First chapters are the hardest. So write them last.
by Anne R. Allen
Happy New Year!
And many thanks to Frances Caballo, who this week named this one of the Best 15 Blogs for Indie Authors to Follow.
I hope you had lots of fun over the holidays. Now it’s resolution time. Time to get that WIP polished and out into the marketplace.
I always finish my novels by writing the first chapter. That’s right. I write the beginning last.
Am I nuts?
Well, you might think that. After all, here I am on New Year’s Day, when most people are nursing hangovers, enjoying lovely brunches, watching the Rose Bowl parade, or all of the above, and I’m here blogging. 🙂
So why do I write the first chapters last? Look at it this way: when you’re writing your first draft, you’re writing for you. You’re getting to know your characters and their world. You need let everything spill out on the page free of your inner editor’s censorship.
But when you’re revising, you need to cut a whole lot of info you’ve put into the opening chapters. Don’t delete anything—save it for later to scatter through the book.
That means you’re going to end up with an opening chapter that’s very different from the one you started with. Your entire original Chapter One may end up being one of those darlings you have to kill. (Or at least move to another spot in the book.)
We usually pack way too much information into our first chapters in the rough draft. So you’ll need to cut a lot, but not too much.
The ideal first chapter should do the following things (note I say “ideal”– not all books do this in all first chapters. It’s something to aim for.)
1) First Chapters Should Introduce the Protagonist
It’s best to open a novel with a scene involving the main character. Yes, I know the standard opening of every cop show on TV involves random strangers discovering a body or getting killed. This is something that works great in drama but not in a novel.
Whoever readers meet first in a book is the character they’ll bond with. If that person gets killed on page five, people feel cheated.
They don’t need to know a huge amount about the protagonist right away, but they need to know enough to care. You can be very sketchy about looks (all Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett is that she had “fine eyes”.)
They usually need to know gender, age and maybe social status/work/position in society, but most of all, they need to know about the emotions the character is feeling in the scene—preferably emotions the reader can identify with.
Here’s how I open Ghostwriters in the Sky:
“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh. I should have known better than to wear a dress on a day I had to take the subway, but in the middle of a New York heat wave, I couldn’t face another day in a pantsuit.”
I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell she’s 1) female 2) a worldly city dweller who takes things in stride 3) not rich enough to take a taxi 4) employed in some way that usually requires wearing a suit 5) way too polite for her own good.
We can also identify with her distress at being groped. She’s in an uncomfortable situation and we hope for her to escape without harm.
2) Entice the Reader to Spend Time with that Character
This is trickier than it sounds. What makes us care? There’s no formula and no one thing will work for every reader in every genre.
Agents and editors are always telling us they want a “sympathetic” protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean somebody you’d like to like to have as a friend.
Scarlett O’Hara is shallow and narcissistic, but readers have found her fascinating for nearly a century. Dexter’s Dexter Morgan is a sociopathic serial killer—not exactly a guy you’d want for a BFF. And who’d actually like to hang out with Jay Gatsby, Hercule Poirot or Lisbeth Salander? Even Jane Austen’s Emma is something of a witch. And as for Sherlock Holmes…
You don’t have to present us with a protagonist as flawed as those characters. But they do need to have weaknesses.
My sleuth, Camilla Randall, is terminally polite, and always believes things are going to be perfectly fine, although the reader can see sure-fire trouble looming.
Some people like a kick-ass-first, ask-questions-later character, and some prefer a more thoughtful, honorable hero. And a comic hero has to be lovable so we’ll forgive the faults that carry the comedy. Everything depends on genre and tone.
What readers generally don’t find sympathetic is arrogance, whining, or a victim mentality. A hero needs to be brave in some way, so you want to let us see the potential for that right away.
3) Set the Tone
You don’t want to start out a romantic comedy with a gruesome murder scene, or open a thriller with light, flirtatious banter. You want to immerse your reader in the book’s world from the opening paragraph. Since novelists don’t have music and visuals to set the scene, we need to use words that convey tone.
Long descriptions of weather or setting aren’t in fashion these days, but broad descriptive strokes can offer a lot in terms of setting the mood of your story.
My Ghostwriters opener is light and humorous. The sticky weather echoes Camilla’s sticky situation. In another kind of book, this could be a situation of grave danger, or something that would cause the heroine extreme distress.
Describing the humid weather in terms of darkness or heaviness would convey a different mood.
