Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Writer's Wednesday : : First Chapters

Anne McAllister has written 63 books. But every time she faces the page that says "Chapter One" at the top, she feels what she hopes is only momentary panic. After writing this blog piece, she's happy to report she's not alone.

Some first chapters simply take off. The right words appear as if by magic, the voice is there, and it’s clear sailing -- at least until you hit the middle of the book doldrums. But that's another story.

Some books are deceptive. Unless they are extremely cooperative, it's initially often hard to tell what s
ort of book you've got on your hands until you sit down and get to work.

Sit down and work.

Ah, yes, there’s the hard part.

Because frankly, sometimes it’s getting into the chair that’s the real challenge. There is always that little voice whispering in your ear, What if you’re there, sitting, primed to write -- and nothing happens?

As I’m still circling the chair, I thought I’d see what some other authors had to say about first chapters so I could share it with you.

I, for one, loved hearing how other authors felt. Perhaps misery really does love company.

I was immediately heartened by the ever practical Sophie Weston who said, “I don't think it m
atters how you start, it's only a runway to take off from. The last thing I write, always, is the real first chapter, after I've finished all the drafting stages and I know the tone and the little unobtrusive clues I need to plant.”

Rita winner, M
arion Lennox, texting from her cell phone amid bush fires in Australia, concurred -- well, sort of -- when she wrote: “I rewrite my page one almost every time i sit down to write. Its almost a pre writing exercise now. I figure i have page one to sell the book. My publisher writes the blurb arbitrates on title and organises cover art so the only hook i have absolute control over is page one. Call me obsessive, but my theory is no hook no sale. So, yes, I obsess.”

And another Rita winner, Liz Fielding said, “When approaching the first chapter of a new book my head is swilling around with all the backstory I have for the characters who are about to walk onto the page. I desperately want to tell the reader all this stuff so that she'll know why they do the things they do, but I know it must wait. As my romantic novelist heroine, Molly Blake put it so succinctly in her Workshop Notes: ‘Begin your story at a moment of crisis, a point in time when your character's life is about to change for ever.’”

Liz made a good point when she offered the reminder, “The first chapter isn't the plac
e to tell the reader who your heroine is. It's the moment to let her show who she is and I know that if I start with a big scene, plenty of action, the rest will follow.”

Historical author Anne Gracie, currently just sticking her toes in a new book, wrote, “Sometimes the way I start a book is like someone prowling endlessly around the edge of a pool, studying the various angles until I see the one I think will do what I want it to, and then I jump in.

“More often,” she added, “I write one beginning, then I write another and another, until the chemistry starts to happen, and I go with that. And very rarely, I wake with the opening unrolling in my head like a movie. Then I scrawl it out in the notebook I keep by the bed. That's what happened with my last book, His Captive Lady, and the rest of the book flowed from that.”

Whether it initially ‘flowed’ or not, this year’s RNA prize winner, India Grey, obviously did something right. But lest you think writing the winning Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire’s Pleasure was easy-peasy, India said, “My take on first pages is that I utterly loathe writing them. I think it's some deep psychological condition that is probably all tied up with commitment and failure and all those demons lurking inside, but even whenever I start a new notebook I can't write anything on the first page!!”

Like Sophie, she sees her beginnings as simply a jumping-off place. “I've come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with the first page of the first draft is to make it look temporary,” she wrote. “For me this means changing the font colour to blue (which is my own personal code for 'change-this-later-because-frankly-it's-rubbish') and only then can I get something down and allow myself move on.”

Sandra Marton, whose July Presents, Billionaire Price, Pregnant Mistress will launch the new continuity series, The House of Karedes, thought of things in terms of romance when she said, “A first chapter is like a first date. A first date that's also a blind date. You've been thinking about it for a while, you've been imagining what it'll be like, you have a pretty good feel for where you're going and what you'll do when you get there... but until it happens, you can't be certain of anything. All you can do is hope for the best!”

I caught Kate Walker on her way to Wales to teach novel writing at Fishguard.

Ever willing to help, Kate instantly wrote back, “I need to see the first scene of a book inside my head before I can start to
write that important first chapter. It's a very visual thing. Sometimes I know exactly why things are happening and at other times not. For Cordero's Forced Bride I knew exactly why Alexa was arriving at the Cathedral in Seville and what was going to happen as a result. For my next book, Kept for Her Baby, I just had a very clear image of my heroine, Lucy, sneaking onto the hero's private island under cover of darkness. Then I had to find out exactly what she was doing there!”

The very vis
ual part resonated with Robyn Donald, too. She said, “Usually I start that first chapter with nothing more than two names, a physical description of my heroine and hero, and a place. Also, more often than not, a house. The names and descriptions can change during the actual writing as I get to know the characters better, but the place and the house, never. They fire my imagination and ground me and my characters.

"In fact, scenery and houses are another form of characterisation for me," she said. "It does help if I have a good source of tension - aka the conflict - bu
t that often is sketchy at best when I start and again, I find out more about it as I get to know the characters. As for what compels me to start - I get itchy fingers. Literally.”

So here I am, wishing my fingers were itching – literally.

They're not. But with all this moral support I’m confident that something – albeit temporary – will happen today when I write “Chapter One” at the top of the page and Demetrios and Anny meet.

If you're a writer, what is the first chapter like for you? If you're a reader, what gets you turning the pages? Inquiring minds want to know!

Anne is celebrating the new look and re-launch of her website this week. She'd love to see you there.

So stop by for a visit and, if you've a mind to, enter the contest to win a goody box with a variety of Anne's books -- including her brand-new April Presents (May HM&B Modern), Savas' Defiant Mistress.

She'll also be inclu
ding other writers' books (including those of some of the above wise women), a little chocolate, and a few other good things.


  1. Oh thanks for this Anne! It's so good to know that I'm not alone in my Chapter 1 phobia. It's interesting how both Kate and Robyn have a visual idea of what they want to write, and hearing them describe that makes me realise that's how it often is for me too. But finding the words to pin down that ethereal vision sometimes seems impossible! I'm also like Liz in that I want to spill everything right away, and it's a case of resisting that temptation.

    But as everyone says, it's just a case of getting started, and once the screen is no longer blank that's the first hurdle dealt with. (Which just leaves another 50thousand or so to get over...)

  2. Definitely not alone, India! I sometimes find that I have a place that is significant, too. But other times, because I'm more auditory than visual, the place is less of an issue. But I do want everyone to understand, like you and Liz, what my heroine and hero's issues are RIGHT AWAY. It's hard to pace -- and space -- everything out.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing all this great stuff, Anne. It all rang the been-there-done-it-that-way bells loud and clear for me, although I've yet to try changing the font colour, India. Next week when I'm prowling the pool, working up the blind date, visualing the setting and that opening scene, I might just try that!

  4. I'm thinking the changing font color might have a salutary effect, Liz. India may be onto something. Certainly it beats my xxxxxxx marking around passages I know are, er, less than brilliant, but will have to do to get me across the quicksand until I can figure out how to build a sturdy bridge!