ON WRITING

“It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years of writing. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.” Andre Dubus

Thursday, 13 October 2011

NaNoWriMo Dreaming - Writing Chapter One. Is your writing honest, original, brave?

 Due to a family wedding which lasted for 4 days I've not posted for a week so here I am again. About time eh? Now that the Big Day is over, my thoughts are turning to November which to me and many others means ...

NaNoWriMo is only a few weeks away. How did it sneak up so quickly? My wayward thoughts have been turning to writing Chapter One of my third novel. I'll share some of my research with you today. I've used bits and pieces from here and there and my own experience, but some ideas come from articles gleaned from Writer's Digest, a fabulous writer's magazine. Get it! Online or on paper.

I wrote my first two novels during previous NaNoWriMo's but this time I hope to go in on November 1 with a few more tools in my writer's tool belt.

Agents and editors make us quiver and sweat over Chapter One - 'Grab me from the opening sentence! Don't waste one word! If my attention flags, you've failed! (WD,Jan11).

Lately I've been hearing - don't even start at Chapter One, start somewhere else. You're sure to trash Chapter One somewhere along the way, why not now? I feel this way about Chapter One of my first novel. I just can't get happy with it! Should I send it to the trash basket?

I read that all agents and editors are searching for a story that is honest, original, brave. Can this be you?

I've collated some of my findings on writing Chapter One for you under sub-headings, being the good little teacher that I am.

1.RESIST THE TERROR - get going! - outline
I say don't expect to get it right/perfect the first time, just get it written! To produce work that has those three aspects above, you have to open up room for mistakes and mediocrity. Then tap into your wild, free core. Start with the good and the bad. Get rid of the bad later. What to do about the ugly? Well,definitely in the trash, or maybe not...

Think about your answers to these questions below. Write them down and come back to them when you're in the doldrums (what I call Middle Earth, the middle of the novel.)
  • Why are you writing this book? 
  • What is it about? 
  • What purpose will it serve? 
Look who's talking, me, the Pantser herself, but I'm told - if you haven't outlined, consider doing so. Even the roughest, most rustic framework will give you a sharper eye for your beginning, and again, will help unfetter your mind. Well, my outline is always very rustic and I hardly ever refer to it, but oh well, my mother trained me to do what I was told...

2. DECIDE ON TENSE AND POV

All readers care about is the story, they're not thinking about the tense and POV as they nose into your novel, but uh oh, they'll notice if you mix tenses or head hop or change POV with no markers. I'm told that young readers like first person present. Interesting? I quite like it myself, but my Internet Age is pretty adolescent!

3. WHERE TO START? CHOOSE A NATURAL STARTING POINT

Write your way into the story. Think about real life. any significant episode in your own life did not spring whole from nothing, things happened beforehand that shaped it, and things happened afterwards as a result.

In your novel, your characters have pasts and futures, places do too. Every oral storyteller jumps into his story midstream.

Pay attention to the best-selling authors. Do they clog up Chapter One with lots of backstory? I think not as a general rule. Get into the action, leaving backstory to be filled in later. I've been deconstructing some of my favourite books, taking notes on just this. They usually mix it up!

4. PRESENT A STRONG CHARACTER RIGHT AWAY

In Chapter One, establish your main character's situation. What do they know at the beginning? What will they learn going forward? What does their world mean to them?

Who is the strongest character in your story? Sometimes major characters get taken over by minor characters. This is the fun of writing. Sometimes it feels like you're trailing behind your characters jotting down the things they do and think. Maybe they sneak up on you from around a corner and catch you by surprise. They can both alarm you and surprise you, but make sure they're never dull.

5. BE SPARING OF SETTING

Don't set in too much depth at the beginning of your story. Some marvellous best-selling authors like Pat Conroy can get away with pages of descriptions of cities such as Atlanta, but Conroy always interjects an interesting character within the setting. His descriptions are never boring, well, anyway, not to me. We lesser mortals need a cursory intro but it can still be poignant like Conroy's. We can fill in gaps later. Just give your readers a basic feel for the setting at the start of your novel.

But like Conroy, show how the character feels about the setting.

6. USE CAREFULLY CHOSEN DETAIL TO CREATE IMMEDIACY

Move your story along economically but don't be vague, not ever. On the other hand, if the details serve the story you can't have too much. You know the oldie - if it's not moving the story along, why do you need it?

7. GIVE IT A MINI PLOT

Every chapter has its own plot. I like to map out a beginning, middle and ending for each chapter, more like writing in scenes.

Here are some Points on Plot within Chapter One. You may not find all applicable to your novel, but you may take away one or two:
  • Make trouble. 
  • Put in a lot of conflict early. 
  • Pick your trouble and make it big, then bigger. Create an ominous atmosphere.
  • Focus on action - bring action forward, get it going quick smart!
  • Start your story in the middle
  • Put backstory to the back, give juicy right away.
  • Violence works
  • Give complexity, layers, surprise shifts
  • Be decisive - make characters take decisive actions, don't waffle about.
  • End Chapter One with some closure that becomes deliciously false.
8. BE BOLD (and honest, original, brave...)
  • Put your best material out there.
  • Present with flourish. 
  • Don't hold back. 
  • Set your tone and own it. 
  • Create a great appetiser for your readers and follow up well.
Happy writing of Chapter One, whether for NaNoWriMo or at your own pace...

  • Do you have any hints for us as we begin Chapter One?
  • Do you have any suggestions on how to tackle Middle Earth syndrome?




27 comments:

  1. Fantastic tips for getting started. I have to say I'm looking forward to NaNo. I so enjoy writing a first draft precisely because it doesn't have to be perfect. That gives me the freedom to be bold.

