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Where to Start

September 25, 2011

After my last post, it’s probably not surprising that I spent the majority of this week prepping for NaNoWriMo and not working on my other projects.  And by “prepping” I mean “making some large changes but not actually thinking them out completely.”  I have a better idea of where I’m going with it but I really just need to sit down and outline.

And then last night I saw a forum post: “Post your favorite sentence from your current project.”

This is actually a pretty common thread on one of the forums I frequent and has always been a tough question for me.  There are parts of The Gray Regions that I love, but all of my favorites are full paragraphs, or at least two or three sentences.  And they require all three sentences to make sense, or an understanding of the character or situation being referenced.

I think probably my favorite sentence is “I think we may…survive this,” but really, it’s weaker without context.

So every time I see one of these threads, I open up Draft 1 of The Gray Regions, skim through it to see if I can find a new favorite sentence, one that doesn’t need as much context.  And every time I end up getting sucked into reading it, usually finding a new part of the draft that I actually like and want to keep mostly the way it is, some part I had forgotten that I wrote (remember, this has been an eight-year-long project).

And then I get all excited about the novel again.  I just want to spend all of my time working on it, putting together the pieces from Draft 1 that I want to keep, filling in the blanks, adding details, making the plot stronger, fixing the pacing, never mind the homework I have or the chores I’m supposed to be doing…

But then I always run into the same snag: the beginning.

I have written probably ten different opening chapters for TGR.  I haven’t liked any of them.  I’m thinking of just skipping the first chapter and coming back to it later.   I always give the advice for others to not get hung up on editing until after they’ve finished the draft they’re working on.  And of course, I can’t follow my own advice, though I do believe it.

But this isn’t a unique problem. The first chapter is the hardest.

Where do you start?

Sure, sometimes it’s easy.  But even if you know what you want to have going on during the opening chapter, it’s not easy to put it down on paper.  I mean, the first chapter is where you draw your reader in.  If it sucks, well, no one’s going to read your novel.

There are a number of articles on what a first chapter “needs”.  Here are a couple of them, that I’ve read and found interesting, and somewhat useful:

4 Goals for a Novel’s Opening Chapter

Writing the First Novel Chapter

To paraphrase, a first chapter should:

1. Hook the reader

2. Provide an introduction to the characters, setting and/or atmosphere of the novel

The first goal is pretty intuitive – you want the reader to be interested enough to keep reading.  There are a few ways to do this.  You can start in the middle of some sort of a conflict or action scene, so the book is exciting from the get-go, you can start with a mystery which will be solved later in the story, you can end the first chapter on a cliffhanger…

The second goal is a bit trickier and requires some balance.  While you want to provide a decent introduction to your novel, you don’t need to explain everything in the first chapter.  In fact, you probably don’t want to, partially so that there are new things for the reader to discover later on, but mainly so that the first chapter is not an info dump.

An info dump is a wordy explanation of some part of your novel.  Often times it is placed at the beginning of a novel or story to explain background information.  An info dump is a pretty typical beginning writer mistake.  Generally, you don’t want to do this.  Remember, you want to do more showing than telling.

Here’s an example of an info dump:

Dump the Info Dump

In my honest opinion, this is a pretty crappy example.

A better one that I can think of is too lengthy to post the full thing here, and since I don’t own it, I probably shouldn’t anyway.  But I can explain it.

A friend of mine is writing a post-apocalypse story.  In her first draft, the story opened up with an explanation of what had happened to “end the world.”  It outlined the events leading up to when the story takes place, talking about death, the chaos, the accusations, the politics…

In her second draft, she opens with the main character/narrator having to deal with a survivor turned rogue.  As she goes through the narrator’s actions, emotions and thoughts while taking care of the problem, she also tells a little bit about what happened to the world, except this time as the narrator’s reflection rather than just a big introductory paragraph taking us through step by step like a history textbook.

The second draft is so much more interesting, I almost couldn’t believe it when I read it.

So these are all nice rules to follow, but where do you start?

Generally, I like to end my first chapter with the event that launches the rest of the novel.  That’s not always possible or easy.

There are a number of other ways.  This article lists a few of them:

12 Ways to Open Your Novel

And for inspiration:

100 Best First Lines From Novels

That last link is great but honestly it just makes me stress about my first line.  I feel pressured to have a fantastic first line now.  Must keep telling myself I’m my own worst critic…

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From → Editing, Planning

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