But you don’t have to use weather or description to set tone. Sharp, staccato dialog can convey danger, or a self-deprecating narrative voice can show we’re going to be in for some laughs.
4) Introduce the Theme
If you’re dealing with a particular theme, don’t hit us over the head with it, but give us some foreshadowing in the first chapters Great authors can do this in the first sentence.
Look at how William Gibson began Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson lets us know from the get-go this is about the dark side of technology.
I start my mystery Sherwood, Ltd with this paragraph:
“Anybody can become an outlaw. For me, all it took was a little financial myopia, an inherited bad taste in spouses, a recession—and there I was, the great-granddaughter of newspaper baron H. P. Randall, edging around in alley-shadows, about to become a common thief.”
You know right away we’re dealing with a theme of poverty, outlaws and thieves—echoing the Robin-Hoody title.
5) Let us Know Where we Are
You don’t need to give a ton of physical description, but readers need to know what planet/historical time period they’re in.
In spite of everything you’ve heard about showing-not-telling, it’s perfectly all right to give the reader some basic information in a straightforward way, as Jeffrey Eugenidies does in Middlesex:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
In SciFi and Fantasy especially, you need to do some world-building, but it’s best to limit the descriptions to the absolute necessities and fill in the details later. Most new writers tend to tell way too much about their fantasy world up front. You want to tell just enough to allow the reader to picture the scene that’s taking place, but not bog down the action.
6) Tell us What your MC Wants
We need to know what your protagonist wants in the present scene, which might be for the troll who just killed his companions to stop swiping at him with that pointy sword.
But we also need to know pretty early in the story what your hero really, really wants (apologies to the Spice Girls) The reader needs to know the protagonist’s ultimate goal, like maybe taking a magical jewelry item to Mount Disaster to destroy it forever.
This overarching goal doesn’t always show up in chapter one, but readers do need to see a goal in chapter one that will lead to that ultimate goal to be reached in the climax.
7) Ignite Conflict
We need conflict not only in the opening scene, but we need to see an overarching tension that will drive your plot.
In the Hunger Games, the burning question in the opening scene is who will be chosen for the games. But the larger conflict is with the Games themselves. When the conflict of the opening scene is resolved, we still keep turning pages because of the underlying tension from a bigger story question—how will Katniss survive?
Conflict does not have to be an actual battle. In fact, starting in the middle of a battle can be awfully confusing for a reader. It’s better to start with something like the heroine preparing for battle by stealing her brother’s armor after her father forbids her to fight.
8) Introduce the Antagonist
An antagonist is someone/something that keeps the protagonist from his goal.
The concept of an “antagonist” is probably the hardest thing for most new writers to grasp.
You may think that if you’re not writing a mystery about a sadistic serial killer, or a spy novel where the hero must thwart the evil genius plotting to take over the world, you don’t need an antagonist.
But there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain.
An antagonist can be a whole society, an addiction, a judicial system, or anything that might thwart a hero from achieving his goal. But you absolutely need one. (I found that out the hard way. I wrote a novel for 10 years that had no antagonist and I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t end.)
Kristen Lamb writes some of the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject of the antagonist, which she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker. Here’s one of Kristen’s great posts on the BBT.
You don’t have to have Snidely Whiplash stomp onto page one twirling his moustache, but you need to give us an idea of what is keeping your protagonist from his goals.
9) Give us The Inciting Incident
Okay, sometimes THE inciting incident doesn’t happen until chapter two or three, but ideally, it’s best to start the book off with spark that gets the story going right there in chapter one.
This incident has to cause something to happen that will propel us to the next scene—and the one after that—and through the entire book.
Think of it as the explosion that launches the rocket of your story.
This one is easier for some genres than others. If you’re writing a mystery, somebody can find a dead body and boom! your story is launched.
Or in a romance, the lovely Lisette can meet Lord Malheureux when his horse accidentally knocks down her grandfather’s vegetable cart and she vows to hate him forever.
In the classic hero’s journey tale, the inciting incident is the “call to adventure” when the hero hears he must capture the golden fleece, magical jewelry item, Holy Grail or whatever.
In some genres it may be tough to get the inciting incident into the opener. Do work on it, though, because everything else can seem like throat-clearing to the reader.
Most readers aren’t going to admire your lovely prose until after you’ve launched them into a story.
