), but the paragraph needed to go.
Ms. Best Seller used three recalled episodes from her character’s past to clearly present the POV—her voice, her character, and the key relationship that will be the heart of the story. Then I had the kick-self-around-the desk moment. It was so beautifully simple. The episodes – just a couple of lines of recalled events and dialogue showed the reader who the POV was and set the stage for what she will do in the story.
My glib, summarized extra sentences from paragraph one? They diluted the impact of the hook and they TOLD the reader who the character was. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Although I had an interesting character, the reader wasn’t connecting with her – didn’t understand why she acted the way she did. And so, I rewrote. I spent time crafting telling episodes that showed her world and what she cared about. When I finished, I had four pages that just may work to help interested readers ‘fall in love’.
For example, I wanted the reader to understand why my character considered working in Land of Oz theme park her dream job. And also learn that this is a character who’s used to being disappointed, but she’s optimistic and keeps trying. See what you think.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with Oz. Dorothy’s adventures there were so different from anything I experienced growing up in Indiana in a small town surrounded by cornfields. When the wind blew wrong, it carried the stench from the hog farms, but the homegrown tomatoes were the tastiest anywhere. High school basketball players ruled, and the town’s reputation rose and fell with their success or failure. During an embarrassing three year span when our team only won five lousy games, I learned to cope with disappointment. With no interest in watching bad basketball, I discovered the library. But that created a new issue—my yearning for Oz. Once I devoured Frank Baum’s Oz books, I ached to leave ordinary behind.For me, analyzing a best seller was a good approach to help me improve my manuscript. Since I was looking for an intangible, I focused on structure and how the best selling author got me to ‘fall in love’ with her story. My approach would have looked very different if the feedback I received from agents had pointed to flawed dialogue or pacing, but I think the exercise is well worth trying and can be adapted to any issue a writer is struggling with. Thanks, Janice.
And thank you Ann.