Tuesday, November 20, 2012
That Pesky First Chapter
Writing Chapter One can be hell. When beginning the first draft of a novel, Chapter One is almost always clumsy, confusing, vague, and written with all the expertise of a college freshman whose brain is fried on a combination of ganja and energy drinks. In fact, these first chapters are such miserable messes that most newbie writers feel compelled to fix them before they move on to Chapter Two.
Then Chapter Three, then Chapter Four, then…
“Oh, the hell with the thing!” the newbies wind up screaming before storming away from their manuscript, possibly forever. “This book just doesn’t work.”
To which I say, “Of course your book doesn’t work, because you didn’t write it. Instead, you wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote your first chapter until it died in your own hands. You were so obsessed with getting Chapter One ‘just right’ that you ignored your novel.”
And that’s a shame, because in the end, that first chapter will probably be cut anyway. It’s worth rephrasing. First chapters are usually cut from the finished manuscript.
Why? Because by the time the newbie writer has finished his manuscript, his book has taken on a shape and maturity he didn’t have when he was slaving away on Chapter One. The final chapters of his book are more universal in scope, deeper in tone, and more assured in craft than anything he could possibly have accomplished when he began his manuscript. Somewhere along the way, between page 50 and page 410, the writer grew up.
Am I speaking from experience? I sure am. My critique group has been operating for two decades now, and during all those years, I’ve watched attacks of Chapter One-itis kill many a newbie writer’s dreams. I’ve seen the same thing while teaching creative writing at various workshops across the country. Too many newbie novelists with truly great ideas just can’t move past Chapter One.
But it’s not only the newbies who fall victim to Chapter One-itis. It can happen to seasoned pros. In fact, it’s almost happened to me.
My 13th book -- The Llama of Death -- will be released on January 6, and I am here to tell you that all my first chapters were eventually cut from my final manuscript, including Llama. In my first chapter, I’m always flailing around, trying to find the novel’s “voice,” trying to clarify my ideas while at the same time introducing various characters. And my poor protagonist? In my first draft of Chapter One I find myself explaining over and over how my protagonist got to where she is, what her life was like before the book started, and why she feels compelled to solve crimes.
This clumsy flailing around is par for the course at the beginning of a first draft. At that point, I’m so insecure about my story that I tend to explain things to death. Therefore, Chapter One comes out overcrowded, over-described, stagnant, and dull. Nothing much happens in those pages – instead, it’s all cerebral in-the-head stuff, muddled and fatally passive. In short, Chapter One reeks.
No problem. I never try to “fix” Chapter One while writing the first draft of a novel. I leave the ugly thing to stew in its own juice while I move on to the first draft of Chapter Two. Then I write the first draft of Chapter Three. Then… You get the idea. I never look back. I don't “fix” the mess I left behind in Chapter One until I type THE END on the very last page of my manuscript’s first draft.
Once the first draft is completed, then, and only then, do I go back and address the problems in Chapter One. And what a surprise I find waiting for me! As it turns out, Chapter One no longer fits into my book. You see, once my story caught fire, it headed off in a different direction than I’d originally intended -- a better, more creative direction. Chapter One now looks like a donkey’s head stuck on a Thoroughbred.
So I just dump the nasty thing.
Then I write a brand new Chapter One. But while doing so, I often receive another surprise. I discover that what had originally been Chapter Two works even better as Chapter One, because Chapter Two has more action and less in-the-head stuff. I also learn that my later chapters handled most of the necessary explanations, so they weren’t necessary in Chapter One anyway. Therefore, my old Chapter Two – now evolved into Chapter One -- sizzles. All it needs is a light rewrite to start the book off with a bang, instead of the dull thud that my clunky old Chapter One delivered.
My point here is that you never know where your story will go, so why bother torturing yourself trying to perfect a chapter that will wind up in the trash anyway? Don’t let yourself succumb to Chapter One-itis. Write the darned thing fast and dirty, then move on to the rest of your book, because that’s where the magic is going to happen.
To reiterate: don’t try to fix that subpar Chapter One until you’ve finished the entire first draft of your manuscript. Then go back and write the wonderful Chapter One your book deserves.
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P.S. If you found this helpful, continue on to the article about the Shadow Self.