Monday, July 27, 2009

My First Chapter Blues

I haven't spoken much about my own writing progress lately. Well, this last week, I finished the latest draft of my novel, ROOSTER, where I have revamped the ending to flesh out some of the scenes and to try to stay true to the psychology of the characters.

When I was done, I reread the opening chapter of my book and realized that I'm still not 100% confident about it. So, I've been trying to understand what my problem is. Why am I having so much trouble writing my first chapter?

So far, I've come up with two reasons why I'm making the first chapter harder to write than other sections of the book.

A. I feel like readers, agents, and publishers will use the first few pages to determine whether or not they are going to like the rest of the book. I'm telling myself that if they don't like the very first page, they're not going to consider the rest of it. I think there's some truth to this. After all, when I go book shopping, I often (but not always) open up to that first page and see if I can get into a story. If not, I'll move on. (Things like the back cover, opening the book at random pages and reading a scene, and other people's recommendations also play a role.)

B. I'm trying to make my first chapter accomplish too many things at once. Whether I agree with the need for this or not, I'm trying to introduce my protagonist and antagonist, their personalities and relationship to one another, an explanation for the title of my book, the time and place all within the first 8 pages. This really doesn't seem like an incredibly tall order to me, but it does go against my normal method of writing, of letting things unfold more organically. I feel like I have to hit all of my markers, and I think that's making the chapter feel more fast-paced than I actually want it to be.

Do you all have similar issues with your first chapter? Or, can you think of other issues we may be dealing with when we are trying to write our first chapters? What do you recommend for writing that strong first chapter?


  1. Davin, I think you have some good points here. First chapters are a tall order, and I do believe they have to work on a level that other chapters don't. However, if you feel like your first chapter is too fast paced, I think you should try and scale it down to the feel of the rest of your book. If the agent doesn't like the feel of your first chapter, they won't like the rest of your book, and you may just end up frustrating yourself more with lots of partial and full rejections - because you led with a "false" hook.

    I've had this problem with Monarch as well, but I think I finally got the first chapter to a place that's closer to the feel of the book than I had before. I know we're always talking about "hooks", but remain true to the book. You didn't write it to get published, did you? You wrote it to tell a story you needed to tell. So tell it the best you can without worrying about selling it.

    Okay, so I'll dodge a dirty look after saying that...

    But really, Davin, own the story and have confidence that a slow, unfolding chapter that doesn't hit all those "marks" will be good enough. You have 70k+ words to "introduce" your characters and set your setting and tension. That's what a story is, so you don't have to do it ALL in the first chapter. Just lead into it. Give a first taste.

    These are just my thoughts, so take them or leave them. Congrats on the end of the book, though! I can tell it's good by the confidence you have with it lately. The first chapter will get there.

  2. I am so glad you just posted on this! The first chapter always drives me NUTS. There's so much pressure that the first page/chapter will make or break your chances of capturing a reader's interest and getting published.

    I spend loads of time just rewriting my first chapters and obsessing over them. So much that I have not written the end of my book. I think I need to finish the rest, then go back to the beginning and see if it feels right for the story.

    I'm looking forward to reading others' comments on this topic.

  3. The first chapter is the most difficult for me to write. I always feel like my writing grows stronger as I have more time to develop it. Usually I have to go back and rewrite later on.

  4. UGH. I am SO the same way. I am constantly pysching myself out over Chapter 1. Part of my problem, too, is that that's the chapter that I show to people (in online critiques, contests, on the website, etc.) and then I get way too much advice on how to "fix" much so that I lose my own voice in it, and that chapter no longer reflects the rest of the book.

  5. A couple of points:

    1. "How to begin" is a very hard question to answer, but I agree with Michelle that you need to begin the way you intend to go on, and that you first chapter can't seem like it's not part of the novel which follows it.

