Meet the Author: October 2017

Octopus

Octopus

Having embraced your choice of narrative voice, you crank a pristine sheet of A4 into your old Remmington (or, if you’re like me, you open up a new Open Office or Word document), and you clack away at the keys until you have the heading “CHAPTER ONE” staring at you from the top of what is otherwise a blank sheet of paper or an empty screen. How many fledgling novels ended their lives here, I wonder, strangled at birth by that vast expanse of white? Where to start?—that is the question, and it’s a biggie.

First chapters are unique in that they have to do a number of jobs that subsequent chapters do not—so many in fact that, even if you do have some of your cast picked out and a rough idea for your story, the prospect can still be daunting. First chapters need to set the tone of the novel, introduce characters, and also get the ball rolling. My advice: before you even put pen to paper, get inside your characters’ heads and experience the world as they see it.

It may sound obvious, but whether you’re writing in the first-person or the third, your initial task is to establish who your narrator is or whose point of view you are writing from. The way they look, speak, and think is important—they are, after all, the person who is telling or witnessing the story for you. In addition to the narrator, it’s likely you’ll need to establish some of your other characters as well. Again, it may sound obvious, but it’s an idea to make them not just distinct from each other as possible but distinctive in themselves. Think of the number of times you’ve come across a character mentioned in a book and found yourself wondering who on earth they are. You needn’t go into great detail, but some basic information will be necessary. You can always develop various features as the book progresses, but bear in mind that you don’t want to mention at some later stage any key aspect that requires your readers to radically readjust the mental image they’ve already built up. The Crimes & Thrillers reading group I attend recently read a novel where on the second-to-last page we learned that the male protagonist had platinum blond hair. Bang went my image of him—and with it any further willingness to suspend my disbelief! So how much information is required? Let’s take a look at the start of the first chapter of Octopus. The narrator in this case is Octavius Guy, who is also known as Gooseberry:

The door to Mr Bruff’s office opened and out stepped the first of his two new clients: Mr Hector Willoughby, a tall, soberly-dressed gentleman of northern extraction in his early thirties. He’d recently returned from South America, where he’d managed to acquire certain “exclusive mineral rights”—whatever they were! Best not to ask, I always think…they might try to tell you! Mr Joseph Peacock, also in his thirties (but with a noticeably more flamboyant dress sense), stepped out next. He had just inherited his father’s estates in the south of England; all he was waiting on now was something they call “probate”—whatever that might be! Again, best not to ask.
To build his refinery in South America, Mr Willoughby needed Peacock’s money. To increase the already large fortune that was coming his way, Mr Peacock needed Willoughby’s minerals. Though the pair had only reached what one might call “the early wooing stage”, they required a presiding minister if this marriage was to work: a solicitor, to wit; a post that Mr Bruff was surely born to.
‘George!’ cried my employer, as he stuck his head round the door. It was the leaner, trimmer, older of the two Georges who sprang to his feet. Five months in, the reducing diet that Mr Bruff had put him on was working like a charm. So far he’d managed to shed nearly three stone. The same could not be said of the younger George, I might point out. Several pounds heavier and as round as a pudding, he was currently slumped on the bench beside me, snoring his head off for all to see.
Furtive dinnertime forays to his forbidden chophouse would have been my guess, not that my employer had ever asked me to look into it. Still, in the unlikely event that he did, as Mr Bruff’s newly-appointed chief investigator, it was always useful to have a working theory up my sleeve.
Chief investigator, eh? Or, to be more precise, chief and only investigator. But even so! It was definitely a step in the right direction. My one regret was that, although this promotion came with an increase in wages, it sadly didn’t come with an office. Hence here I sat beside the younger George, still relegated to the corridor bench.

