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.

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Finding my Author Identity: A Story of Alienation and Belonging

How many authors struggle with finding their literary identity? Some know exactly who they are and what they want to write and it never enters their mind to deviate. Others struggle to find their way. My story should be a warning to budding writers. It’s far better to have things all figured out in advance. Here’s my story.

It was early in 2009 when I first thought to write creatively. I’d already composed a memoir of the life I was leading then, a work since shelved. When that little seed of inspiration germinated in my awareness I was transported instantly to one of my former homes: The Canary Islands, Spain. A powerful, all-consuming energy filled me. I didn’t know what to make of it, other than that I knew it would radically change my life. By July that same year I’d left my home, my broken marriage, my friends, my whole life to chase this dream, this insatiable desire. I fled to Melbourne. It took many months to orient myself. I had no idea what I wanted to write.

In 2010, under the intensive gaze of my literary mentor, I wrote another memoir, Lovesick, which I self-published in 2011. Lovesick captures a decade of my life spent as one of Thatcher’s have-nots. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in the 1980s with about a third of the story set in the Canary Islands. With Lovesick written I turned my hand to short stories. An independent student for many decades (I even undertook my PhD by distance ed) I gleaned what I needed online, read Alice Munro and slaved over every word. When ready, I submitted to literary journals. Only one was published, in the USA. Two were shortlisted and I received some very nice rejections along the way. Eventually Ginninderra Press published all eight in 2012. It felt like progress.

#TheDragoTree - a tragi-comic love story set on the island idyll of Lanzarote. Literary fiction at it's most entertaining. "Held together with a mouth watering descriptions of the landscape and history."

At the end of 2012 I embarked on my first novel, The Drago Tree, a literary love story set in the Canary Islands. I drew on every skill I had. It was then that I realised my literary voice was distinctly British or European. I began to feel uneasy. Voice is everything. How would a British voice be received by the Australian publishing industry? In 2014, I submitted The Drago Tree to every publisher in Australia. It was demoralising. Most didn’t reply. I was thinking, should I emigrate? Then, in January 2015, Odyssey Books made me an offer. They were a tiny small press back then but what did I care? I leapt at the chance. It was my big break. Luck, at last! I was set.

Meanwhile, I’d already begun another three novels, each distinct. Little did I know the crisis that loomed as a result. For me, back then, all my stories were literary fiction or general fiction. It was only after The Drago Tree was published and book reviewers were asking me what genre it fell into that I started to cotton on to the importance of these literary categories. Until then, I thought I could bypass the genres and exist in a literary fiction bubble. Not, it turns out, if I wanted to sell more than a handful of copies of my books. Suddenly, writing became all about genres and markets. An author needs to be a social media wiz, have a strong online presence, and preferably write a series in a single genre. It’s Creative Writing 101. But I’m self-taught, and this was the gap in my knowledge.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

My aspirations came crashing down in August 2016 when I launched my little literary masterpiece, A Perfect Square, a work I’d poured my heart and soul into, actioning a huge amount of pre-release promotion, including co-opting my musical genius daughter to write the music to go with it. see https://isobelblackthorn.com/a-perfect-square/  We launched the book and music together at a café in Melbourne. That day, the city suffered a tempest. Almost no one ventured out. Only ten people made it to the launch, with a few stragglers arriving at the end of the event because they got the time wrong. I went home demoralised. Reality soccer punched me and I landed on the harsh, immutable  concrete of the modern fiction scene with a thump.

That’s when I started to take the genres seriously. I was already at work on a mystery set in my beloved Canary Islands, a work that was giving me gip. All the while I kept asking, what sort of author am I? Where do I belong?

 

In 2017, I had another lucky break when a small press, based in the USA, offered to published my dark psychological thriller, The Cabin Sessions, which I’d written thinking it was horror. On the strength of that delusion and that offer, I thought horror was my thing and proceeded to write a second novel, The Legacy of Old Gran Parks. HellBound Books have since released both titles and I’ve been networking in the horror scene ever since. But through HellBound Books, I have come to realise my writing is not horror. It’s more Noir, or dark fiction, but definitely not horror. Yikes!

So where does that leave me? I need an author identity to hold all my writing together. I can’t keep starting afresh with each new book, hoping it will attract readers. Like all authors, I need a following of loyal readers. That same year, I started shooting arrows into the dark, trying out different pathways trying to build a career. Drawing on my past life as a teacher, I delivered a creative writing course for domestic violence survivors. I applied for a creative writing fellowship with the National Library of Australia, for which I was shortlisted. I applied for, and secured, a mentorship to co-edit the Australasian Horror Writers Association magazine. I applied for travel funding for a new work, which I didn’t get. I thought if I shook the door hard enough, someone would let me in and then I would know who I was as an author. JK Rowling never had this trouble. It all seemed horribly unfair. Was I, am I, my own worst enemy?

Now, in 2018, it feels as though the forces of progress are against me, as though I’ve entered a dark phase, one of retreat and incubation. I have eight works in progress on my desk. There’s a noir thriller, the mystery set in the Canary Islands two and a half years in the making, a fictional biography of an occultist which I regard as my opus (it’s based on my PhD), and various other works, many gothic, most literary. What do all these works say about me? Should I answer in the negative and say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not a crime writer … How bleak! I want to say I won’t be pigeonholed. But I also want to say finding my author identity has proven astonishingly difficult and has evoked deep feelings of alienation. If I can’t find my literary home here in Australia, then do I even belong here at all?