    2. The first chapter, the first pages, just need to introduce the story (which means, I think, point the reader at the central conflict in some way). You don't need to explain everything or introduce all the players; you just need to catch the reader's interest.

    3. As for agents, I think that as long as the writing keeps them reading, you're fine. You know by now that I'm rewriting my first chapter, and those beautiful first pages that got my agent's attention in the first place are all going into the bin.

    So just write confidently and beautifully and let the story unfold at the story's natural pace. I don't think there's anything wrong with your first chapter's structure.

    I have been delaying my revisions because I got into a bit of a panic about these very issues. I've come to the realization that the best way to begin is to simply begin, and to think in terms of story. Simple is always good, I think, and usually makes the most sense.

    Michelle is right as well about how you've got 70,000+ words to tell your story. You don't have to explain your title at all, ever, either.

  6. Yes, yes and yes! I so relate. We put so much performance pressure on that first chapter. You can't do it all in that first chap or it's overkill. Go for one thing - scene/setting or character or whatever and do it spot on. then fold the rest in as you go. At least, that's my goal :D

  7. Two things:

    1. Let someone else read it, but don't let them know about your first chapter angst (which is kind of hard, since anyone who reads this blog will know), but see if questions/concerns about it naturally arise. If you analyze anything hard enough, you can find problems with it.

    2. Allow yourself to write a brand new first chapter as a freewriting exercise. Just think to yourself how you'd start the story if you were going to start it differently. Remember, this is only an exercise. Here is the hard part. Sit on it for 3 weeks. Then re-read both. see what you think.

    I ran into the same quandary....the make-it-or-break-it-ness of the first chapter. I wrote a new one that I thought captured everything better. I let it simmer. When I re-read it after a few weeks, I didn't like it. Sounded like I was trying too hard, (which I was.) It made me appreciate my original first chapter more.

    Good Luck.


  8. I, too, wonder if my first chapter's more of a slap in the face than it is an introduction to my story. Ha. But, as you said, it often seems as as if people want it that way.

    If I ever finish this draft, I'll tell you what the readers say about chapter one.

    Back to writing.

  9. Other advice: Pick up a few of your favorite books and read the first chapters of them. You'll find, I think, that these chapters don't try to accomplish everything on your list. In other words, relax.

  10. Lady Glamis hit on some good points. The first chapter is your intro to the story. If you think it should be slower, then slow it down. Your writing and voice will sell the work and hook the reader, so you shouldn't try to shoe horn everything in at once if that's not your style.

    You mention wanting to introduce the protag and the antag, their relationship, etc. How about you introduce one and hint at the other? Leave the full introduction, storyline, relationships between them for the next chapter. Not only will that allow you to really define and clarify things - draw the world for you reader in clear lines - but it will hook them to figure out who this other person is you're hinting at.

    There's no minimizing the impact of a good beginning to a story. That's an obvious necessity. Don't assume however, that your writing alone won't be good enough to draw them in anyway.

    Just my two cents :)

    Incidentally, yes I do struggle with the first chapter as well sometimes. But given my very free-form and unorganized method of writing, I probably cause myself as much trouble as would normally be there anyway.

  11. Thanks for your advice, Michelle. I do feel like I have avoided that false hook at least. Right now, I think the material I have there is appropriate, it's just a matter of finding the best structure and pacing. And, to that end, I have scaled things down. I've cut a few elements that make the chapter feel more streamlined like the rest of the book.

    Recessionista Genie, I can't tell you how many times I've rewritten this first chapter. At least a hundred, likely many more than that. I am able to skip over it to work on other parts of the novel, though. I know that's something other writers may not prefer depending on their writing style. For me, having the ending helped me a little with formulating the opening, but it's still quite a challenge.

    Mariah, Yes, I've rewritten and rewritten and rewritten!

