Monday, 4 April 2011

C is for Chapter One: The Notebook

In my previous Chapter One post I had a look at the opening of A Kiss Before Dying, a tautly written thriller. This time I’m looking at The Notebook, a romantic novel. I had intended to take apart the first chapter in a similar way to last time, but it turned out to be quite a different kind of book and quite an eye-opening experience. The conclusions I came to after spending some time with it were unexpected to say the least and I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

The Notebook is a very slim 50,000 word romance that was Nichloas Sparks’ first published novel in 1996. It was picked out of a slush pile by an agent and sold for a $1 million advance to a major publishing house, and instantly became a bestseller. This should make it clear that everyone along the way, agent, publisher, public, took to it immediately. People knew it was something special. The strange thing is, I thought the opening chapter was terrible.

It not only doesn’t obey any of the basic guidelines of opening chapters, it almost completely goes against all of them. It’s slow to the point of being static. It’s unclear who the characters are or where we are. The voice of the narrator (first person present tense) is strong, but quite tedious and self-involved. The story is rambling and unclear. But someone picked up this book and said yep, that’s a blockbuster. How did that happen? I certainly wanted to do my best to find out.

I want to make it clear I am not going to spend this post bashing the book. It’s a multi-million seller. It works just fine (better than fine). But I want to take you from where I was at the start to where I ended up.  I should also point out that I have no idea if the opening chapter in published form is the same as the opening chapter of the manuscript in that slush pile, but for the sake of this post let’s assume so.

If you would like to read the first chapter for yourself (four pages) you can do so on Amazon here.

So, enough preamble, the first line of the book:
Who am I? And how, I wonder, will the story end?

Vague enough for you? My initial reaction was: Who cares? This kind of ‘Come with me and I shall tell you a tale to end all tales’ kind of a start from a fledgling novelist always makes me wary, because by and large the promise is not kept. The story isn’t up to it. And this wasn’t (at that time anyway) an established voice.

What follows is a lot of description of an 80 year old man’s room and clothing as he gets dressed, and along the way him going on about stuff in this way:
The romantics would call this a love story, the cynics a tragedy.

Whenever I read this sort of proclamation my feeling is why don’t you just tell me the story and let me decide for myself? He also does a lot of:
I am a common man, with common thoughts, and I’ve led a common life.

This is one of those things agents often tell you not to do in their list of ‘Ten things that make me want to kill writers’. If he’s so ordinary why would I want to listen to his story?

There’s also plenty of clichés:
I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And convoluted metaphors:
Time, unfortunately, doesn’t make it easy to stay on course. The path is straight as ever, but now it is strewn with the rocks and gravel that accumulate over a lifetime.

The old man moves slowly through the halls, past nurses so we know the kind of place we’re in, people say hello, he feels they pity him, don’t understand him, but he doesn’t care. He eventually sits down next to someone unnamed (she doesn’t know who I am) and opens the notebook he’s carrying and starts to read.

The next chapter takes us back in time to the 40s when these two met etc. but I want to point out that rather oddly it isn’t presented as what’s in the notebook, it’s told from a completely different perspective, and the story that unfolds is fairly standard love-triangle, true love, get caught in the rain, making love in front of a roaring fire type melodramatic romance. Publisher’s weekly referred to it as ‘cliche-ridden prose’ and that’s very fair. So why does it work so well for so many people. My first clue came in the same Publisher’s weekly review.

‘What renders Sparks's sentimental story somewhat distinctive are two chapters, which take place in a nursing home in the '90s, that frame the central story.’

The scenes in the old age home is him reading her own notebook to her about how they met and fell in love. She has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember him and they say she never will, but he reads to her regardless, he believes in miracles beyond the ken of science (and guess what?). I’m sure you can see the attraction of such an idea, some of you may have already become charmed by the idea. But there’s a big difference between knowing a book is a proven commodity that’s already satisfied millions, and picking it out of a slush pile in the agency post room.

This made me wonder what had attracted the agent to this story, and rather fortuitously Nichols Sparks has made his query letter for The Notebook available on his website. You can read it here: Query. I suggest you have a look now (you’ve read this far, for some unknown reason, might as well go the whole hog).

What struck me is how clear he was about the old age angle, about the idea of love everlasting. In short, he’s selling the angle and selling it hard. I can see why the agent might have become interested, and I can also see something else.

