Tackling Chapter One, the scariest of them all

I’ve never been the kind of journalist that can bang out a lead. Sometimes it’s easy to crank out the first paragraph, but more often than not I write the rest of the story and return to the lead afterward, crafting it right on deadline.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I feel challenged by the first chapter of my book. The other chapters? They’re moving along quite quickly now. But every time I return to Chapter One, I feel a little… intimidated.

Chapter One is important because it contains the first ten pages of the book, which give readers, as well as publishers and agents, reason to keep reading or skip the story altogether. (Check out this post on the Murdock Editing bog about re-thinking your first ten pages.) It’s my opportunity to pump a lil’ theme into the book, give my adventure purpose and hit the reader with my voice right off the bat.

So I’m embracing the technique that’s always worked for me in journalism: I write what I can, whatever inspires me on a particular day, which often means avoiding the first chapter. I’m writing this book in pieces, slowly weaving lots of short stories together to form one themed book. This has become one of my favorite parts of writing; Every morning, I wake up excited and ask myself: What scene do you want to write today?

Part of the reason this tactic works for me — aside from capitalizing on whatever inspires me that day — is because I’ve already outlined the manuscript.

But it’s time for me to write Chapter One. Partly because my critique group keeps asking for it. “We’ve read the middle of the book!” they say. “Give us the beginning!” But really, I need this push. I’ve got to get down on paper the meat of the manuscript, a basic explanation of why on earth I decided to leave my reporting job and go to Africa, alone.

So I’m finally writing the lead.

Anybody else out there have trouble with the first chapter? Do you save it for last, or hunker down and write it right off the bat?

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15 Responses

  1. I’m with you. The beginning is hard. I never, ever write a book in chronological order.

  2. I usually have no trouble writing the first chapter. That’s not to say it’s perfect the first time out, and my current WIP has had three different beginnings, but the beginnings are no problem for me. I run into trouble around Chapter 6 or 7 when I’m not so sure what happens next, even with an outline!

  3. I write fiction so I feel I need to start with the first chapter. However, after many revisions, the final first chapter has very little resemblence to the original first chapter. Remember, it’s not written in stone. Write that chapter when you feel the inspiration, let it sit for a while, then go back and read it. If it doesn’t have the feel you want, you can play with it until it does.

  4. I usually start at the beginning, then jump all over the book. And I rewrite the beginning a bazillion times!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. At first I began my memoir with losing custody, then flashed back to childhood sexual abuse and other early childhood issues. When the manuscript was completed,however, it made more sense to write chronologically. Even if you write a first chapter now, it might change once the manuscript is completed, so don’t sweat it so much. It’s different from your reporting background. You have self-imposed deadlines now. And you can edit your manuscript once that deadline is past, unlike an article that appears the next day in the paper. Good luck!
    Karen

  6. The first chapter is always the hardest. So is the title! I always know the meat of the story, usually the ending too. But how to get the readers there? How to explain to them without boring them to tears, the whys and hows and whens? That’s when things get complicated for me. It must be done, however, and I usually wait until inspiration hits me before I tackle chapter one. Good luck to you!

    ~Jen

  7. I also find the first chapter the hardest one to write. I tend to write it and not look back until I’m done. Then I will go back and edit, edit, edit.

  8. I have never written a memoir, just novels and short stories and I have to know where they are starting from before I even get into the rest of it. good luck.

  9. I mainly write poetry but I do find I write in chronological – linear order but when I go back and revise the first part is what always changes DRAMATICALLY!

    Good luck with it 🙂

  10. Chapter One is hard in fiction too, but most of us write that chapter first and then go back to rewrite it many times. It is so unbelievably important when you consider an agent can say yea or nay based on the first chapter, or even the first page.

  11. The first scene usually comes to me in whole form – who, what, where, what they’re doing (although not always the why!), so first chapters come to me easily. It’s finishing that I find difficult! I don’t work by an outline, though, and that might be why.

  12. Great post! Also coming from a background writing features for a daily newspapers and its sister alternative weekly, I know exactly what you are talking about. I think that’s been my biggest challenge throughout this whole memoir process. On that note, another trap I fell into earlier was setting up a chapter with the first paragraph, then telling the story. It was almost like I was trying to make each chapter an article, with a lead. It just comes natural to write that way for me, but for memoir it wasn’t right, of course. I explained to my mentor at the time my background, and she was like, “Well, that’s it! That’s why you’re doing this. I understand. Now stop!” Once I got into the swing of things, I was able to break that and just get chronological. Well, all except for Chapter 1 and even into 2. Thanks for posting this. Good to read everyone’s thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Donna. I think I fall into this habit sometimes, too, and you’re right, it’s because of the darn inverted pyramid! It takes practice to build tension and keep proper pacing.

  13. […] 31, 2009 by Alexis Grant I haven’t given my book enough attention this week. In between struggling with Chapter One, I’ve been working on a few freelance pieces since, well, they pay the bills and right now […]

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