First Chapter Blues

Writing the opening chapter of a novel is like starting the first sentence of a blog post: it’s all about the hook. You, the reader, will only keep reading, if I have grabbed your attention and given you a hint that contained below is something you might want to find out about. I’ve written eight novels to date, so you would think I would know by now how to compose the enticing first pages of a book. Here’s why I have failed.

This morning, dawning in my mind as I set to work on two works-in-progress is that they share the same problem. Both are set in the same location, both involve the protagonist arriving at that location from elsewhere, and both have draft first chapters that I now consider to be rubbish. How could I have managed to fall into every trap a novice writer falls into when they have no guidance or training or skills or experience? How have I managed to draft two first chapters, each with smooth prose and charming segues, that are packed with backstory and reflection, and lack conflict and an intriguing question? These are the four basic rules of crafting a first chapter and I have somehow forgotten them. A first chapter should be: light on backstory and reflection; contain a small conflict that reveals something about the character and what the story is about; and include some sort of intrigue or hook that keeps the reader turning the page.

I’m an embarrassment to myself. Before I started writing this post, I had to soothe my ego with comforting platitudes. There is so much to writing a novel that it is easy to overlook one element. All writers agonise over the first chapter and the story set up in general. What to tell, what to hold back, what order to reveal the backstory, what the reader needs to know upfront and above all, how to create a good beginning, these matters plague all authors. I wasn’t comforted. There had to be something about my approach to writing that is flawed.

I decided that I have overlooked the obvious rules of first-chapter composition because I am a pantser, not a plotter. I would call the ‘rubbish first chapter’ the curse of pantsing. Here’s why.

When an author writes as I do with the barest minimum of plot, flowing with their own creativity stream of consciousness style, allowing characters to form themselves and plot points to emerge naturally, allowing the narrator to take control, the result can be a mishmash. As the story develops, the writer can contain all the elements within and funnel the story in a logical fashion, directing their own outpourings and creating order. For example, the writer will recognise when a scene belongs in another spot. I find pantsing an enjoyable approach to writing and once I’m in the flow, me as writer and me as narrator merge and the story unfolds smoothly.

This sense of unity does not exist initially. At the beginnings of the story the writer is tentative and the narrator equally so. Neither knows yet what the backstory will be. Characters are yet to fully form. Sometimes, a unity forms very quickly and the first chapter ticks all the boxes without any effort. Other times, backstory collides with the present and as the character begins to form they tell the narrator who they are, which ends up as a lot of reflection. A tentative beginning will jump around a lot as the narrator starts to find their way. At this stage the protagonist can have far too much control of the story, rather like that annoyingly egocentric guy at a party who drones on and on about himself and the things he’s done and the people he knows. He thinks he is being entertaining. No one else does. This problem of protagonist dominance will arise more strongly with first-person narratives. The challenge for the writer is to force the protagonist to become a narrator, not an egomaniac eager to tell the reader all about himself.

In other words, for pantsers, the first chapter is more like an emergence of the sorts of elements the plotter would have had all figured out in a neat character bio.

Having just recognised that two of my works in progress are suffering from this same issue, I wanted to tease out the cause and share, as we are none of us too experienced to learn and sometimes we have to re-learn what we already know.

Fortunately, one of my works in progress is barely written and I can see straight away that the matter is easily fixed. The other work is almost completely composed and unpacking the narrative and restructuring the early part of the work feels like a chore. Yet it has to be done if I want anyone to read the finished work.

Your Inner Editor is Waiting in the Wings

Delighted that my piece on creative flow has been published today on the Authors Talk About It website!

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It was my daughter who put me onto flow. I could attribute the insight to my old hippy boyfriend back in the 1980s, for he was always telling me to ‘go with the flow’, travel along with life unfolding, but what he really meant, as I soon learned, was I had to go with his flow. Whereas my daughter alerted me to another sort of flow altogether.

Elizabeth was pointing to creative flow. Although she didn’t call it flow at first. That came later when she was introduced to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book called Flow. Elizabeth is a pianist and composer and she knew about flow because she’s shaped her life around it. And as a teacher she sees how others struggle with flow. Students who find it hard to reach a point of being at one with the music they are playing. Or when they struggle to sustain it.

What is flow? I’m not going to attempt to regurgitate Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas. Instead, I’m offering my own. In essence, flow is a meditative state, an awareness turned inwards: open, receptive, poised. In flow, there is no doubt, no hesitancy no critical judge. The inner editor is passively waiting in the wings. Flow is staying in the Now. For writers, it’s as if another entity has charge of the pen, as if you are channelling, in some sort of telepathic rapport with some paranormal being deep inside.