Nobody reads a first chapter in isolation. The public have the book cover, the blurb, the reviews, the reputation, they have a strong idea of what to expect. Agents have the query letter and the synopsis. They know where the story is going, they can decide if the hyperbole and claims of a wonderful story at the start are justified by flicking through the major plot points (conveniently reduced to a single page).  Which made me think that all the stuff about making sure your first chapter kicks off with vim and vigour, that the inciting incident is right up there and you hook the reader within the first five page is all a bunch of bullshit.

Okay, that's a little over the top, but certainly out of the idea, the story and the opening, the opening is the least important.

Of course you want the start to be impactful, and certain genres have certain expectations, but people don’t blindly pick up a book, open to the first page without looking at anything else and read the first line and start judging based solely on that. In fact the only place people do that is on online writing sites (and I'm a member of most of them) where people can’t be bothered to read any more than the chapter in front of them.

What’s equally important, I think, is selling the person on the idea of the book. The hook doesn’t need to be on the first page or the fifth page, it needs to be before you start reading. Whether it’s a great premise or a moving one, whether it’s just that the author is famous (maybe even for writing!) or that people are raving about it in all the right circles, the reader has to think ‘Hmm, that sounds interesting’ before they start reading.

The difficulty is that a lot of writers don’t know how to encapsulate that idea into something easy to get. Often because they don’t really know what the idea is themselves. And I don’t mean in a Hollywood pitch kind of way (It’s Harry Potter in a submarine!). Sparks’ query letter is not high-concept, old people remaining in love, but he makes it very clear what he’s going for. He has a specific purpose and he explains it clearly. His opening chapter may be vague but his query letter certainly is not. And once you know what his purpose is, it completely changes the way you approach the opening. Well, maybe not completely, but you understand what he’s doing and that there’s a reason behind it.

The question is, does your book have a solid concept behind it? Shouldn’t it have?

This was quite an enlightening process for me. I started to realise I very much rely on the text doing the talking for me and I need to work out what my story is really about. And why anyone would care about that.  More work for me. I guess the path is straight as ever, but now it is strewn with the rocks and gravel that accumulate over a lifetime. Hey I totally get that now. Oh, wait, no, still gibberish.

I think I might try this Chapter One thing again with another genre (although not for a while, it’s quite intense). Let me know if you have any suggestions for genres or books.


Lindsey said...

This is an excellent post. I have not read The Notebook, but I've seen enough of the movie to know I don't need to. Nicholas Sparks knows the type of people who would read it though, and he must have specifically wrote it for them. The agent saw this fact and snapped the book up. This book proves it's all a matter of individual taste.

Botanist said...

Good analysis, Moody. My first reaction is that here is a clear example that you can break all the "rules" we spout to each other in critique groups, and still be successful. The only true rule is: whatever works, works.

Then I went to the query letter, and decided that this, too, seems to break all the rules. It is much longer than I've been told a query has any right to be. I tells me a lot about the novel, but it's difficult to disentangle what the story itself is about. I can just picture this being torn to shreds on Query Shark. And yet it was still picked up from the slushpile.

I wonder if the clue is in the date? This was published fifteen years ago, and everything seems to have gotten faster and snappier since then, with ever-shortening attention spans demanding instant gratification. So I wonder this would have been picked up in the same way today?

Madeleine said...

I would say that about reading 'Atonement' and 'Never Let Me Go'! They seem very slow, too. :O)

mooderino said...

@Lindsey - yeah, know your market I guess.

@Botanist - you could be right, anyone have a 'how-to query' book from the 90s? Then again he does offer it in the advice to writers section of his site, and he's a big supporter of various MFA type programs so you'd think he's be current with his tips.

@Madeleine - room for all speeds I think, despite what they say.

I know this is quite a long post so I'm unlikely to get that many comments, so thank you very much for wading through it. Cheers.

D. Heath said...

The publisher probably saw that it had simple appeal and potential to popular in the movies. I guess it's all about making your writing attractive to the demographic the publisher specializes in. Interesting post!
Social Science Medley

Nicolette said...

Excellent post! And I'm now so intrigued, I want to go and read 'The Notebook'. The query letter was interesting, too. Nice to see what other authors send out.

mooderino said...

Thinking about the views expressed in the comments it occurs to me that the 90s was also when Alzheimer's became well-known and the media were much more interested in it as a phenomenon. That could have something to do with it. Nothing like good timing to bring success.

