Today, I would like to talk about what I call "First Chapter Syndrome." This might already be a term coined by a smart person who has done actual research. My research comes from experience and the woes I've heard from fellow writers who can't move past that first chapter. The first chapter is hard. It's excruciating. It bleeds you dry. Let me tell you a little secret.
It took me six years to perfect my first chapter.
I know, I know! I've since realized things. I'm always realizing things, aren't I? That is why I'm a huge proponent of "Do everything wrong at first so that afterward you can do everything right." For instance: The way I wrote my first draft of The Trace? Totally wrong. But that's a discussion for a future blog post. *Makes mental note to self.*
Here are three (and only three!) of the things I have learned that prevent writers from succeeding in that first chapter.
If I can't hook readers within the first chapter, I'm a failure as a writer.
As my mom says, "If there ain't a dead body on the first page, I'm not interested." This is something I'm still grappling with. The stubborn part of me says, "It's not my fault we live in a world of instant-gratification. It's not my fault if people don't feel like reading a few chapters before they get hooked. I've fallen in love with books that had slow beginnings. If I had to force myself through the first twenty pages of Great Novel, so should everyone else when it comes to reading my book!"
Stubbornness has its place and benefits. Some books can afford to hook readers so subtly that fifty pages pass before the reader realizes that all she had meant to do was take the book off the library shelf and skim the first chapter. Those books are wonderful. They catch us by surprise. But for me, a new author who is aiming for young adults who are constantly being bombarded by 9,503 things, slow and steady won't win the race. I have to dive in. I can't spend the first chapter in the middle of a conversation with Mr. & Mrs. Kepler about how sad they are that Ella is leaving for college (yes, that's really how it was). Firstly, that's not what my book is about. Secondly, that's boring. And depressing. Who wants to read that?
Then there's the bold mindset. I could begin with, "My name is Ella Kepler, and I just killed three people. Keep reading if you want to find out how." Again, this approach works for some. It is necessary and exciting for many books. But not for mine.
Here's what I've learned: Don't be afraid to divulge a little. Don't be afraid to withhold a little. Don't be afraid to scratch your entire first chapter and start over. Don't be afraid if people aren't immediately interested; but, if they're 50 pages in and still bored, you might want to ask yourself "why?" Don't be afraid to write a first chapter that you want to write.
This isn't good enough, is it? This is what is going to introduce me as a writer! This is how I will be forever remembered! I must rewrite it. Oh, hey, I like this new first chapter. But wait...is it actually good? What if I'm the only person who thinks this is good? I must rewrite it.
I don't know how many times I have to pound this into my head: Trust. Yourself. As. A. Writer.
Doubt and fear are closely related. But you can't doubt yourself as a writer. You really can't. Readers will see right through you and think, "If you're not confident in your ability to tell me a story, why should I be confident that I'm going to like what you've written?" I've realized that when a person decides to read a book, she is entrusting herself entirely to the author. She is saying, "I trust that you are going to glide me through this story and answer all my questions." Pretty intimidating, right? That's why we authors have to trust that we know what we're doing. Even if we don't.
Don't mistake me for some doubt-free, carefree writer. Absolutely not. I doubt myself all the time. I cringe when people read The Trace. I want to rip my book out of people's hands and shout I WAS JOKING, IT WAS ALL A JOKE, PLEASE DON'T THINK I WAS BEING SERIOUS ABOUT WRITING THIS. But that's bad. It makes people give me weird looks. It proves that I don't take my craft seriously.
So, trust yourself. And your readers. When you spend a week writing one sentence because you don't think anyone will understand what you're saying, move to the next sentence and trust that your readers will get you. If they don't, rewrite the sentence. And keep calm and write on.
3. The "Whole Picture" Problem
If I don't get the first chapter right, the rest of the book is ruined. It must be perfect.
This one isn't necessarily bad. But it isn't necessarily good, either. It relates to doubt. This might be the biggest thing that I struggled with, because I was convinced that one misplaced word was going to ruin the entire trilogy. I told myself that I was being smart by being so concerned—that I had an excuse to rewrite the first chapter so many times, since it is only reasonable that I'd want the book to start out okay. But what ended up happening was that I told myself I was probably going to have to rewrite whatever version of the first chapter I was currently writing, so I never got invested in what I was writing, and I didn't write anything worthwhile.
Problem numero uno: writing with the mindset of "Oh, I'm just going to end up deleting this, so I won't try very hard to make it sound good."
Quaestio numero duo: trying to write in Latin. And also trying so hard to write a first chapter that I never sat back and thought, "Okay, what do I really want my first chapter to look like?"
Look, guys. I'm no expert here. But we need to stop worrying so much about pleasing every reader and first worry about pleasing ourselves. Because if we're not pleased, readers definitely won't be. And then the whole wide world will explode and combust into nothingness.
Nothingness. I like that word. "Everything was nothingness."
Commence caput unum