The next exercises in the chapter all revolve around the first. You essentially pick it apart. Kind of odd, if you ask me. Like scratching something off your back, and inspecting it. Well, here is it.
First, a look at story world. How well do you do it? Are you giving key details or dumping information?
I would say key details, but still not enough. In the excerpt there is no sense of place or set time. I tried with the magic coffee maker and the fridge that can tell when you need more milk. That bit about the tenure will be explained as a professor who couldn’t evolve with online classes. He’ll be young, relatively, so no excuses for not adapting. But given the hard financial strain on universities, yes, a cut for sure. I am hoping this illuminates the story world, to borrow from Atwood, as “near future.”
Second, a look at the lead. How will you introduce him? What is going to make him memorable?
Snarky, misguided, and missing the point. I tried to introduce him as in shock, so he isn’t really taking in the new information. There’s been a disturbance, a blast from the past so to speak, and the lead misinterprets this. I want the read to know we’re in for a story about a down and out has-been who can’t tell his heels from his ass. The hope being that this is what gets redeemed in the end. Memorability will come from rocking intuition into other areas of his life, that compensate for his lack of normal social skills. Pray I make these funny.
Brainstorm five possibilities for your lead in the following categories:
Identification, how is the lead like us? He uses email, eats oats for breakfast, and he feels let down by a friend, where he understandably doesn’t want to read the email right away. Maybe he’s scared of what it might say.
Sympathy, any physical or emotional jeopardy, hardships, underdog status, or vulnerability? He lost his tenure position at the university, which is near to impossible, and must mean something really bad happened, likely not his fault — given his bitterness here. Later on I would like to introduce the mean wife, and the unfortunate events with the friend. So those should be written specifically for sympathy. C’mon! I want some sympathy! I haven’t done this before . . . lessssgo!
Likability, wittiness, or other traits you like in others? Once we find out what it was Juan wrote — a novel-length apology for doing what he did — then I am hoping this makes him likable. If I can do it, I would also want him to be witty. How can I make him witty? How can I be witty myself, jeez! If only I knew! Let’s try. It’s the quality I most admire in my friends. So if I want to like my characters, then they are going to have to be witty.
Inner conflict? I wrote the classic “should I or should I not” here in the beginning, with the email. Here I want Juan to debate between uncovering the truth and holding off out of fear for a while. Then, once he opens it, I want the conflict to be how to interpret the message. Later, I want his to debate whether to reply or not. All this inner conflict should indicate the kind of dummie he is: too much in his own head, as a cooping mechanism, no doubt, but also because of his profession. Hopefully it’s relatable.
What is disturbing the lead’s ordinary world?
His ordinary world blows. No job, bad marriage, no kids, students who don’t appreciate him. Well, I want the email to come in a shake him up, to remind him of who he used to be. Later after the whole email thing is resolved, I want Sam to show up. That will be an ultimate wake up, and how chapter one should end.
Give the opposition his due.
I suppose Mr Bell expects the opening chapter to do everything! Even to give the lead protagonist his lead antagonist. But it’s a literary novel! I shout. Which is really just a cop out for not knowing how to write a good villain. Ok. Hm. Who can be Juan’s villain? I don’t want it to be himself. More like something Díaz does in Oscar Wao, el fukú. I want to have a dark force follow Juan everywhere, troubling him. Maybe he sold his soul, or something. I don’t know. But for a book that aims to be highly spiritual, it would be nice to have some nasty superstition which will plague the boys. That way, the triumph of philosophy over evil can be all the more rotund. Hm . . . a hole . . . something to think about.