Confession time(I like these, you’ll get used to them).
When I start a new novel I give absolutely no thought as to what tone I want to set. I never have and I never will. You know what decides my tone?
Who my main character is as a person and the kind of challenges I’ll be throwing at her.
All my novels so far have been first person character driven because I like getting into my MCs head and figuring out her motivations, her reasons for doing anything. Even a thing as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. She likes the exercise.
I did a little bit of research, aka searched my Google reader, and saw somebody mention that you can set the tone of a novel with the very first line. I know it does but I’ve never really thought about it. This made me think back, and look through, all my previous novels and the first lines I gifted them with.
It’s kind of spot on. That first line sets some kind of standard that we as the writer of our story have to be true to. While book shopping, some readers will look at a first line and judge the entire novel on what they read. I’ve seen contests where writers had to enter their first lines and were judged solely by that one sentence. Most of those poor writers’ first lines were torn to shreds by other writers and I’m sure some of the entrants still carry the scars from that experience. I just went back to that contest and scanned some of the comments on the first lines. Harsh. (a post about that at a later date)
It’s insane when you think how much weight one string of words carry. Insane! You will either grab a reader’s attention, or they will toss your work aside as being not compelling enough, not good enough, not worthy of their time. Those people disregarding a novel based on a first line will most likely miss out on a wonderful story, but it’s their loss, right? Yes, it is.
I once said, and will say it again, I will never judge a book by its first line, first page, or first chapter. And definitely not by its cover. NEVER. I’m a writer. I know what kind of work and effort, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a novel. You put everything you have into that story, and I’m sure you leave a part of your soul there when you’re done. I will give the author and the story they wrote the respect they deserve and read at least five or six chapters. After that, if I put the novel down, it’s only because it just might not be the kind of thing I’m into, or what I expected. It doesn’t happen a lot, I can count the number of times on one hand. I’m well aware that, if I get published one day, some people might do the same with my novel, and I’m okay with it.
And I’m getting away from the reason of this post. Setting tone.
Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert in the field of tone and the setting of it, not at all. But I thought I’d share with you guys my experience with it.
A few years ago I wrote an urban fantasy, which I still love and will one day fix. It started with one of those borderline no-no beginnings. My MC was on her bed, trying to fall asleep. I know. I know. But that was only the second novel I wrote and I was still learning about the finder intricacies of opening pages and their dos and don’ts. That MC got annoyed with whatever it was that kept her awake and stormed out of her house to confront the noisemakers.
That first few pages set a tone of casualness that isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel, and I didn’t even realize it until I wanted to start querying that novel. Somebody critiqued the first pages of that novel and told me that, even though the start is well and good, maybe it isn’t the right place to start the novel. I sat back, mulled it over, and wrote a whole new first chapter.
It made such a difference!
The new chapter started out with a completely different tone and it amazed me. Where the previous opening had more of a casual intro and one annoyed MC, the new one showed me a whole different side to that MC. The serious one dealing with something so life changing that she has trouble thinking straight. And best of all, it reflected the tone of the rest of the manuscript. It added a whole different kind or urgency.
Since then I’ve learned my lesson and improved/adjusted the tone of each manuscript to fit what I have in mind for that story and its MC. The first line, paragraph, page, and chapter plays such an important role, even if you remove the thought that all the abovementioned have to catch the agent’s, publisher’s, and reader’s attention. It prepares whoever will pick up your novel for what is in store, and most of the time they don’t even know it. It’s like a personal joke between you and a friend, or a secret that you tell only your most trusted confidant.
I think this post morphed from being about tone into something about first sentences.
So tell me this, because I love reading how others go to work, how do you decide tone? Is it reflected in your first line? Have you ever had to rewrite or add a first chapter to fit the idea you originally had?
PS: Here’s my current wip’s first line.
Sebastian said he found me in a hole.