Many new authors wrestle with their first chapter, and no matter how hard they work at crafting the beginning pages of their manuscript, they never feel satisfied with the results. Does that sound familiar? Do not worry if you count yourself among that unhappy group; many experienced authors have a tough time getting their project rolling, too. They do not worry about it, though--at least not in the same way and with the same intensity as new writers. While novices agonize about every word and nuance in chapter 1 and sometimes become stuck for many days on the first page, seasoned writers rarely do.
The purpose of this lesson is to help you approach your manuscript's beginning in the same way experienced authors do. I have been a book editor for nearly eighteen years, and my observations come from working with folks whose writing pays all of the bills.
Full-time authors usually blast through chapter 1 without giving much concern to its quality. They know how difficult beginning a manuscript can be, and rather than wasting time and energy on trying to get the first chapter perfect, they continue writing until they reach chapter 7. At that point they feel confident that they have found their rhythm and their voice for the project and can comfortably turn back to rewrite chapter 1 and take it seriously this time. The first pages seem to compose themselves once the manuscript is about one-third written. With a fraction of the effort required to achieve perfection the first time 'round, the material flows easily and reads well.
You can try this technique yourself. Write chapter 1 with some thought and care, but don't make yourself miserable. Set down your thoughts more or less as you think they should be. Don't worry about using the perfect word or phrase. If the correct word choice doesn't come to you immediately, just do the best you can and continue to write. Merely blocking out the prose and putting the information in some reasonable order is enough for now. Even if you feel guilty, put chapter 1 out of your thoughts and concentrate on doing a good job with chapter 2. So what if your first chapter isn't perfect? You'll be coming back to it.
Actually, you should be feeling better now for a few reasons: You've actually started the manuscript; you're finding the voice you want to use; words are flowing, and your brain is in gear. You are building momentum and confidence.
Why is the writing of chapter 1 such a bear? One reason is that new authors have difficulty discerning what information should be included and what data is best saved for later in the project. In my experience, many new authors try to jam too much material into the first chapter. Telling everything about all the characters in the opening pages is not necessary. In fact, you want to avoid giving all the facts and laying all the groundwork early in the manuscript. Doing so makes life very difficult for the reader who is trying to grasp what your story is about and how the plot elements and the characters fit together. Remember this: Although you know what the manuscript is about and what is important to remember versus what is embellishment, the readers are clueless. As a result, they try to memorize everything. To make your beginning chapters as hospitable as possible, I suggest you restrict your information to that which is essential to get your primary plot line off the ground. Add only as much back story as is necessary for the reader to understand what is happening at that moment. Do not build a brick wall of information that proves daunting to your readers. Instead, lay a clearly marked path that assists them as they move easily into the world you have created.
Work to keep the opening of your novel clear and simple. After your readers are settled and familiar with the plot and the main characters (somewhere around the second and third chapters), you may begin to layer information and fill in the background.
My advice for offering background information is this: (1) Give it in dribs and drabs and only as necessary to understand the plot as it unfolds. Never offer so much background that it interrupts the plot or momentum and causes the reader to lose track of what is happening at the present time. (2) Begin with the least intimate, lowest risk information about the characters and gradually reveal the most personal, most secret material. Think of your readers as being strangers to the characters at the manuscript's beginning. As the plot progresses, the readers become more familiar with the characters, and if you are successful, the readers build genuine friendships with the protagonists. Once those friendships are established, the time is right for revealing secrets. Yes, it is like real life.
Following this advice ensures that throughout the entire manuscript, you will be revealing new and interesting information to the readers. (The opposite of this, which I call "shooting the wad," gives the characters' entire background in one lump. Authors who make this error have nothing fresh to say about the characters after the "lump is dumped.")
Try to avoid dream sequences to begin your novel. Dreams are overused by new authors, and their vague, surrealistic content can confuse your audience.
Do not begin the first chapter at the very beginning of the plot line. You want to begin as far into the action as possible, when all hell is about to break loose. If you want to show how a character's life changes drastically through the course of a novel (for example, if she wins the lottery or he contracts a life-challenging disease), make certain you first acquaint the readers with the character's usual state of affairs. This provides your audience with a starting point for means of comparison as the plot unfolds and the characters evolve.
An old expression in publishing states: If you begin the novel with a flashback, you have started the manuscript in the wrong place. I agree. Many new authors begin their novel with an incident that focuses on characters we never see again. That is not a good idea. Readers expect the novel to begin with the protagonist. When you start with someone else--especially with someone who never returns--you inadvertently confuse your audience.
Beginning any new work is difficult. A blank canvas, a computer file with no bytes, sheet music devoid of notes . . . all hold great promise and high anxiety. Do not let chapter 1 unnerve you. Writing is rewriting. You can always revise the chapter until it's sensational.
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