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.


Maggi Andersen said...

Maggi Andersen Looking forward to it. Enjoy that mince pie!

Jen Black said...

Always a problem, but remember you'll never please everyone all the time!If you can please 75% of readers (or your crit group) I'd say you're go to go!