Let’s get the boilerplate out of the way. Writing is hard. All writing. This blog post? Difficult. Short stories? Really, really tough. Screen and stage plays? Way painful. Novels? Also not easy. Point is, writing is a challenge. The fun thing about writing – and I use fun both sarcastically and totally in earnest – is that it’s hard in so many different ways.
One of the unique terrors of writing is chipping out the first chapter of your novel, especially if you have any doubt the novel will get published. If you’ve reached the envious position of knowing your next block of words is going to sell, your first chapter might not be terrifying in the same way. I’m pretty sure you can remember what it was like back when it did scare you like this, though, so take a trip down memory lane with me. The rest of you? The ones desperately clawing beside me? Step onto this bipolar writing roller coaster.
Two things are going on in your first chapter. Two things that are in absolute contradiction with each other.
The first thing is simple: You know need to get this stupid novel started now, immediately, without fail. You know you should just get writing, get yourself over the hump and get started. That hump? It’s a serious hump. The wall between a story yet to be written and one with even a few hundred words committed to (electronic) paper is a thick one. (At least it’s always been for me.) Kool-Aid man himself would break against that wall and end up on the floor, seeping cherry sugar water through cracks in his once gleaming body.
Oh. That image was a little disturbing. Kids, you might want to have your parents put you to bed, now.
The first goal of your first chapter is simply to have a first chapter. If you survive getting through that wall, the challenges to come will fall into place before you. So you tell yourself just to write write WRITE and get the train moving before you end up like poor, defeated Kool-Aid man. It’s a fantastic plan, until you remember the other goal of a first chapter.
To write it as if it’s the only thing most people are going to read.
Well, ok, it’s the only thing most people are going to read prior to your selling it. Your first chapter is the only piece of writing you’re guaranteed to send to agents and publishers. The rest of everything you write? The entire golden landscape that stretches before you once you’ve broken down that wall? That’s going to stay on your computer. Meanwhile, you’ll send out the thing you just wrote with your head down so you could feel, finally, like you were writing a novel.
Your first chapter doesn’t just need to be good. It needs to sell your novel singlehandedly. That first line? The one that’s supposed to be awesome? Yeah, it needs to be awesome. And then it needs to be followed by a bunch of other good lines that need to add up to something that grabs a reader by the crotchal region until the decide they absolutely must read the rest of your novel.
Facing your first chapter is simultaneously trying to “just write” while writing something that you can shape into the best possible pitch for everything else you’ll write after it. People will tell you not to worry, that you can always rewrite, that goal one is all you need to concern yourself with for now. Maybe they’re right. That doesn’t mean the second goal, the part where what you’re doing will become your entire novel for dozens of overworked readers, gets out of your head. Oh no. It stays there, and it comments on everything you do. It’s got a foul mouth and a nasty disposition. And it doesn’t like you very much.
So what do you do? If you’re me, you walk a tightrope between two chasms. One one side is freaking out and failing to start the novel at all. On the other is writing a first chapter so incongruous with what I want to do that there’s no way, in any form, that what I’ve written will sell my novel. To some writers, the second thing isn’t a concern. They’re happy to scrap and rewrite anything after the fact. I envy them. Knowing I have to totally scrap something I’ve written is a weight I can’t bear. I need to do it immediately. Writing a first chapter I don’t think is at least roughly in the right shape means I haven’t written the chapter at all. I’ll be tearing it back down the next day. Thus, I need to know what the shape of a sellable first chapter looks like, have a sense of what that chapter should feel like…and then write something that matches that, all while trying to break down the wall between me and being a little less afraid of writing the rest of the book.
It’s enough to drive you a little crazy. Trust me. It’s driven me crazy twice, now. I just hope that when it drives me crazy a third time, it’s not because I’m rewriting what I just did this weekend. I don’t want to end up like Kool-Aid man.