Writing when you’re ready

During memoirchat on Twitter last week, I told another writer of memoir how much trouble I’m having writing Chapter One. I’ve struggled with it for weeks, writing and re-writing, never feeling satisfied.

Other chapters of the book have come easier than this, I explained. I’ve already written much of the middle of the story.

She suggested maybe I wasn’t ready to write Chapter One. Perhaps, she said, I should go back to writing the parts of the book that are working, continue making progress, and return later to the first chapter.

And I thought: Why didn’t I think of that? Of course I’m not ready to write the first chapter! Why was I forcing myself to do it?

(You can read the entire transcript of our conversation here.)

It reminded me of one day last year in the newsroom at the Houston Chronicle, when I was struggling to write the lead for a story and complaining about it to a fellow reporter. “Have you done enough reporting?” he asked. “Sometimes when I can’t write the lead, it’s because I haven’t talked to enough people or spent enough time researching the topic.”

Luckily I wasn’t on deadline, so I took another day to report. And he was right — only then did it become clear how I should introduce the story to my readers.

I’m hoping the same thing will happen with my book. As I write more chapters, continue to develop the story arc, characters and theme, perhaps the beginning will take shape in my head.

Writing this book — my first book — is a learning process. I try something, it doesn’t work, so I try something else. And Chapter One was not working. At least not right now. So I’m going to  put it aside, let the words flow elsewhere, and come back to this intro later, when I’m ready.

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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Writers’ Roundup

Did I say the first two-thirds of my manuscript would be ready for critique by Aug. 1? Who was I kidding?!

I’m getting bogged down mostly by the beginning (more about that next week if it’s still a problem). But the rest is coming together nicely, and so I say, that’s still progress!

Links I gathered for you this week:

  • A new book blog from Entertainment Weekly, Shelf Life.

Chapter One, you’ve got my full attention this weekend. (Well, except for Saturday night.) I will conquer you.