    Beth, good point about getting too much input. That has happened to me in places. For the first chapter, I haven't had to deal with that so much. I think, perhaps, my readers are so sick of reading the opening that they're willing to accept ANYTHING! :P

    Scott, you made me think of another reason why I may be having so much trouble. As you and some other readers know, my book is structured in such a way that it alternated between the 1970s and teh 1990s. So, there's a fragile balance that I am dealing with. If I shift too much content from chapter 1 to chapter 3, for example, that affects chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc. The junctions that I have to transition in time would be shifted. The space-time continuum could result in a universal collapse!

    Having said that, "begin simply" is great advice. I try to hold on to that, but it tends to slip away when I get frustrated.

    Tess, thanks for your advice! I think you're saying what Scott was also saying. Start simply. Let the story unfold slowly. It's a good thing to keep in mind.

    Shelley, that's a really important point about not letting people know about your angst. I always find that when I ask someone to read something with a question in mind, they tend to look for solutions to the problem. But, if I don't mention there's a problem, it's about 50/50 as to whether or not they pick up on it. With my first chapter, I've had a few people read it with minimal complaints. That makes me feel better, but I'm still trying to please myself as well.

    Justus, all right. I look forward to hearing the reviews. As I'm working on my own book, I'm just trying to think about how I experience other books, how I judge them, so that I can see if I'd pass my own tests.

    Eric, Thanks for the advice. I mentioned briefly in this comment that I think my own book structure is making some adjustments a little more difficult. But, you're right, I should keep an open mind about what I can move over to the later scenes. There are definitely multiple ways of solving this problem. I just have to pick the one that I like the best.I also like what you mentioned about the writing. Scott has said it in the past as well. People often are just seeing if you are a competent writer. They don't necessarily need to be "hooked" but perhaps they only need to trust. I use the first page to try and see if I like a book sometimes. But, other times, I'll give a book several dozens of pages to "warm up."

  12. Davin, first chapters, first sentences. I have struggled with this so much. I literally spent weeks on my last story fixing the first chapter.

    Just don't think in terms of agents and publishers so much. Because when you write a first chapter that makes you feel great, an agent somewhere will feel that way too. Stay true to Davin's story. I think we can concentrate too much on the first chapter, making it easy to loose what it had to begin with.

    Congratulations on finishing the book. :)

  13. If it makes natural sense to introduce multiple elements into the first eight pages, then do it. It you are forcing them in there for posterity's sake, back down.

    For example, if your protag and antag are in an argument and the premise of your story revolves around the resolution of that argument, great, you can easily cover the bases. They are both naturally in the scene together.

    But if your protag and antag are half-a-world apart and the story is about the quest to bring them together, you might have a tougher time.

    To help clarify Chapter 1, think for a moment about Chapter 2. What comes next? Does Chapter 1 flow smoothly into Chapter 2? Does it become redundant because you told so much in the first eight pages?

    I agree with the other who said to relax. Put the tension on the page, not in your writing process.

  14. You know, if someone never had this problem when writing, I would have to hate their guts.

    With the publishing climate like it is, all you hear about is the big bomb in chapter one - be it a literal bomb exploding in the first sentence, the manuscripts main conflict outlined on page one, or the plot reveled -in full- before the chapter ends.

    Personally, I think it sucks. Plenty of books ease you in to the world, and that works for me. I don't need to sprint on page one - I can deal with a light job for warm up. Things can be interesting without being explosive and world shattering in the first 250 words. Sadly for me, the publishing industry disagrees.

    As a result, I think we often fall into the trap Davin mentions - too much in chapter 1. Trying to hard to get it all out there, capture the agent on every possible level.

    To the person who strikes the balance, I applaud you. I hope when I'm done my revisions, I'm somewhere close.

  15. Erin: What's maddening is that I think the publishing industry only seems to be telling itself (and writers) that first chapters, pages, paragraphs and words need to hook the reader immediately and transport them into a world of actiony action-packed action. The reality--if you look at actual books being published--is somewhat different. I keep seeing books that violate all these alleged rules being promulgated on blogs and agent sites. But that's to our benefit as writers, because it seems to me that good writing is what wins out over what agents think they want. The best test of what's publishable is to look at what's getting published.