Not a lot is going on yet, which is fine. It gives the reader space to take in their new surroundings, meet the narrator and (in this case) five of the characters, and to start to piece together how they all relate to each other. We learn of some of the events that have taken place since the close of the previous book, but we still don’t know Gooseberry’s age, or, apart from coveting a bit of office space, what his passions and inclinations might be. Some of these things, in a round about way, get fed into a later passage where Mr Bruff is quizzing him about his knowledge of Sadler’s Wells Theatre:

‘Well, they put on plays there, sir. I hear they’re currently reviving The Duchess of Malfi.’
I knew this because I’d read a review of said play that claimed it was one of the most bloodthirsty ever written. Apparently everybody’s dead by the curtain-fall. I’d been longing to see this alluring production for myself, but the question was how I might fund this; my per diem for daily expenses had been reduced to a measly shilling, of which I was obliged to account for every penny. Blast Mr Crabbit and his damnable receipts!
‘It stars a Miss Isabella Prynn in the role of the duchess,’ I continued, purposely skirting around the play’s rather bloodthirsty nature; it was bound to offend Mr Bruff’s quaint notions of what were and what were not suitable topics for discussion where a fourteen-year-old boy was concerned. ‘You may well have heard of her, sir. I believe she’s quite famous.’
Very, if the article I had read was anything to go by. As I was rapidly running out of things to say, I gave a discreet cough and came straight to the point.
‘Mr Bruff, wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what it is you wish to know?’
Mr Bruff opened his eyes and blinked. I watched the tip of his tongue striving to moisten his lower lip as the seconds, if not minutes, ticked by.
‘Is it…safe?’ he enquired at last.

Gooseberry’s character has been plumped out a little, and two further characters have received a mention, readying us for their appearance later on. But we have yet to arrive at the inciting incident—that fateful decision or act that sets in train all future events—another thing that first chapters are apt include, often at the chapter’s climax. It can be something quite little, such as somebody writing someone a letter, or a detective agreeing to take on a new client, or, as in the case of Octopus, Gooseberry’s offer to accompany Mr Bruff to that evening’s performance. In the same passage we also find out about our protagonist’s physical stature and are brought fully up to date with what has been happening with him since the last book:

‘Oh, dash it all, I’ve read the reports in the papers! The thuggery that goes on outside its walls! The public displays of drunkenness when you venture inside the theatre! The building’s in such an awfully remote spot, I can’t help worrying that, if I attend, I shall end up being set upon by thieves!’
‘Are you to attend, sir?’
Mr Bruff nodded miserably. ‘Peacock’s been going on about it for days, and Willoughby needs the man’s money so badly, he’s not only reserved them a box, he’s jolly well gone and fixed it for him to meet the entire cast! So when they asked me to accompany them, I could hardly say no, now, could I? I had no wish to appear faint of heart.’
I should like to go on record as saying that Mr Bruff is not usually faint of heart, nor does he put much faith in what he reads in the papers. He’s far too level-headed for that. Clearly something had put the wind up him, but what?
‘When, sir?’ I asked.
My employer sighed. ‘Tonight.’
A truly inspired idea occurred to me. ‘What if I were to come with you, sir? I’d see to it that no harm befell you.’
Mr Bruff regarded me with a sceptical eye. ‘How?’ he asked, rather bluntly. ‘If a big, burly mugger came at us with a knife, how could a tiny lad like you hope to defend yourself?’
‘Before you were kind enough to employ me, sir, and rehabilitate me of my iniquitous ways, I was a well-respected and—dare I say it? revered—member of the criminal fraternity. No one would harm a former brother-at-arms, sir. You would be perfectly safe with me.’
Safer than he might imagine, for I was now in charge of these very same criminals. Having publicly fought their leader and won, the title of kingpin had fallen to me. By the rules of our time-honoured code, I was the person they now answered to.

This all works fine if you are introducing your characters gradually. But what happens when you have a large cast that needs to be introduced right from the get-go? In a future post I’ll be reflecting on writing crowd scenes, the spectre that haunts many an aspiring writer’s waking nightmare.

Octopus

Finally, if I’ve whetted your appetite, as a small token of my thanks for taking the trouble to find this page, I’d like to offer you a 50% discount off the list price of Octopus (Send for Octavius Guy 2), which boasts not only a first chapter, but a prologue to boot! Purchase it at Smashwords.com and, when it comes time to pay, use coupon code: GV88V. This offer is available until October 31st, 2017.

Happy reading!
Michael
Find me on Facebook
@seventh7rainbow