That inner being is of course the muse. In his insightful book, On Writing, Stephen King describes his muse as a fat man smoking a cigar in his inner basement. My muse is a woman in a red gown. She has wild hair and likes to run barefoot through castles. I call her Scarlet.

I regard the muse as an inner voice born of creative impulse. The muse speaks and the writer writes. The muse hums and the composer hears. The muse draws and the artist sees. The muse shapes and the sculptor feels.

Maybe psychologists would say creatives suffer from a fragmented personality. Some part of us has split off and developed a life of its own in the unconscious. Maybe that’s true. Or perhaps creatives have some sort of portal within, one that enables ready access to an inner creator. Maybe. All I know is that creativity is mysterious. We’re all in some measure and manner creative. It’s what makes us fully human. Not so many of us develop a relationship with the muse.

I think the muse is easily crushed. Not so much by others, although put downs from loved ones and family members along the lines of ‘get a real job’ or ‘your priorities are all wrong, you should be paying more attention to your kids, your husband, your job’ don’t help. The real crusher is your own ego. The ego seeks to take ownership, to control and dominate. The muse won’t be owned or controlled or dominated. Writers have to learn to put their egos in a box and set the muse free. Really, it’s the first step. Until it’s taken, the writer is hampered by a lack of flow.

I’ve been writing fiction for about seven years. I’ve a few novels and short stories under my belt. I’m self-taught, although to begin with, I had the luxury of a dedicated and attentive mentor. My writing process is simple. An idea excites me. I brainstorm a basic story.  I conjure a few characters; give them bones but no flesh. I come up with a theme without working it through. I do minimum plotting and storyboarding. When I have enough I grab a pen and notebook and find a comfy chair. I wait, poised, listening. When I hear the voice I write. I write a paragraph and I don’t change a thing. There, the muse has spoken, the narrator has manifested. I cede control. I read over the words. I ponder. More words come. The pace quickens. Characters, plot lines, themes, they all emerge and develop in the flow. I don’t look backwards or forwards. The muse has the reigns and I go with whatever she throws up. There’s plenty of time later for knocking it all into shape.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I was a novice and creative flow is something that novice writers struggle to maintain. At first, a few phrases would come, maybe a whole paragraph of utter genius, then nothing. It was all just a sudden gush and the tap turned itself off. Here’s how I learned to keep the tap turned on.

First, I had to push aside the ego, with its doubts and insecurities, its envy, its defeatism. Replace all those inhibitions with faith, with self-belief, with passion. Fortunately I have oodles of passion. I’m 54 and I’ve waited a long time for this.

All aspiring writers face the challenge of stocking the toolbox, equipping the muse with the techniques of the craft. I taught myself by reading some great books by great authors and studying how they do things. I kept a notebook and copied out turns of phrase for future reference. I copied out good examples of description, dialogue, reflection and action. I studied how different books are structured and explored different points of view. It’s all rudimentary stuff as taught (I hope) in any creative writing course.

Thirdly, I got to know my muse and learned to let her be who she wanted to be. She has a voice so I let her speak. I choose not to be afraid and I don’t judge what comes out. About ten years ago, I found myself in a creative writing workshop, the only one I’ve attended, and we were given an exercise. We had to write a short scene based on a few words we’d collectively brainstormed. We had to use those words, or some of them. One of them was ‘cave’. I was off. I wrote a piece that was defiant and dark and shocking. The voice was so strong it was confronting, even for me. When I read it out to the group there were gasps, and some were as shocked as me. The muse had bared her all, and that little piece of mine stuck out from the rest like a beacon. I felt awkward and embarrassed. I wanted to disappear.

Going with the creative flow involves developing the capacity to focus.  Otherwise all you end up with are isolated paragraphs and half-finished poems. The advice given to me is the advice I give here. Write. Write every single day and aim for three hours. Make it a ritual. Pick a nice time of day that works for you. Mornings are good, before the mundane tasks of the day kick in. Stephen King says when he writes he listens to ACDC loud. Maybe his cigar-smoking muse likes Aussie pub rock. Might go some way to explaining how he came up with works like The Stand. I like peace and quiet and a comfy chair. Scarlet likes the pre-dawn hours, which I have to say I’m at odds with.

I always keep what I write: all my half-baked ideas, scraps of plot, storyboards that never came to anything. I wrote a single sentence in 2009. It was meant to be the first sentence of a novel but my ideas fizzled and I shelved the project. Three years later that first sentence ended up forming the beginning of a different novel. I’ve had short story ideas that have turned into flash fiction, and others that have become parallel narratives in book-length works. I have found the muse to be non-linear, atemporal and contrary. Yet I have found entering into creative flow and allowing her to speak to be the most satisfying state of being. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone. It would be fun to find out.