    I believe that if a story begins confidently and coherently, that's enough.

  16. Everyone has the first chapter isms. Because of it, you'll end up rewriting your first chapter about 50 more times than any other chapter.

    It is a tall order to introduce elements. It all comes down to trusting the reader to understand certain things or to be ok with letting events unfold for them, and trusting yourself. Don't push too hard - sometimes accomplishing one goal helps accomplish two - like introducing your character personalities and conflict. We truly learn about them through the conflict. Ergo, you've got two of your necessary bits out of the way.

    I think the best way to write a strong first chapter is to write a strong last chapter. Your beginning in some way needs to echo the end, and if you can see how you finished, it should tell you where the story begins.

  17. Davin,

    It sounds to me like you have named the problem you are having (and thus, the problem with the chapeter) yourself--you are putting too much in. Sooooooo...

    Good luck!!

  18. My first chapter is always my worst chapter. I revise it relentlessly to get it right. And guess what? I don't get it right! Although the book I just wrote feels much better than my previous ones. Maybe I'm getting better?

    Give a silent toast to me the next time you're cringing over the first page--you're not alone, partner!

  19. Wow, M. Dunham, I love what you said about the first chapter echoing the end. That is something to chew on before I undertake another rewrite of chapter one.
    I've started it so many places, but when I tried a big action beginning, I had editors at a conference tell me to slow down and develop the characters first. Sometimes my head spins with all the suggestions, and I fear that makes the writing spin, too.

  20. Robyn, you're right about losing what I had to begin with. Sometimes I think the first chapter feels way too overworked. And, while pleasing myself is a main priority, the agent thing does get to me at least a little. It feels like such a challenge when you have to try to impress someone with ten pages, especially since we really don't know what anybody wants.

    Rick, that's a bit uncanny. The two scenes that you described as examples are the openings of the two story threads that I have in my book! In the first chapter, the two brothers are together and they argue. In the second chapter, which takes place twenty years later, they are half a world apart. Are you my conscience?

    Erin, I think you make a good point. I do think that you don't need the big bomb, though. Just something interesting, even if it's small. Sometimes I think my difficulty comes from my having trouble with organizing a compelling scene when it's small. I think structure can make tension out of most scenes, and maybe I just haven't mastered that.

    Scott, I think you're absolutely right. I have looked at many opening paragraphs and chapters and they definitely "break the rules" if indeed there are rules. The argument I then have with myself--you know, as I try to convince myself that I'm the worst writer in the world--is that the rules can be broken on later books, just not your first.

    M. Dunham, thanks for your insight! Yes, I have tried to tie in elements of my ending into the beginning. And the converse, of course. That's also a really excellent point about making elements work double duty. That could really clean things up for me.

    Holly, Thanks. You forget that I'm my worst enemy though! :P I try to thwart myself whenever possible.

    Jill, I find that incredibly comforting. Thank you for your words! Listen carefully that that clinking of the glass.

    Tricia, well, at least you know for sure that not all agents are looking for that big bang, that they can understand the power of quieter beginnings to make a good book. I think that people who read a lot, and this does include agents, are aware that there are multiple ways of producing something good. Perhaps the big problem with advice is that people try to make their biggest point first because of time and space limitations, so they don't always go into the exceptions to every rule. And, we all know that there are plenty of exceptions.

  21. That tall order of yours -- well, a similar version of it tends to make it into my second and third chapters, whilst my first one lacks meat.

    Great points. I wish I had a solution (ha!). Best of luck as you keep up your work.

  22. Davin, I received some wonderful advice from author Richard Peck. He said that the opening chapter should reveal the entire theme of the novel. Write it once, and then after you've finished the last chapter, re-write it. I've found those words to hold much truth!


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