Catherine Denton said...

Wow, that's kind of mind-boggling. I haven't read The Notebook but I want to now just to see what you're talking about. Yeah (from comment above), timing might have helped.
My Blog

Hart Johnson said...

I read this book so long ago that I hadn't really remembered this, but you're right--the start isn't particularly compelling. It's funny though--I normally don't like romance... at all, and I liked this book--It is the sweetness of the age and Alzheimers stuff that made it compelling to me.

muso-blog-hog said...

Hey Mood ~~ thanks for swinging by my blog !
This post is quite an eye-opener for me (being fairly new to fiction writing...), since I get the impression that the story should hook the reader within the first chapter/first 10-or-so-pages ... depending on the length of the chapters etc .

With regards to the "timing issue" , maybe the trick to writing that multi-million dollar best seller , is to check out what controversial topic is making headlines , find a unique perspective/angle and then use that as a theme for your story ...
I haven't read The Notebook ~ will have to make a point of doing so !!


Kathy said...

An excellent book and great movie, too. If you liked that book you also might like 'The Wedding' by the same author.
I'm a new follower and look forward to reading more of your great posts. I found you with the ‘surprise me’ button. I’m a new follower of yours. I'd love to have you check out my take on the A to Z Challenge, comment and follow, if you'd like.
Kathy at Oak Lawn Images

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, guys, more than I expected for this lengthy post. I'm really grateful you all took the time (tomorrow's will be much shorter I promise).

Another thought, the book got compared to Bridges of Madison County by a lot of people, even by the author himself in his query letter. Bridges was a huge hit that was similarly thought of as overly-sentimental, proving there was a huge market for this kind of thing. So that probably helped.

Carol Kilgore said...

I think it all probably boils down to the instant connection with writer makes with the reader. The agent was in the mood for this writer and fell in love with his words right there. Her passion for his work translated into sales. And the rest is history.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I think that speaks to the huge variation in taste of readers. But that's a great thing because no matter what you write, if it's what you love to read, chances are someone else will love to read it too!

Melissa Bradley said...

Excellent analysis. I think the query totally sold the book because I have tried to read The Notebook and cannot make it through. It leads me to wonder how many copies are actually regret purchases that people were unable to return. But Sparks knows how to nail the concept and sell it. Maybe since his first chapter breaks all the rules, it's good to perhaps steps outside convention when writing every once in a while.

Michael Offutt said...

The Notebook made me ball my eyes out. What a terrible movie. I hate feeling sad during movies and this is definitely not one that I'll ever pick up on dvd. There's just no reason for it. Have friends over for a party and say, "let's all watch the notebook". Why on earth? Just to watch people leave crying?

Jan Morrison said...

this is a wonderful post! there is so much to look at - the approach, the sentimentality, the sell. I liked his query letter - I've never read the book, seeing the comparison in his query (very subtly put) to Bridges from Madicon County make sure that I won't read it BUT his clarity is compelling (hey there's two c words for ya!)
Jan Morrison

T. S. Bazelli said...

Interesting observations! You always hear that the first chapter is the most important, and I never thought about how stories are not read in isolation. That makes me view query letters in a very different light.

Laura Josephsen said...

This was fantastic. I've been thinking a lot about openings and themes (I've been working on writing the summary for my current novel; it's been hard), and there are so many "rules" to follow. I always wonder if I someone will even look at the book if I break the rules, and this was an excellent reminder that so many, many writers have written stories that do well regardless.

Lydia K said...

Haven't read this, but your review helped me understand the hype. thanks!

Clarissa Draper said...

It's sad that some get to break all the rules and others don't. Oh well, I've seen the movie but not sure I would like the book.

Shellie said...

Let me first say how much I love the way your blog looks. I feel like I'm in the pages of a book. Cool!

I've heard nothing but good things about The Notebook. I've had several friends recommend it as a good read, but sadly, I haven't gotten around to it yet. It's on my list.

Pk Hrezo said...

Good point. I've heard peeps say they prefer the film over the story. I read the story so long ago, when it first came out, and I was an unsophisticated reader, as most peeps are, so I loved it. I think maybe when all the stars align and the right agent reads at the right time, things just happen. It explains much of the success of many authors today.

Murees Dupé said...

If only my bad first chapter could turn out to be a bestseller. I wish! Great post.

Michael Di Gesu said...

