I think I have rewritten my first chapter at least fifteen times. And that’s just the completely overhauled versions. I’ve tweaked and plucked and jabbed that poor chapter a thousand and one times.
There’s so much that the first chapter has to do: introduce your character, bring in your conflict, draw in the reader, draw in the agent, draw in the editor…the list goes on. And just when I think I have it right, something clicks and I change it again.
To show you just how different my first chapters have been, here’s just the first lines of some of my most recent drafts:
“They call this a mountain? Someone should clue them in that it’s just a big rock.”
I liked this one because I felt like it brought out Tessa’s personality in the first sentence. It is just leaking “voice.” The problem with this beginning? Tessa was a bit of a jerk, mad about moving to Georgia. #1 problem for me: The whole idea of moving to a new place as the start of a book is MEGA cliche. Think about how many books start with being in a new school or a new place. Sure, it’s part of the teen experience, but snoozer. This beginning had to go.
“If we get arrested, I’m telling Mom and Dad it’s your fault,” I say as I throw my sleeping bag and backpack into the bed of Isaac’s red Chevy.
I liked this beginning because automatically the reader knows that Tessa is doing something naughty. And who doesn’t like the illegal? Even if the reader is too chicken to do illegal things in real life, reading about it means living vicariously. 🙂 And I liked the Chevy part because that almost screams Southern to me. Now if my story wouldn’t have completely changed directions, this may have worked out great.
In five minutes, I will be on that stage playing a tambourine. Kill me. Kill me now.
I thought I was pretty clever when I first came up with this one. (It doesn’t blow me away so much now.) But I liked it because it had voice and quirkiness. A tambourine? Really? But the tone that this first line sets is rather light. Funny, quirky…it’ll draw in a reader, but it also sets up the tone for the rest of the novel. The problem is that my novel is a lot darker than this sets it up to be.
I can’t remember the lyrics.
My breathing comes in short spurts as I frantically search every inch of my brain. But the only thing that keeps replaying over and over is, I’m going to crash and burn in front of some of the best musicians in the country.
This is my current beginning. It’s not oozing voice, it’s nothing particularly memorable. But this and the subsequent paragraphs do a few things right (I think). First, I set the tone better than I had before. That’s a big thing. Before, I think I wanted the voice to hit the reader in the face so much that I sacrificed tone. I had to realize that voice can still be achieved without a clever one-liner to start the novel.
This beginning also answers an important question: What is different about today? Today, Tessa is about to perform and has frozen up. BIG problem. And this big problem will lead to the conflict that lasts throughout the novel. This event is what starts the whole chain of events that makes my story.
I took a creative writing class from Carol Lynch Williams (author of Glimpse and The Chosen One) a couple years ago, and she had us ask ourselves that question when starting our novels. You have to know where your story begins–what makes that day different for your character?
For me, it seemed like I needed to have my entire novel written out before I really knew where my story started. Back with the tambourine beginning, my current beginning was part of backstory. The reader didn’t find out about this experience until halfway through the novel. But this incident is what changes her. It’s the “different” day that sets my story in motion.
Go examine your first chapter and ask the question. And keep asking it with every rewrite. It may be helpful in making those bothersome beginnings a little less annoying. 🙂