Staring Down the Barrel of Chapter One

Staring Down the Barrel of Chapter OneI have heard that the first chapter of a novel is the most rewritten chapter of all. I have also heard this is because everything that we want our novel to be and everything that it should be comes spooling out of those first words, sentences, and paragraphs. If the groundwork for the rest of the book isn’t compellingly laid out for our potential readers, and if our readers aren’t hooked by our initial efforts, our novel is doomed. No pressure there.

For the past week, I have been staring at the pages of the first chapter in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Based on the paragraph above, you can probably guess what my current goal is. Still, I refuse to force my story into an outline or someone else’s expectations and/or opinions of what my novel, as a whole, should be. I will, however, accept advice that helps me tell my story the way I know it needs to be told.

Today, I’m stocking my Writing Toolbox with two pieces of writing advice relevant to my situation. The first comes from Jacob M. Appel’s March 29, 2011, post for Writer’s Digest, 10 Ways to Start Your Story Better. I’ll be employing a combination of Mr. Appel’s suggestions to refine the essence of my first chapter.

The second, more recent piece of writing advice is from K.M. Weiland, Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 38: Irrelevant Book Endings. I’m exploring the end of my novel to ensure that the beginning of my book set up my desired ending. If not, a chapter one rewrite and restructure may be in order.

Somewhere, an outliner is screaming, “You could have avoided this if you’d only outlined to begin with.” That may be true, but I enjoy exploring the rabbit trails too much. It’s where I often receive my next piece of writing inspiration, and I’m certainly not interested in turning off the creative supply outlet.

Are You a Pantser?

There is much debate on which way to write a novel: Outline/Plot vs. Pantsing. Those who fall on one side or the other can provide plenty of evidence to support their chosen method of writing that shows why their way is best. So far, I’ve never seen the conversation turn into an argument. The discussion usually ends with one side giving the other a sideways, narrow-eyed, head-tipping look of pity for not seeing the error of their ways. It’s actually quite funny.

I find this debate always surfaces shortly before NaNoWriMo starts. Janalyn Voigt of Live Write Breathe offers advice for those who might consider giving pantsing a try. In my opinion, the points mentioned are only the beginning of pantsing. Since it’s not a formal writing style, I can’t imagine too many rules actually exist. Admittedly, I’ll be looking for them. Guidelines, however, probably abound.

I believe I fall closer to the pantsing end of the writing spectrum but well short of insisting it is the only way to write. I’m not against outlining, but like most things in my life, I never limit myself to one of anything. I have outlined scenes for my novels to use during the editing process and when research needed to be conducted. Otherwise, I write by the seat of my pants.

So, whether you outline/plot or pants it, I hope you enjoy Mrs. Voigt’s suggestions from her blog post Pantsing: Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.

  1. Quiet your inner editor. Without stopping to edit, you’ll complete your manuscript more quickly. Speed is important because you’ll be carrying a lot of details in your head. The longer it takes you to write the story, the harder it will be to remember them all.
  1. Write in marathons. Rather than writing at a steady pace, clearing as much uninterrupted time as possible facilitates your writing the first draft quickly. This prevents the disruption to your focus that even a small interruption can bring.
  1. Don’t let the story go cold. Sometimes you can’t avoid being called away to work on other projects, but afterwards it can be very difficult to pick up the story thread.
  1. Try to have at least some research done in advance. You probably won’t know everything you’ll need to research at this point, but the need to stop and research can throw off a writing sprint. Guarding against that happening as much as possible is a good idea.
  1. Don’t stop for research that won’t determine the plot direction. Only stop to research vital information. Bold print passages you need to check and do the research on the second pass.
  1. When you get stuck, skip to the next scene, if possible. Mark the uncompleted scene or passage to fix in your second pass.
  1. Jot things to fix on a notepad or on the first page of the manuscript. Write a quick reminder of what needs fixing while you’re immersed in the creative process and you’ll thank yourself during the editing process.


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