Guest post – Chris Whitaker

I’m very pleased to share a guest post from Chris Whitaker, author of Tall Oaks which was published yesterday, 7 April 2016, by Twenty7. You can order a copy here: Tall Oaks In this guest post, the author explains just how important getting the opening to a novel is and I can tell you that he certainly grabbed my attention with the opening chapter of the book!

I didn’t think I would have time to read this before sharing the guest post, so I decided just to read a few chapters to get a sense of the novel and before I knew it I was hooked! I was initially a little confused with all the different characters and their seemingly unconnected stories but I was soon caught up in their lives. I had a soft spot for Jerry the photo booth worker, seriously overweight, looking after his sick, yet still controlling mother, the best he could. Jim the policeman was another great character, frustrated as he tried to find out what had happened to missing three year old Harry while at the same time harbouring a desire for Harry’s distraught mother Jess. Manny, the would-be teenage racketeer. gave rise to many funny moments. Most of the townspeople seemed to have secrets of one sort or another and many were brought to light during the course of the novel. The disappearance and search for Harry was an important strand of the story and connected lots of the storylines. Chris Whitaker cleverly set many clues and red herrings as to what had happened to Harry and when it was finally revealed, I was taken totally by surprise! The reader is treated to a cast of intriguing quirky characters and their stories all come together painting a great portrait of life in this small American town. 

That Difficult First Impression

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and never has that saying been more apt than when it comes to writing the opening chapter of a book.

Lots of people read the sample pages on Amazon before deciding to part with their hard earned money. Get it wrong and readers move on to another, get it right and (hopefully) they’ll give you a shot. And that’s all it is the first time round. A shot. With a debut there’s no back catalogue to determine your worth.

I watched the Giles Coren documentary ‘My Failed Novel’ recently and he spent some time with the readers at a literary agency. They could tell whether the book was something that showed promise just by reading the opening lines. So whether it’s an agent, a publisher, or a reader searching for their next book, I was acutely aware of just how important it was to put my best foot forward.

There are lots of characters in Tall Oaks. Lots of lives being led, lots of lies being told. Whilst I loved writing all the different voices, it did give me a bit of a headache when it came to choosing who to best start the novel with. I chopped and changed, moving chapters around like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Should I start with something funny? Or something gripping?

I went with gripping (I hope). Tall Oaks opens with an account of the night that comes to shape the rest of the story. The night that three-year-old Harry was abducted. Police officer Jim is listening to a recording of an interview with Harry’s mother, Jess. I worried that it might lessen the tension, seeing as he’s listening to it retrospectively, but as I didn’t want to set the reader up for an outright crime thriller I think it worked quite well. Then there’s a stark contrast between the first and second chapters, from Jess and Harry, to Manny and Roger. Teenager Manny is discussing his (ridiculous) plans to reinvent himself as a gangster with friend Abe, Roger is almost caught looking at something he shouldn’t on the internet. These two chapters set the tone for the rest of the story, showing it’s as much about the characters quite different concerns as it is the police investigation that ties them together.      

When preparing to write this blog piece I thought back to some of the more memorable opening chapters I’ve read over the years. From the ballooning accident in Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love, to the dark uncompromising prose in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, to the savage act of violence in G.J. Minett’s The Hidden Legacy. Whether they are frightening, gripping, funny or sad, the unique styles and quality of writing is what stands out above all else. When I pick up a book I want to feel like I’m in the hands of a competent story teller. That’s the most important thing of all.

From the back of the book

Everyone has a secret in Tall Oaks . . .

When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town.

Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.

Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures.

Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake.

Photographer Jerry, who’s determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all.

And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own . . .

In Chris Whitaker’s brilliant and original debut novel, missing persons, secret identities and dangerous lies abound in a town as idiosyncratic as its inhabitants.

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