I’ll end on a positive. There are two essentials readers can expect from me: I write about the occult and my favourite setting is the Canary Islands. The two are not mutually exclusive.

 

 

 

Me and Bettina Arndt – in conversation with Ann Creber Monday May 15

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be on Ann Creber’s The Good Life, this Monday May 15th, 4-5pm  in conversation with sex therapist and men’s rights movement supporter Bettina Arndt on the topic of controversial documentary The Red Pill and domestic violence.

Bettina takes a very different view of domestic violence to me. We both acknowledge the problem, but with very different takes on the perpetrators and victims, and the statistics. See http://www.bettinaarndt.com.au/news/2479/

My experience of domestic violence, both as a child and as an adult, along with my stays in three women’s shelters, has provided me with first hand experience of this very ugly side of human nature. Here’s one story I wrote, ‘The Refuge,’ first published in American literary magazine Mused, and later in my short story collection, All Because of You.

Although I have also experienced workplace bullying from female perpetrators. https://open.abc.net.au/explore/82764

I won’t deny that both men and women can be abusive. It’s just that men have a greater capacity for domestic terror than women. They tend to be bigger, stronger and more likely to feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to exerting their power over others.

I’m about to start giving creative writing workshops for women survivors of domestic violence. Each participant will be writing a short story, to add to an anthology of survival stories.

All in all, the combination of views should make for a lively and interesting chat!

Tune in to 3MDR 3-5pm Monday 15th May for The Good Life – http://www.3mdr.com/

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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Here’s an extract:

“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….”

You can read the whole piece here.  http://authorstalkaboutit.com/your-inner-editor-is-waiting-in-the-wings/

On continuity errors

9781922200365-Cover (1)I’m currently at work polishing a second draft of my fourth novel, in readiness for other pairs of eyes. It’s an intense process involving steady concentration and a decent memory. It’s about containing whole themes in my head and watching when they appear to ensure that what I wrote before, what’s right there before my eyes and what comes after in later chapters, flows along nicely. I haven’t put Saturday before Friday. At noon there’s definitely a sense of time flowing by after the last time I mentioned said theme, say at dawn. I might find that character x couldn’t have known said event had taken place unless I do something to make it possible. Worse, I haven’t allowed enough space between events one and two, for a third event to be squeezed in between.

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Evidence of a poor writer? Someone cobbling a story together in piecemeal fashion?

No.

Then where’s the planning? Surely these things shouldn’t arise. They wouldn’t arise if I’d planned it all out properly.

Not true.

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Perhaps some authors plan out every detail in advance. They have lists of scenes and detailed timelines. They are meticulous from the off.

I write differently. I start with a sketch of an idea, maybe a sense of a theme, and one or two characters. I might have a cast of characters thinly conceived. I always have the setting. Always a strong sense of place. And I will have incubated the story for years.

Then, within a paragraph, the muse has taken control of the narrative. Up pops a character with such potency and so much to say, she demands a parallel narrative of her own. New themes emerge. Events present themselves. Little twists. I run with ideas, stream of consciousness style. I write with only a dim memory of what I wrote before. And I don’t look back, I press forward. I don’t care about grammar or syntax. I trust to luck that I’m not stuck repeating myself. That the ideas are evolving. And the characters too.

Once I have the bones of a whole draft, I set it aside for a few months. When I come back to it I have to battle through a jungle, hacking out paths, weeding, planting and transplanting, grafting this to that. I scrutinise every paragraph on every page. I develop scenes. Flesh out characters. Strive to get the balance right between all the elements of story – action, dialogue, reflection, description.

I go over the story three times before I call what I have a second draft. I put in eight hour days. Sometimes twelve. I fix every single thing I can find. I don’t want to say there are five people at a table and only describe the four of them that were there, a flaw I discovered in a highly praised work of literary fiction I read recently, a flaw that had me flicking back the page and re-reading the scene several times. A flaw that had me thinking, how the hell did that get past the copy editor?

I read a popular work of fiction a few years back in which the author had gone to some lengths to describe the dim light of a wintry New Year’s Eve, then the character walked into a bright and sunny kitchen. Huh? In the same book, the character was swimming in a pond on a wintry day in January, at four in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky. Whoops!

I’ve softened my condemnations of such errors. They shouldn’t be there in published works, but I can see how easily they slip by. The author is so close to their own writing they can’t see it. When we make certain changes to one spot in the narrative, there’s a ripple effect. Every single related point has also to be changed. If you change Burt to Ed, he has to be Ed forevermore. No mention of Burt. It’s the same with place and time.

I think continuity errors are most likely to arise when the author makes small changes and forgets or misses the ripples. For example, there might have been five people at that table, and the author got rid of one of them. But overlooked the ‘five’ stated on the previous page. 

Just now in editing the middle of my story, I noticed the lack of development of the character of a frog. In my last round of edits I’d inserted the frog as a motif, thinking to add texture and interest. But I’d been lazy. I hadn’t tracked the development of the frog throughout the story.

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After posting this piece I shall return to the frog and do that tracking. Otherwise it might slip my notice. It’s that sort of meticulousness that fixes the continuity errors. And it’s up to authors to do that work because they are the only ones to know it that intimately.