It's so funny how SO many bestselling author have slow and boring beginnings as well as bad writing.

I still have a hard time with Stephanie Meyers. She writes terribly, but we all know what happened with her .... It's what hits the agent at the time. It's all in the timing...

Girl Friday said...

Brilliant analysis again. This really puts me off the book (and any Nicholas Sparks), although I loved the film. I thought the query was obnoxious - comparing it to Romeo and Juliet and saying 'This is the first book to deal with Alzheimer's' - um, I doubt it.

I'd love it if you'd do more of these! I'd be interested in seeing an analysis of the first chapter of either a children's book (MG) to see how quickly we get into the story, or a book that features magic, to see how an author explains a different world without slowing the pace with too much back story.

Halli Gomez said...

Amazing perspective! Thanks for the insight. I've read tons of "tips on writing" articles and some say start with action and some say never start with action. it is all very confusing to a new writer. Guess this shows that they are all right!
All I can do is let the story take me and see if I can get it in an agent's or publisher's door.

Wonderful blog, I am now following!


mooderino said...

I like the idea of doing a fantasy book next time. Just need to think of a fairly recent bestseller, preferably a debut novel, set in another world entirely. Hmmm...

Thanks for all the feedback on this one, much appreciated.

Langley said...

I have not read this book but the chapter critique is very interesting. I hope you will do another.

Gail M Baugniet said...

A fabulous example of knowing the rules ...and then breaking them!

MM the Queen of English said...

I think your previous visitors made some very good points. I liked "What works, works." "Know the rules and then break them." The fact that the book was written 15 years ago -- that's like 100 years ago it seems.

Great job -- I appreciate your thoroughness in tackling the subject. You worked hard, and we appreciate it.

So much for another rule -- keep your blogs short, or people won't read them.

MM the Queen of English

J. D. Brown said...

Wow, great post. As a writer, I also often feel like all the "rules" are bullshit. I can name at least 10 "over-night" NYT Best Sellers that seem to have tossed all the rules out the window and slop a bunch of crap on the pages. How the heck do they do that and who are these people that decided this crap is worthy?

I actually love metaphors and I think it's a shame that we're being told not to use them anymore. I often find myself cutting them out of my manuscript in the name of sales.

Snakesmom said...

I loved The Notebook and I also love when any writer steps out of the box and does something new and interesting. Who makes these rules anyway? lol :) Great post!

Alleged Author said...

I like the idea of dissecting first chapters. I have a slew of library books just waiting for me to analyze them. Great post!

RosieC said...

Huh. Interesting. I haven't read it or seen the movie. Maybe I'll take a look at it the next time I make it to the library. I'm intrigued. Thanks :)

East for Green Eyes

Carol Ervin said...

Yay. My friends think I'm nuts when I say I can't read Nicholas Sparks. This whole business is contradictory and confusing. Thanks for your bits of clarity.

Rachael Harrie said...

What an interesting (and well thought-out) post! I've really enjoyed reading this.



Sophia the Writer said...

Ha! I love this - I got the Notebook from the library to prepare for watching the film (I can only go in one direction book-->film) but returned it after reading the first page.

Margo Berendsen said...

This was fascinating! Reading that query letter was intriguing too. This guy sure knew how to pitch his novel! And here's just a guess on that first chapter. Maybe it was intentionally written for a much older audience, with a slow pace, lots of details, lots of introspection, - all of that seems geared (gosh I hope don't prejudiced!) for the 60+ age range?

Gina Blechman said...

Interesting. I have a love hate relationship with books like that, because, of course, you start off almost hating it for the whole first chapter, saying to yourself how slow it is, and then you keep reading and think yourself the grandest idiot for ever doubting it. I'm debating whether to read it or not. I own Dear John, so I might just start that. I'm debating whether I like that it's become so huge, because that will make it interesting to study, or dislike it, because I want to read something less ubiquitous.

<3 Gina Blechman

Suze said...

I think, and this is just an opinion, part of what made Sparks' query a successful one was the p.s. The letter showed he was part writer who knows how to spin a yarn with some amount of resonance and the post script showed he was, perhaps equally, a businessman.

Linda Yezak said...

It's amazing. For every rule a newbie author tries to follow, he can find a best-selling author who broke it. (Ever noticed the number of exclamation points in a James Patterson novel?)

I think you nailed it: the pitch of a story with terrific reader-appeal can get a book out of the slush pile.

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