Sunday, 18 December 2011

Why Are First Chapters The Hardest To Write?

I know my characters inside out, have researched the eras in which they live until I can smell the charcoal burning in the woods and feel the oft-washed linen shifts on my skin. I'm a plotter, so every chapter and scene is planned out in detail, whose PoV it is in and what the aims, conflicts and goals are.


So why, when I sit down to write the opening chapter - it is either too detailed, too slow, too full of irrelevant information, too complicated, too political, not enough introspection, too much introspection, too much background, not enough atmosphere - etc etc?

There isn't a formula on how to hook a reader within the first three pages -  every novel I have ever read is different - you are either thrown into the action from the first paragraph until you are breathless by page four, or the writer pulls you in slowly and surely by the mystery of why they are walking along an iced-up road at midnight with only a banknote and a page from a telephone directory in their pocket.

The Aim, as every author knows, is to  introduce your main character, your setting, and the conflict, and simultaneously make the reader care what happens to them. Dumping backstory is a crime, and you must give just enough detail to keep them reading.  Don't bore the reader, or overload them with information, because if the first chapter is rubbish - they won't even read the rest - so game over.

Some authors get to the end of their draft and then go back and re-write the first chapter  - but I'm a plotter - I think I said that - and unless I have each scene laid out, I risk going off at a tangent and 'filling' with inconsequential conversations and cameos of characters the reader doesn't want. Jane Austen never had this problem.Without all these 'rules' to follow, her pen simply flowed as her thoughts spilled onto the page. Would a laptop have revolutionised the way she wrote? Possibly, probably - but all those charming tea parties with genteel conversation would have shortened Emma considerably!

Whenever I go shopping for a book - I read the blurb, then the opening. If I can get into a story right there in the bookshop - I buy it. If my mind wanders halfway down the first page I put it back on the shelf - so that's whom I should be writing for - those with no patience and a short attention span!

I am putting version three of 'Chapter One' through my critique group - and keeping my fingers crossed. If they don't like this one - where do I go from here?

Time for coffee and a mince pie!
Happy Christmas.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Christmas Isn't Christmassy

Is it me, or doesn't Christmas feel like Christmas any more?

In my childhood, which was long ago than I care to detail here, this time of year was always magical. It began with the School Nativity Play, when pre-teens down to toddlers of four took part in various productions of the Bethlehem Story with tea-towels wrapped round our heads and our best doll playing the infant Jesus. Mums and Dads would crowd into the school hall and perch on those tiny chairs, snapping away at their babies, and Dad would stand at the back and take a movie of the entire production.

That was long ago, before the word 'paedophile' was bandied about like a new flu virus that anyone could catch and we all need protecting from. Now proud Mums and Dads aren't even allowed to take their mobile phones into the play in case they take illicit photographs of their own children, and Dads are frisked at the door by the movie camera mafia to make sure he hasn't smuggled one in. One school headmistress has blacked out the eyes of the girls' pictures in the school yearbook in case their faces are 'superimposed on obscene images on the internet'.
Oxford Street

Don't despair though, the school has the solution to how you can keep a record of little Charlie/Charlotte's debut performance? They will take the video themselves and sell a copy to parents at an inflated price!

I always looked forward to being taken to London to see Oxford Street strung with a profusion of lights, with trees, angels and reindeer layered thick enough to be visible from an orbiting spaceship. The specially dressed windows in Selfridges and Harrods were always crowded with kids in mittens and wooly hats, their noses pressed to the widows to see the electric trains, nodding bears, fairies and elves in a clockwork show of their own.

South Molton Street

But we aren't supposed to call them Festive, Christmas, or Seasonal Lights, now we have 'Holiday Lights',  often sponsored by film companies plugging their next cartoon - this year it's Arthur Christmas. Christmas trees are now called 'Holiday trees', and whatever you do don't mention that it's a religious festival - it might upset people of other faiths.

Then there was the eagerly anticipated trip to see Santa in his grotto, kindly, red-cheeked, ho-ho-hoing Santa. We sat on his knee, not caring at all that his ill-fitting beard kept slipping and his breath whiffed a bit of the lager he'd quaffed at the employee lunch - our mission was to issue a detailed list of what we wanted for Christmas - from a written document if necessary. It didn't matter that we came away with a plastic toy that broke after half an hour - Santa wouldn't dare pull that one on Christmas Eve at my house - we expected proper presents! Now the kids have to keep a distance - no knee sitting - touching, even smiling is not encouraged - just in case.

I want the old Christmas's back, I miss them - or is it my age and inherent cynicism which makes me see it this way?