As the months go by, I am having a harder time picking just one winner for the Chapter One contest. There's a lot of good writing out there these days, and several excellent first chapters were submitted last month. But there was something about the opening scene in Sara J. Henry's novel, Learning to Swim, that left me wanting more. Read it for yourself and see what you think:
Learning to Swim: Chapter One
If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.
But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.
I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I’d pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one’s twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.
What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.
It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think. The coldness of the water seemed to suck the air out of my lungs, but instinctively I curved upward, fluttering my feet.
In the weekly mini-triathlons in Lake Placid where I live, I’m always one of the last out of the water. The closest I’d ever come to underwater swimming was picking up my hair clasp at the bottom of a friend’s pool, and that had taken two tries. And whenever I see a movie with scenes where the hero has to swim through a long, narrow passageway, I always try to hold my breath. I never make it.
But I was in the lake, committed, and surging strongly underwater. By the time I broke the surface, I’d traveled more than a third of the way to where I’d seen the thing go in. Both ferries had gone onward, in their opposite directions. There was no one in sight. No shouts of alarm, no ferry slowing and turning about.
I kept my eyes fixed on the water ahead, and saw something bob up, too far away. My stomach gave a nasty twist. Then I swam, harder and faster than I ever had in a mini-triathlon with middle-aged tourists coming up behind me.
When I reached what I thought was the right spot, I took a deep breath and dived. The water wasn’t clear but not exactly murky, sort of a blurred translucence with a greenish cast. I didn’t get very far under, and had to try again. This time I saw only a few flat, colorless fish skittering by before I had to come up for air.
Gasping for breath, treading water while I sucked air, reason began to creep in. I wasn’t just cold; I was close to numb. I was alone in a very deep lake twelve miles wide, diving after what could be a bag of garbage somebody didn’t want to pay to haul to the dump. I was none too sure I had enough strength to get to shore. But I dived once more, and this time something led me straight to it.
It wasn’t a bundle of trash. It wasn’t a doll. It was a small boy, arms entangled in what looked like a dark sweatshirt, straight dark hair floating eerily above his head. For one awful moment I thought I was looking at a corpse, but then I saw a small sneakered foot kick weakly. By the time I got close enough to grab a handful of sweatshirt, I’d been without air far longer than I’d ever managed to hold my breath watching underwater scenes in movies. My throat was convulsing in an effort not to suck in water instead of the air that wasn’t there.
The boy turned toward me, looking at me with those wide dark eyes I hadn’t imagined after all. Then they slowly closed. I started upward, dragging him with one hand, swimming with the other, kicking as hard as I could.
It was endless. My ears were ringing, my body a marionette I was directing with an inner voice: Keep swimming, keep swimming, keep swimming.
I no longer felt cold, and my throat had stopped jerking. I began to wonder if I had drowned. But I felt a dull pain in the arm clutching the boy, and I wouldn’t, I thought, feel pain if I were dead.
I kicked on, and sensed rather than saw light above: either Heaven or the surface. In a burst of motion we emerged, the boy bobbing up beside me. I gulped in so much air it hurt, and shook water off my face.
The boy was limp, entangled in the sodden sweatshirt, and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I struggled to get the sweatshirt off over his head and tried to thump his thin back. I’d taken CPR, but it was several years ago, and no one tells you how to do CPR when you’re treading water in a deep, cold lake.
No response. I pulled the boy toward me, put my mouth over his and blew, turning to suck in air—once, twice, three times. Now I was feeling almost furious, at fate or irony or whatever had put me in this cold water with a thin dying child in my arms. I’d found him, and damn it, he needed to start breathing.
The boy coughed, spewed forth a gush of water, then opened his eyes.
“Yes!” I whispered, “yes, yes, yes!” and I think I shook him a little. I might have cried if I hadn’t learned a long time ago you can’t cry and swim at the same time.
Now we had to get to shore, which looked a lot farther away than I’d ever swum in a mini-triathlon.
I’ve read that drowning victims are likely to drag you under and you’re supposed to tow them with one arm around their neck so they can’t grab you. But I knew I’d never make it swimming with one arm. I pushed his hands under my belt, and squeezed them into tiny fists.
“Hold on,” I told him, looking into the dark eyes, and he seemed to understand.
The swim to shore wasn’t dramatic, just grim. There’s a formula that predicts how long you can survive in cold water before hypothermia renders your brain foggy and your arms and legs useless, and it was probably a good thing I couldn’t remember it.
This is the part of Rescue 911 you never see—the long, slow, dreary stuff. I did the crawl; I did the sidestroke. In my head I sang a slow dirge from Girl Scout camp: Mandy had a little bay-bee. Had that baby just for me. Stroke, breathe. Mandy, oh, my Mandy oh, my Man- dee mine. Stroke, breathe. Baby made my Mandy cry. Cried so hard she soon did die. Stroke, breathe.Mandy, oh, my Mandy oh, my Man- dee mine.
