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