10) Introduce Other Major Characters
“Major” is the key here. Don’t let minor characters upstage the hero in the opener. In fact, you’re better off without minor characters in the opening scene. You can mention them, but don’t bring them onstage unless they are absolutely necessary.
There’s so much stuff to cram into the opener, you don’t have much room for the maid/sentinel/pizza-delivery-person who open so many films and plays.
Readers need to be introduced to Lord Malheureux fairly early on—or at least hear about him. Ditto Lisette’s bratty sister whose loose morals threaten to disgrace the poor but honorable family of vegetable mongers, and maybe the stalwart plowboy Jack, who has loved Lisette since childhood.
But they don’t need to know about his Lordship’s groom or his tailor unless the bratty sister is going to run off with them both in a scandalous ménage a trois in chapter ten.
A lot of new writers tend to clutter up the opener with colorful characters who never appear in the story again. (I certainly did.) And your critique group is sure to insist on meaty characterizations of everybody you bring on early, so keep that tailor and groom offstage and don’t give them names, at least in the first chapters.
Remember that irrelevant details will irritate readers, who expect people in the opener to re-appear and play important roles.
Hold on there, sez you. I can think of dozens of bestsellers that don’t do any of these things.
Yup, I can too.
Remember these are just guidelines and something to aim for. And if your prose is so mesmerizing the reader doesn’t notice they aren’t getting this information, then you don’t need help from me.
But with most novels, readers are happiest when they get the relevant info in the opener.
If your present opener doesn’t do any of this stuff—and most first drafts don’t—try this trick: cut off the first two chapters. Does chapter three give you a better beginning? Start there. Then feed us the info from the first two chapters a little at a time later on in the book.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) January 1, 2017
How about you, scriveners? What do you absolutely want to see in an opener? Do you find you put too much or too little in your first draft of chapter one?
This week I have my monthly post on my book blog. I put forward the suggestion that those of us in the Northern Hemisphere consider having our travel/retail frenzy holiday on the Summer Solstice instead of the Winter one, so that travel and shopping will be safer and more enjoyable. Why Not Have Our Big Holiday on the Summer Solstice?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Roxanna Britton: A Biographical Novel
by Shirley S. Allen
“Jane Austen meets Laura Ingalls Wilder”
This novel, by my mother, the late Dr. Shirley S. Allen, is a rip-roaring tale of how the west was won. It also happens to be all true. It’s the story of my great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton, who pioneered the Old West as a young widow with two small children.
It’s got romance, action, cowboys (not always the good guys) Indians (some very helpful ones) the real Buffalo Bill Cody, and a whole lot more!
Widowed as a young mother in 1855, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California.
GEMINI MAGAZINE POETRY OPEN $5 ENTRY FEE. Grand prize $1,000. Second $100. Hon. mention $25. Publication in the March issue of Gemini. Open to any form of poetry. Poems must be unpublished, but work displayed on personal blogs is eligible. Deadline January 3, 2017
The Masters Review Story Contest for Emerging Literary Writers. $2000 prize, publication and review by a top agent! Simultaneous submissions allowed. $20 fee. Up to 7000 words. Deadline January 15th
LitMag pays up to $1000 for short stories! $250 for poetry and short-shorts. No reprints. They don’t consider work that’s previously been published either in print or online (including personal blogs.)
Write non-fiction? Impakter Magazine is looking for non-fiction articles and interviews (1000-3000 words max) in 4 verticals: Culture, Society, Style, Philanthropy. Articles about politics are also welcome but need to meet the magazine’s standard of high-quality content. The magazine publishes daily (except week-end) and each piece attracts 10-40,000 viewers (in majority college-educated millennials). No submission fee.
Grey Matter Press is looking for exceptional dark, speculative fiction for anthologies. Stories may be 3000-10,000 words.
MYSTERY AUTHORS! Here’s a list of 15 small presses that specialize in mysteries and do not require an agent for submissions. It’s compiled by Authors Publish Newsletter.
ROMANCE AUTHORS! And a list of 31 small presses that specialize in romance and do not require an agent for submissions. Also compiled by the Authors Publish Newsletter.
25 PUBLISHERS YOU CAN SUBMIT TO WITHOUT AN AGENT. These are respected, mostly independent publishing houses–vetted by the great people at Authors Publish. Do check out their newsletter
The Wanderer: A Paying Market for poetry, book reviews and more: The Wanderer is a new monthly literary magazine.