Putting up all of these WiPs has given me a good look at a common problem in first drafts: the terrible slowness of setting up the world. It’s a conundrum: I have to hit the ground running with the plot but I have to establish the ground on where the plot is happening, not just the geography but the population. And although I have the first act to do that completely (roughly the first third of the novel) before I have to stop introducing new things and just start powering through the action, I really need to do some things in the first two chapters (roughly 10%), some things in the first chapter (roughly 5%) and some things on the first page (roughly first 200 words). It’s almost impossible to do that well in a first draft, which is why every first draft I’ve ever written has needed to be cut back. A lot. Usually by about ten percent, sometimes by as much 25%.
That means that the first page has to establish the mood, tone, world, and–most important of all-protagonist. The reader comes in looking for somebody to root for, and I don’t want to make her wait. I’ve never gone back and looked at all the openings of my books, but I’m betting the later ones all start with the heroine heading into some kind of conflict. Why conflict? Because two of the best ways to show character are action and what other characters think of my character.
So I have . . .
• The first page of Nita’s draft ends when Button asks, “Is that a dead body?”
That gives me Nita in the first sentence, the fact that she’s a detective and the setting is a crime scene somewhere called Demon Island just after midnight, and she has a new partner who’s anxious to please her, a power imbalance that Nita accepts as her due but doesn’t exploit. Also it’s in the north because it’s cold. I think there’s some hook in her being a detective and her brother being the ME; that is, I think that’s something that’s mildly interesting that a reader might want to know more about. I think there’s some hook in the contrast between Nita and Button; although that needs to be more interesting later, this is the first 200 words and I need the strong contrast to characterize both. I like the bit about the streetlight because that’s good clue to how balanced Nita is, she can look past a corpse and notice damaged infrastructure (and also because that’s going to be a read-a-different-way-once-the-book-is-finished kind of easter egg, although that’s not reason enough on its own to put it in there). I think the only crucial thing that’s missing is Nick, but that’s one of those choices you make writing a romance: do you introduce the heroine and hero in different scenes so that the reader can anticipate their meeting, or do you start with the meet? I like separate scenes, I’m big on readers getting a chance to participate with anticipation.
• The first chapter ends with Nita saying, “I’m not finished with you,” a massive understatement that the reader knows more about than Nita does, since I think the foreshadowing for the romance is there. I’m not into one-look-and-it’s-love plots, that takes all the fun out of writing romance. I am a fan of the plot that pits the two against each other and then forces them to work together. I’m a huge fan of showing a relationship begin and grow through hard work and intense pressure; I think it’s a good microcosm for long term relationships, showing how they cooperate and protect each other. I think this first chapter needs to be cut back to make that a lot more clear: They’re both going after Joey’s killer for different reasons, so they’re going to end up on the same path.
• The second chapter ends with them both falling asleep, so that has to change, but it is a good 10% of the book which is my rough guideline the point at which everything has to be established. We need to know protagonist, antagonist (even if he or she isn’t named or on the page, there has to be a sense of something working behind the scenes against the protagonist, in this case the unnamed person who paid Ralph to shoot Joey), goal, setting, mood, tone, a sense of the community or communities, and above all, enough hook that people will keep on reading. The sad truth is that most people in stores or on the net reject a book after the first page, and very few will keep reading after a first chapter if they’re not intrigued by something. I always think that’s character, but different readers are grabbed by different things. Something has to be there, though. So by the end of the second chapter, Button’s shot somebody and she and Nita are at the beginning of an odd couple relationship; Nita and Mort have a brother-sister bond that’s appealing; Nick isn’t just the Devil, he’s Daglas and Rabiel’s boss and they make a good team, plus now he has Vinnie, mixed blessing that he is. The big drawback to what I’ve got is that between Joey getting shot before the story starts, and Button shooting the demon in the second to last scene in the second chapter, there’s not much action, just a lot of people talking. I like the part where Nita shakes Nick’s hand; I think this needs more physicality throughout. And to be cut. And I think maybe the chapter should end when Nick sits down at the breakfast table or, depending on how much I cut, at the end of that scene when Nick says, “It kills demons.” Except that’s at the 15,000 word mark, which means I’d need to cut at least 4,000 words. Which is probably about right. I don’t think I can claim I’ve achieved a full set-up until something strongly links Nita’s goal with Nick’s.
The good news is, this is all business as usual for a first draft, so nothing to worry about. I’m also trying to get a better grasp on Nick; Tom Ellis is lovely but he’s wrong for what I want, or at least he’s only part of what I want. So that’s good, too: I’m sharpening up my concepts of the characters. I think Button’s going to stay the same: an amalgamation of Rachael Harris and Melissa Rauch because they’re both cute, semi-fluffy, little blondes who will cut a bitch. I need more dimension to Mort, but that will come. Vinnie’s pretty much there, and the rest of the supporting characters are fine where they are for now.
So basically, I need to keep writing to find out who these people are and what they’re doing. You know, the fun part.
And now, back to Demon Island, where Nick and Nita just fell off a big rock. Because it was there. IT’S A FIRST DRAFT, I DON”T HAVE TO KNOW WHY.