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Friday, July 1

Overcoming False Starts on Your First Chapter

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at common mistakes in a first chapter. Enjoy!

It's all too easy to get stuck in chapter-one-rewrite-mode and never move beyond it. You reach the end of that important first chapter, but it just feels wrong, so you go back and rewrite it. And it still feels off. So you do it again. And again. Pretty soon, you're questioning your whole novel and if you even have what it takes to write one. You start thinking if you can't get the first chapter right, what hope do you have of crafting a good novel?

That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and on your brand-new novel before it has a chance to become a novel. If you find yourself stuck here, step back and look at the novel objectively. Ask:

1. Is this the right starting point for the novel?

If you get to the end and can't figure out how to get to the next important event, you might be starting too early. There's nothing driving the story past that opening. But if you get to the end and feel the need to revise and explain more so readers "get it," you might be starting too late and not covering the critical elements needed to understand the story.

(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel)

2. Is it the right point of view character?

You'll find this more often with multiple POV novels, but even a single POV novel can start off with the wrong character at the wheel. Maybe it's not this person's story after all. Or maybe another character would make a better first impression and get the story rolling faster.

(Here's more on choosing a point of view character)

3. Does your point of view character have a goal?

A lack of narrative drive is a sure fire way to stall a novel. Beginnings can be especially tough because the story hasn't technically started yet and you have to introduce the character and idea, while at the same time having a goal to advance the story.

(Here's more on creating narrative drive)

4. Does it cover an event worth reading about?

What's happening in the scene goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Are you offering something inherently interesting in some way, or just starting off like any other day in the life? Big or small, it doesn't matter, but find something a reader might care about.

(Here's more on creating the right story questions)

5. Are you being too picky?

Everyone has their own methods, but is it possible you expect perfection on a first draft? Give yourself permission to stink and move on. You can always edit later.

6. Are there things you don't know yet?

Sometimes the discovery is part of the process, but other times you need to know more details before the story falls into place. Is the missing piece something you can gloss over for now until you figure it out? Can you use a placeholder detail for now? If not, you might need to do a bit more planning before you dive back in.

In many cases, pushing past the sticking point will keep the writing momentum going. Try writing a few chapters and see how you feel after that. If it still feels all wrong by the time you get to chapter three, reevaluate your opening again. Maybe you've written enough by then to have a better idea of what needs to be done.

And of course, sometimes you just don't know the beginning until you get to the end. Once you see how a story resolves, you know instantly where it needs to begin.

How do you feel about first chapters? Hard to write or easy?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great post and just what I need as I am beginning a new idea. I do this same thing with the first sentence and chapter and then obsess over it. Good questions to ask myself-thanks!

  2. Excellent advice. I stayed on my first chapter for about a week, constantly rewriting it. I figured out I was trying to make it perfect, which it is not, and decided that if I was ever going to finish I needed to move on. I'll worry about it again when I'm done with my first draft.

  3. Great post as always. I did have a similar problem, but I fixed it after three rewrites. Like you said, the whole novel just didn't feel right until I had done that.

  4. Great post. I feel I'm sort of the same. I love working on openings and will spend a lot of time doing so before I even know where the story is going to go. You give some great advice for getting that opener down right the first time.

  5. Ronald J. McIsaac1/20/10, 10:43 PM

    I'm kind of the same way, Janice. Going back to my university essays and writings, I've always spent a disprotionate amount of time on the opening lines. I'd walk around for hours sometimes, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, obsessing about the opening scene, be it dialogue, action scene, narration, whatever. I just started my fifth novel, find myself going on those same long walks in the mounains again. PS Like you said in an earlier post, my first few novels were like runaway freight trains, no structure, no end in sight, just wastelands as far as my mind's eye could see. I'm hoping this fifth book is my Shifter, the book that feels complete, marks the beginning of my professional writing life. As always, illuminating.

  6. An interesting observation. You made me think about how I write the opening lines, and I realized I'm nothing like you. :) I start writing the beginning, but then if I don't manage to connect it smoothly with the next scene, I'll just leave it and write from that scene on. I'll return to the beginning again and again during writing, change it, delete it, start anew, add stuff etc., but it never deters me from writing on.I can even have a whole book written before I actually start working on the beginning.

    Perhaps, that's why you've already published a book and I haven't. ;)

  7. I am so following your blog henceforth. All of those are problems I've had with my openings--even with general scenes.

    My narrators may spring like Athena out of my poor skull, but not so for the narrator's situation and destination, which color the person and tense of a work. The same scene can have differing impact, if it's changed from 1st to 3rd person, or if present tense is adjusted to past.

  8. Brigita, there are a million ways to do things :) Just because something works for me, doesn't mean that's the best way to do it.

    It's funny, because after I did this post I hit a snag with my first chapter. I liked a lot of stuff in it, but it just felt wrong. Nya was in the wrong head space (and I think this'll make a good post for this week) so the tone was all wrong. I cut the whole 3K words, moved it to a "save for later" file and started over. SO much happier with the new chapter.

  9. Another issue I've been struggling with on a current WIP: Do you have the right tone for your narrator yet? I have rewritten the opening for my WIP about five times now because the narrator feels inauthentic to me.

  10. JEM, I've done the same thing for the same reasons (and just did with Shifter 3, actually). But I think it's worth it in the end.

  11. I totally need this today. My first chapters are always tricky. Thanks for the fresh perspective! :)

    1. Glad I pulled it out and dusted it off then :) Good luck on that first chapter!

  12. Coming back to this when I start book two. This looks really helpful, thanks. My first book I had to make the first chapter #2 and made the backstory/nightmare (A long dark dream that I had her have that was split up into about ten chapters, am never doing that again. So much work to fix and to make it not sound like a nightmare.) as the first chapter. Going to look around what other gems have you posted?

    1. Look away :) There's a LOT here, and I'm always happy to answer questions if you don't find what you're looking for.