novels · writing

Lessons from the Monster: Beginnings

It’s time for another lesson on what not to do, ghastly mistakes courtesy of myself and The Monster. For anyone who has not already heard me bemoaning it, The Monster is a half million word long catastrophe of a novel, with which I’m fairly sure I made every mistake in the book of mistakes while writing.

Today’s topic? The beginning – slash first scene – of your novel.

The first scenes in the six Angel novels have differed. A lot. But they all have one thing in common. They hop into the middle of the action, and explanations come later (sometimes much, much later). They work and don’t work for various reasons, all of which I’m going to break down.

Yup, this is going to be a long post.

Book one, Sacred Promise.

The first Angel novel begins with a prologue, but I’m skipping that and going straight to the first chapter.

“Angel,” Rihanna whispered. I didn’t move as I woke up, didn’t even let my eyelashes flinch, but Rihanna knew I was awake.

There’s the first paragraph. What follows is a more or less typical day in the life of Angelica Fulleri, wherein she breaks some noses, rides fast on a motorcycle, and ends up in jail.

The problem with the chapter? It introduces conflict, sure. But it’s not the core conflict of the novel. The core conflict of the novel starts in a different country, in a different time zone, with a completely different cast.

Lesson learned: fight scenes for opening scenes may be fun, but you can’t use them, or anything else, unless it directly impacts your main plot.

Book two, Angel from Hell. 

I sat on the park bench. The slats were digging into my shoulder blades and the buttons on the back pockets of my jeans were stabbing me. But I just stared at the filthy, broken water fountain ten feet away. I felt a little shell-shocked.

This chapter picks up maybe twenty-four hours after the first book ends, and it presents the inciting incident right away – Rihanna is missing, and Angel needs to find her.

So, this opening gets points for that. It also shows how Angel has changed as a person since book one, and the supporting character and sometimes antagonist – Hell – makes his appearance fairly quickly.

However (and this revelation came courtesy of B), Hell completely dwarves Angel. When these two are in a scene, you’re paying attention to Hell, not Angel. While that’s the way their relationship is, it was a bad idea for me to introduce him before Angel got a chance to prove herself to the reader.

Lesson learned: it’s good to have your main cast intro’d as quickly as possible, but first scenes/chapters are for your main character.

Book three, Nobody’s Angel.

I stared up at the ceiling above my head, trying to will my heartbeat to slow down. So far it wasn’t working. It thumped away at a maddening pace, not quite fitting in with the lie I was trying to tell myself: that I was not afraid.

I’m kind of fond of this chapter. It re-introduces the main cast, shows the conflict, and it even has a firefight.

Therein lies the problem. The chapter is too long, and there’s too much going on. In fact, you could easily break this baby into three chapters, each of which would be jam-packed with stuff.

With everything that was going on… phew. Imagine watching movies on a ten inch, black and white screen, then suddenly going to an IMAX 3D theater. It’s just too much. Your mind would explode.

Lesson learned: too much of anything, particularly firefights and psychotic break-downs, can be a bad thing.

Book four, The Promise Child.

For the past week, I’d had a countdown clock of sorts in my head. I was just waiting for it. There was no way to get past it. There was no way for me to try to change it into something that was a little more pleasant.

My opening chapters got a lot better as I went along. This chapter did three things – it told you where Angel was and why, and it introduced the Big Problem: Angel’s father had just showed the world all the havoc she could wreak, and she was going to have to deal with the repercussions.

Oh, and one of my favorite characters made his debut. Aod. Long story, which I will probably bore you with someday.

Anyway, this is one opening chapter that works (for now; this is just first draft stuff). It’s a much better length; there are no characters upstaging Angel; the two incidents in this chapter impact Angel not just for the rest of the book, but for the rest of her life.

Awesome, no? *pats self on back*

Lesson learned: be succinct. Know your point, make it, and move on.

Book five, Dark Angel Rising.

At first, I was all by myself. I stood in the dark, listening to the low, gentle sound of waves on sand. My palms were slick with sweat, and the cool barrel of my gun pressed against my fingers. I was shaking – trying hard not to, but shaking nevertheless.

The paragraph is the first from the prologue. It’s – gasp – the evil dream sequence, which I’ve been told is a hated thing. But guess what? It’s not actually a dream! Hahaha.

Ahem. The point being, Angel thinks it’s a dream, and the first chapter begins with her waking up from it. I’ve been told again and again that beginning with a dream sequence is a bad thing. In this dream-ish thing, nobody is named, and at the end, Angel dies.

While my personal jury is out on the beginning with the dream thing, this scene doesn’t work for another reason. I could cut it out and put it ten thousand words further into the novel, and it wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, it would be better suited ten thousand words into the novel.

Lesson learned: Even if the stuff is pertinent to the novel, it may not be pertinent to the first chapter. Be flexible, and know when things can be moved for greater impact.

Book six, The Angel Virus.

The corporate office building of the Channing & Williams computer company was beautiful. Everything was sleek black, glass, and marble. I wasn’t particularly concerned with that at the moment, though. I walked up the glass steps towards the head office, the heels of my black boots making quiet clicking noises.

I hate this novel’s first chapter like you would not believe. I think my brain was oxygen deprived while I was writing it. Not even kidding.

The chapter sucks for several reasons.

  1. While it introduces characters, conflict, and a tad of back story, there’s no main point to the chapter. There’s very little action. In short, it’s horribly boring.
  2. Unless you’ve read at least one of the preceding books, and maybe not even then, this chapter may as well have been written in hieroglyphs. Heck, I know everything about everything in this series, and I confused myself.
  3. People do stuff for no apparent reason. Stuff that isn’t even explained later. Again with the confusing thing.
  4. Angel is acting out of character, and she’s as dull as dishwater. I kind of want to hit her with a big stick.

Lesson learned: the butt in chair, hands on keyboard method is sometimes necessary to get started. But if you must use it for the first chapter, remember that it’s okay to trash it and start over once you get into the flow. 

Okay. It you read this entire post, you deserve an award. I’m exhausted, and I only wrote it. *wipes forehead*

There are a lot of hopefully helpful tips on how not to write a first chapter! I promise to never use all six books as examples again.

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7 thoughts on “Lessons from the Monster: Beginnings

  1. What are you talking about? This post was interesting and EXTREMELY informative. I love how you used examples from each of the books to get the tips through. You gave a ton of great advice here!
    If only I could do the same. *lesigh*
    =)

    1. Thanks!

      I like to call writing the Monster the crash course on everything not to do when writing a novel(s), but it really was fun, and it’s still teaching me stuff!

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