At one point the boy’s hands slipped from my belt, and I spun and grabbed him as he was sliding under. He opened his eyes halfway and looked at me dully. I cradled him in my arms as the water sloshed around us. “Just a little farther, just a little farther,” I pleaded, and his eyes flickered. Now maybe I was crying, but I was so wet and cold I couldn’t tell.
I could see details of the shoreline, rocks and a big tree that seemed to beckon to me, and damned if we were going to drown this close to land. I yanked the drawstring from my windbreaker hood, pulled one of his hands underwater, and lashed it to my belt. We swam on, in awkward tandem.
We had been carried well past the ferry dock, and reached shore in a rocky area. I swung my feet down to feel for bottom, and there it was, sandy and shifting and at tiptoe length, but there it was. I yanked my belt loose to free the boy and pulled him toward me, hoisting him to my hip. I staggered as we came out of the water, him clinging to my side like a baby orangutan, and sat down on the first big rock I came to.
We sat there for a moment in silence, sucking in air, both of us shivering. My inner voice was saying Thankyouthankyouthankyou, but to whom or to what, I don’t know. I was strangely conscious of the hardness of the rock I sat on and the fact that I was no longer being rocked by the water.
The boy stirred, and turned toward me, his dark hair plastered around his thin face. For the ﬁrst time, I heard him make a sound.
“Merci,” he whispered.
The wording in this chapter is excellent; it compels the reader to keep reading so they can find out what happens next. I found myself interested in why the little boy was in the water in the first place. It's exactly what an author needs to do in their first chapter to capture their audience. Now let's learn a little about Sara J. Henry...
Tell me about yourself: Where are you from and how long have you been writing?
I’m from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town constructed to help build the atom bomb during World War II. I started writing at the age of 5 with a very short short story. I began a novel at age 11, got as far as setting up the characters and place and situation, and stopped (that’s where it gets hard). I didn’t try writing fiction again until I wrote this novel. (In the interim I was a newspaper feature writer and sports editor, book editor, magazine editor, and various other jobs, including a stint as a soil scientist and one as a bicycle mechanic.)
Tell me about the novel—what inspired it?
I was visiting the Adirondacks in upstate New York where I’d lived, and while driving along the huge Lake Champlain on a misty day I envisioned a woman on one of the ferries, seeing something she thought was a child fall from a ferry going the other direction – and imagined what she would do. That scene stuck with me, and when I sat down to write a novel, it became the opening chapter that’s posted here. (I’d say my primary writing influences were from my early teen years, when I devoured John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and Mary Stewart’s suspense novels.)
What genre do you write in and why?
I suppose you’d call it suspense - I think my publisher is calling them “psychological suspense” – but I expect the real question is why. Genres are tricky – my books are sort of crossovers. I avoid calling them mysteries because many people have set ideas of what makes up a mystery, and my books don’t particularly fit that. Someone told me this one was “slightly literary,” which I could certainly live with!
What’s the next project for you? Tell the readers about it.
It’s the sequel to this novel, A COLD AND LONELY PLACE, coming out in February 2013. It’s set in the Adirondacks, in the winter, with many of the same characters as the first book – and explores how deep friendships run, long-held secrets, and a tragic death that threatens to shatter the serenity of these mountain villages and several families’ lives.
Let’s put the novel aside and talk about YOU for a minute—what are your hobbies and what can’t you live without that’s non-book related? What do you do when you are not writing? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?
These days it’s almost hard to think of anything non-book related – seems I’m almost always writing, reading, editing, critiquing, doing web work. But I have several dogs, and a bicycle, and live in beautiful Vermont, so I try to find time to enjoy all of these. And I love to travel, to visit friends or go to book events. I will also admit to watching Survivor. I don’t know where else I’d like to live, but I’d like to visit friends in Costa Rica, spend some time in the UK and the south of France, and Australia and New Zealand.
If a reader asked you to recommend the three BEST books to read, aside from your own, what would they be?
This would change from moment to moment, but off the top of my head, some of my favorites – and this is a very disparate list:
WINTER’S BONE, by Daniel Woodrell
BRAT FARRAR, by Josephine Tey
PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, by A.S. King
If you could have dinner with one author, who would it be and why?
My friend Simon Toyne, because he makes me laugh, and appreciates my sense of humor. (Again, this answer would likely change depending on the day it was asked.)
Post where you can be found—website, blog, twitter, facebook, etc.
August "Chapter One" Finalists
Here are the finalists for the month of August. Any of these books are worth a second look!
Michelle Muto: Don't Fear the Reaper
Roger Stouff and Kenneth R. Brown: Firekill
Linda Welch: Along Came a Demon
Anne R. Allen: Ghostwriters in the Sky
Cheryl Shireman: Cooper Moon
Keri Knutson and Susan Branham: Director's Cut