Revisiting Chapter One

I’m back at square one. Well, not really. I have a completed first draft. But now I’m once again struggling with my first chapter.

I’ve known people who had no problems with the first chapter. “It’s the rest of the book I have trouble with,” they say. I think I hate them.

I try not to fuss with it too much during the first draft phase. The very first time I met Nancy Martin, she was giving a talk to a writing group and gave the advice to finish the book and then throw the first three chapters in the trash. Completely re-write them. The reasoning is that it takes several chapters to get into your characters’ voices and so the original draft of those early chapters won’t sound the same. Also, things happen along the way as you write that require you to revise the early stuff. If you strain and sweat to perfect Chapter One, no doubt you’re only going to have to pitch it anyway.

So here I am going toe-to-toe with my dreaded Chapter One again. This time I AM fussing and sweating. And swearing. Just a bit.

The problem is Chapter One bears a huge burden. A reader will pick up a book, look at the cover (over which we writers have little or more likely NO control), will read the back cover summary and will read a few lines or a page or two of the book’s opening. Then they decide to buy it or put it back. So in those first few lines, the writer has to grab them, draw them in, create a spark of interest and a desire to read more. Whoa. That’s a big responsibility for a few lines of work.

Someone (and I forget who—I’m sorry) said that the opening lines sell the book and the ending sells the next one. Right now I’m much more content with my ending than with my opening. I’ve spent hours this week—all of my writing time, in fact—struggling to accomplish what needs to be done. I need to hook the reader. I need to establish the protagonist and let the reader get to know a second character who won’t appear again until the very end of the book, but who is the driving motivation for the story. I have to show the reader the relationship between the protagonist and this character and make sure their bond is clear. But it’s a mystery novel and I’m afraid the way it begins makes it sound like a romance. It’s not. There are romantic elements. And it’s her feelings for him that drive her to take risks and refuse to give up on her quest to learn what happened to him.

And that’s just the first scene. Then I have to introduce a bunch more characters. Way too many for a first chapter. But I need to show which characters were where at certain times. Who has an alibi? Who doesn’t? So once I get this first scene (with its burden to entice the reader to buy the book) done, then I get to figure out how to not thoroughly confuse the reader with an overload of characters. Who needs to stay, who can wait to be introduced later?

Agh! Well, back to work.


Joyce said…
Annette, I always hate my first chapters no matter how many times I rewrite them. My first sentences are usually decent, but the rest of the chapter sucks.

If you need another set of eyes, let me know. I've never read your stuff so it would be a "fresh" opinion.

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