Feature Friday: Writing the First Chapter

Chess Board - TwitterThere are some who find the last chapter to be the most difficult. There are a few who struggle through the middle. For most, however, the first chapter is the hardest to get out there. There’s good reason for this. The first chapter is what draws, drags, or defers. Either it is so clever that the reader must read; it is acceptable enough that the reader chooses to read; or it is so bad that the reader refuses to read.

But no pressure. Really.

See, the nice things about first chapters (and first lines) is that you have the most time to get them right. You have the entire time you’re writing the book through the editing process through just before publication. That’s a lot of time. (Longer for some, say, whose last name is Martin, than some others.)

“I don’t edit while I’m writing.”  Very smart of you. Really. Just try this with me for one work, though. Edit that first chapter.

Here’s why: if your first chapter does what it should (set up the story), then you have an easier task ahead of you. Instead of dragging the story uphill to get to the first plot point, your first chapter has already set it on the right path.

I’ve discovered I cannot write well until I’m happy with the first chapter. Oh, I can write. I go on putting words to paper anyway. But each time I open that document, I edit the first chapter until something clicks. For some works, this happens before I get out of the second chapter. For others, it may not happen until I’m frantically trying to fix things for publication. But it always happens because it’s important.

What does a first chapter need?

  • The protagonist
  • The antagonist
  • Possibly one or more support characters
  • The setting for the “normal” world (the world in that millisecond before the story starts)
  • The reason why the reader should care about any of this

If, by the end of your first chapter, the reader doesn’t at least know a little bit about your main character, where he is, why they should care about her, etc., you’ve failed.

Yes, I know there are books that manage to get away with breaking the rules. You can break the rules, too, if you know them well enough to do it well. Otherwise, stick to the guidelines. They exist because they work, oddly enough.

So, your homework (and mine) is to go back to your first chapter. Read it first. Just read it. Does it grab you? Does it repulse you? Then go back with whatever form of red pen you use and mark it up. Do you have a lot of unnecessary exposition? Bye-bye! Does your main character go nameless and descriptionless for most of the chapter? Fix it. Do you, being honest, not really care about this chapter? Maybe you need to toss it entirely and start with the second chapter.

Whatever you decide to do, go do your homework. Tear apart the first chapter. Let me know how it works out.

Want More? Try This Blog Post
Learn four possible ways to hook your reader in the opening. Try all four!



WorkIt Wednesday: The Five-2K Challenge

Write2kI’m going to put a challenge out there for everyone. I’ve already made it to certain friends. Now I’m opening it to you.

For the next year (or one year from whenever you decide to start), do the Five2K challenge:

  • Write 2k
  • Run/ walk 2k
  • Edit 2k
  • Read 2k
  • Eat 2k calories (2000 calories)

Do this daily for one year (52 weeks). Tag your progress with #Five2K.

Miss a day? Don’t stress. Make up your 2k on another day. 2k walking or running is only 1.29 miles or so. Do a little extra one day and “bank” it toward another day.

Didn’t write enough? Have a marathon writing session and get in 10k at some point. Same with editing.

2k words is, roughly, eight pages, although your average will vary.

Do it for the fun of it and as a way to push yourself. Do it for the cool name.

Are you with me?

A to Z Blogging Challenge: J

A to Z Blogging Challenge: Just Write… Wrong

A to Z Blogging Challenge: J

There is advice going around that tells new writers to just write. They’ll get better if they just write.  I’m going to go out on my own personal soapbox (which is teetering, because who needs a box of soap big enough to stand on?) and say, no. Don’t just write and think you’re going to get better.

Let’s see how that works in other occupations:

  • Just do taxes. Eventually you’ll get it right.
  • Just treat patients. Eventually you’ll learn medicine.
  • Just slap paint on the canvas. Eventually you’ll make a pretty picture.

I could go on, but that would be silly… just like the advice. You can’t “just write” and think you’ll be a better writer. Here’s what you can do to be a better writer:

  • Write daily until it becomes a habit. The habit will serve you well.
  • Read about writing. If you’re not regularly reading “how to write” or grammar books, taking courses, or learning more about the craft, it’s going to be very hard to improve.
  • Critique and edit your own writing.
  • Critique and edit others’ writing (it’s easier to see the parts that need a rewrite when it’s not your own).
  • Have other people critique and edit your writing. Then don’t sit and argue with them. Don’t take it personally. See what you can learn from it.
  • Read good writing. You learn from the masters. I can’t stress this enough.

Seriously (and I try really hard to not be serious for long, so listen up), uneducated writers, even if they have talent, aren’t doing the craft any favors. Every writer (I don’t do many absolutes, either) should:

  1. Write consistently (if not daily, pick your regularity and do it; I take off one day a week).
  2. Take one course on writing craft each year. Free courses count.
  3. Take one course on writing technique a year (grammar, punctuation, styles). Free counts. Books count.
  4. Critique and be critiqued.
  5. Read widely.

That’s it. Don’t just write. Write with the intention of becoming a better writer.

By the way, if you are following me, commenting, or reading and I haven’t returned the favor yet, I will. I am making note of who visits me. I will be visiting you all after the challenge ends. I just cannot carve out enough time to write blogs, read blogs, do poetry, and keep up with my WIP all at the same time. When the blog moves to twice a week, I will read on two of the days I’m currently writing. Promise!

What do you do to improve as a writer?