Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Very Good Place to Start

Lots of talk about beginnings lately, here and in the ether. A 4th semester student was gathering book recommendations on Facebook of books that dangle a promise in the first chapter. (The suggestions she got were: Holes, The Book Thief, The Wednesday Wars, The Thief, and The Schwa Was Here.)

I'm working on my own beginning. This is the first totally new thing I've written for some time; the last two books I've written were sequels and I didn't need to spend too much time introducing the characters or the world. So I'm relearning how to begin a book. And I don't know what the rules are. Once I was in a writing group and someone detailed for me exactly what a first chapter of a novel should do. I still remember her standing over me saying, "Anne, the first chapter of a book....." Alas, I don't remember the rest.

So, here's what I think about when I write beginnings:

I want my first chapter to give a strong sense of the main character. I want it to give some idea of what kind of story this will be. I want it to introduce the characters and story through active scenes. And I want the reader to want to turn the page to see what happens in chapter two.

Pretty simple, right? Am I missing anything?

There's a huge temptation in a first chapter to have it be an info dump, to use the whole thing to set up the story that's going to happen in chapter two. We talk about books that begin before the story begins, a kind of prologue where the main character walks to school or lies in bed and thinks about things. I did this on the first draft of my first novel, in which there's a chemical spill in a small town. I placed all the characters in a bookstore cafe and introduced them leisurely as they drank their coffee and didn't do much, until the last line of the chapter when the sirens go off. My brother read it and said, "Start with the spill." He was right, and it's the best advice on beginnings I ever got.

On another note, I heard a reading a year ago of one of the most gripping first chapters I've ever encountered. The book it belonged to is City of Cannibals, by Ricki Thompson, a beloved Hamline graduate assistant, and it's just come out. Anita Silvey called it one of the best pieces of historical fiction she'd ever read--there's an epigraph for you.


  1. What you're missing is ... time. As you (and your brother!)know, the beginning you're sweating over now might not do the trick down the road.

  2. I have now had Julie Andrews and "Do Re Mi" on my brain for about three hours, Anne. Reading the title of your post was apparently the beginning of a long, unproductive day.

  3. First chapters make my head hurt. I am purposefully avoiding mine because of all this discussion about first chapters.

  4. That's exactly where I am now, Marsha. I've written about one hundred or so pages on a novel. I've walked through that dark forest that Jane Resh Thomas talks about, looking for the threads and the patterns of my story. Eventually, I came to a point where I needed to go back and rewrite my first chapter.

    Mary Logue told me to think about the promise of the book as I do this. I still remember the exercise Marsha Q gave us in a break-out session during a Hamline residency in January of '09. She had my group look for the promises in the first chapter of Carl Hiaasen's HOOT. This is a fabulous exercise, so I reused it last week. I pulled a dozen or so books off my bookshelves and looked for the promise(s) contained in the first chapters.

    As someone who tends to think of titles first and plot only as a secondary necessity, I found it interesting that many of the books I reviewed had promise as a common link between the title and the first chapter. Makes sense. Using HOOT as an example, the promise worked in two ways: 1. The opening scene with Dana Matherson smashing Roy's face against the school bus window is intense and brutal, but Hiaasen's light-hearted language and the double meaning of the title, HOOT, promise us that--as Mary Logue says--"there will be humor to save." A contract is set up with the reader that this book will deal with serious issues, but in a light-hearted, bearable fashion. 2. Hiaasen also introduces the owls in the secondary scene of the first chapter, so readers are promised that the owls will play a significant role in the plot.

    I hope the Hamline faculty will correct me here if any of this analysis is off-base. Or add to the discussion. But I also hope that any prospective students "listening in" on this conversation will realize what an amazing education our faculty affords us in the Hamline MFAC program. I certainly wasn't able to study literature on my own with critical thinking skills before entering the program.

    And just to clarify... Anne is being modest. Her books were highly recommended as books to study for "first chapter promise." In not one, but two separate comments to my post.

  5. Oops. My post looks a lot longer when it's outside that little writing box! Sorry. First timer's mistake.

  6. Danette, it's wonderful! Thank you. I'm so glad you posted. I got a lot out of that.

    Venus, sometimes the best time to write a beginning is the end.

    Marsha, I live to serve.

  7. Richard Peck once said, "The first chapter is really the last chapter in disguise."

    One of the best parts of my work last semester was drafting the end of my novel while revising the first few chapters at the same time. As I was contemplating the ending of the story, I could look at that first chapter and see what I had promised. I could also see what other promises I still needed to put there.

    I don't think you can really write a great first chapter when you are just beginning a draft. I think you need to know the end of the story, and you need to know the person your protagonist has become at the end of the story.

  8. The first chapter I write often ends up somewhere in the middle or near the end of the book--often it becomes the climactic moment or what I consider the "pulse" of the book (for me, not necessarily for the reader).

    When I worked with Jack Gantos in grad school he always told us to write the really good stuff first, the stuff that gets you emotionally, and you could always fill in the details and transitions later. Inevitably you discover that all you need to write is the "good stuff."

  9. Wow - Lisa, I love it. Write the good stuff first and keep on. I thought I had posted this morning about the first page/first chapter offering a promise to the reader about what they will know/understand by the end of the book. You've all covered that brilliantly.