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  2. Lynda: I'm with you there. You just can't get that feeling again once you start editing it to bits.

    Denise

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  3. Excellent tips!
    I adjusted the first chapter in my first book, but I had a line in mind to start the second - and that's where I began.

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  4. Alex: Great stuff. We gotta start somewhere even if we trash it later.

    Denise

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  5. Bring on NaNo, can't wait!

    I don't spend too long stressing over my first chapters, because I'm about to start my sixth book, and I've only ever ended up hanging onto chapter one once!

    I think my golden rule is that chapter one is a promise to the reader, and you have to make sure you keep it.

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  6. Amie: I like the way you put it, Amie. Interesting that you've only ever ended up hanging onto Ch 1 once!

    Denise

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  7. I would so love to do this if I wasnt pregnant and always sleepy and had three other kids to take care of.

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  8. Read my books: I understand. There's always something, sigh, but you've got a good excuse!

    Denise

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  9. Hi Denise .. very happy looking bride - must have been a lovely wedding and fun time ...

    Enjoy NANOWRIMO .. cheers Hilary

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  10. I thoroughly enjoyed the 'devil may care' attitude which NaNo gave me last year. One's inner editor has to go on holiday while you just let it all out!

    Gorgeous bride btw!

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  11. Great tips, Denise. Had to stop 12,000 words in last year. I may use November to finish that story.

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  12. Hilary: Thank you, it was.

    Margo: Yes I just love that feeling.

    Joy: It's always disappointing to have to stop but I'm hoping this year it's all systems go!

    Denise

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  13. Hi, Denise,

    It's been AGES! Geez we're gone for a few days or a week and it seems like forever in blog time.

    GREAT post. Loved all your suggestions. I use many of them myself. Especially lately in the Rule of 3 blogfest, although I do have my details. I hope they are not too much. So far crits are good.

    You've been busy. ANd your doing NaNo? I couldn't even fathom the thought. Too much other stuff.

    I see we have first novel, first chapter issues in common.

    I wish my first novel came together as easily as BG.

    Anyway. Have a great weekend and good luck with NaNo. I'll be rooting for you.

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  14. I've thought about doing Nano for the last five years.... This year I might just do it. However I'm uncertain of the rules to know if what I want to do is allowed. I want to rewrite a new draft of my current novel. These would all be new words now I know what the story is. I've tried editing and it hasn't worked. It needs a new fresh rewrite. It looks from the site as though this would be allowed as long as there's no cutting and pasting and all the words are new.

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  15. Your daughter is so beautiful!

    Your outline for NaNo says it all. I'll of course be writing (ghost writing) while you're doing NaNo. Good writing to you and everyone else with this!
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

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  16. Hey Michael, you said it. Last time I popped over to yours you still had the same post up. We're all slowing down.

    I adore NaNo and would hate to miss it. Wish I could get the NaNo spirit all year.

    You must be ready to start novel no 3 now!

    Denise

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  17. Jenny, a lot of writers use NaNo this way. The criteria is mainly that you start on the first day and write from there. It's a great disciplined way to write and I hope you join up. If you do we'll have to 'friend' each other. I'm parisden.

    Denise

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  18. Ann: You could NaNo to your own ends too. Keep ghosting your memoir.

    Denise

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  19. Excellent tips.

    If the first chapter or even the first page didn't hook me in, I won't read that book!

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  20. Excellent tips.

    If the first chapter or even the first page didn't hook me in, I won't read that book!

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  21. Nas, yep, you're right there so it needs the time in editing phase.

    Denise

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  22. Hi Denise
    So you're a panster, me too. No surprise there. I too have learned the hard way that a rough outline will save time over all so I keep a word doc with a one sentence description of each chapter that no one else needs to understand. It keeps me from going off road, so to speak.

    One thing I have learned after doing my plot series is, the middle is easier if you have a secondary plot. It helps guide you through. Perhaps the secondary plot is love, then you know what kind of tension you need to build. Same is true with all plots.

    The surprising thing that I have learned recently is due to my participation in Romantic Friday Writers. Jump right in...don't worry about anything else. In 400 words there is little room for backstory, bring in the action, the tension, the emotion and do your best.

    I am currently working on two sequels. One to my epic fantasy and the other to my short children's book. They both have tension in common with a problem for the characters presented immediately. So size doesn't matter.
    Cheers and good luck with NaNo.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, Fantasy Author

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  23. Excellent starting tips. I wish I'd had these 4 years ago when I started writing. It would have saved me a lot of time and angst.

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  24. Nancy: I hope your advice will help me negotiate the middle this time. Good idea about a secondary plot. I'm really enjoying your series which I believe has finished now.

    Good luck with your two sequels.

    Yes, RFWer is great for getting right in there and not worrying about backstory. Some of my stories have been turned into longer stories when I get a lot of positive feedback.

    Denise

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  25. talhianewland: Thank you for dropping by. Yes, it'd be good to know it all at once. Make life easier for sure.

    Denise

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  26. A gorgeous bride indeed! What a smile!

    NaNoWriMo is the only time I stick to a disciplined routine. My first attempt resulted in a novel, so am ready for this year.

    I have a very basic plot-if that-and a title. I have only one character, two villages and know Elle Buchanan is artistic. Where that will lead me in The Man In Room Eighteen, I do not know.

    I am Nissi at NaNo when the friends list comes alive again. :)

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  27. Those are great tips to keep in mind with NaNo about to kick off.

    I'm up to my eyeballs in character sketches and outlining for my project, which I just finally decided a subject for yesterday!

    Good luck with your NaNo, and I hope we can swap encouragement after it gets underway. :)

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