Chapter One by Katy

Katherine Longshore 3 Thursday, November 11, 2010
Does anyone else have this problem?

I don’t outline.  Like Talia, as she mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’m a pantser, not a plotter.  I count myself lucky that I write historical novels, because at least I have a framework already in place.  However structurally unsound it might be.

Instead, I have a fully-formed character, who leaps at me from some cryptic corner of my brain.  Often surprising me in a mundane activity, like chopping vegetables or walking the dog.  Or recently, on a road trip.

This character needs to be heard.  She has a fabulous voice.  Strength.  Integrity.  Flaws.  (oh, heartbreaking flaws!)  And she has a story.  It’s sketched out in history.  But present and tangible and emotional in this fictional avatar (for want of a better word). 

So here’s the problem (you knew I was getting to it, right?).  I sit down at the keyboard.  This character is there on my fingers, ready and eager to dance.  I’m a little sketchy on the sensory details of setting (the palace was torn down in the 18th century.  I need a research trip…) but I can address that in revision. 

What I can’t address first thing, on that page, at that very moment, is that my first chapter bites.  From the first word (the – how boring is that?).  It begins sluggishly and goes downhill.  It is completely bereft of hooks.  Pacing has been thrown out the window.  Nothing advances the plot.  The character loses her voice halfway through. I introduce a character we are bound never to meet again.  I switch tenses.

And that’s the good stuff.

So what do I do?  I whine.  (The Muses nod). I decide on a tense, grit my teeth, lie back and think of chapter two.  I start over.  Twice.  I pull out every research book I own.  I go to the library.  I buy more 3x5 cards.

And then, last Friday, my friend Bret Ballou sent me an e-mail.  And said this:  Ok. Pay attention: WRITE A CRAPPY FIRST CHAPTER. Just do it. And then move on. I give you permission.

And that’s all I needed.  I couldn’t give myself permission to write a crappy first chapter.  And I know, from past experience, that I can’t write a good first chapter until I’ve already been through at least two (OK, five) revisions.  (OK, more like ten).  Sure, it makes me feel wimpy and weirdly dependent, but it gave me the kick in the pants I needed.  I’m now on chapter four. 

So to anybody out there who’s beginning a novel – your first, your second, your tenth – I give your permission to write a crappy first chapter.  Heck, I give you permission to write a crappy first draft.  And if you don’t accept my permission?  Call Bret.  Or read Anne Lamott.  Or go to your writing friends.  We’ll all tell you the same thing.  Muffle the inner critic that says your first chapter bites.  And write.


Nothing wrong with a rubbish first chapter. I do that all the time. :-)

I totally support this post, but with one marked change. Writers, do not, I repeat, do NOT call Bret. If he gets too busy, he won't take my calls... great post, Katy!

I love visiting this website as I always receive great tips and can take comfort in the posts concerning writing struggles. With this post, I will gleefully make off with some of that "permission" to write a bad first chapter.

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