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First chapters

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For me, the first chapter of a book is nearly always the hardest part to write. So much so that I sometimes leave it till last.

The first chapter has to grab people straight away. It has to introduce them to the main characters and give them some sense of what the story is going to be about. It has to intrigue them, so they want to keep reading.  That’s hard enough with a stand-alone novel, but with a series it becomes even harder, because there’s a whole lot of back story that needs to be fitted in somewhere.

I know The Rogues Book #2 needs to start with Duckling, because she’s the central character for the whole series – though Pummel comes a close second. But what I’ve got in Chapter 1 at the moment is a horrible mishmash that isn’t the least bit interesting.  It’s certainly not enough to keep people reading.

This has been annoying me all week.  But yesterday I was reminded of some questions that definitely help:

‘What does Duckling want? What does she want desperately? What does she need? What’s standing in the way of her getting it?’

Every good story has a central question. What does your main character need more than anything else in the world, and what’s standing in their way? This is what drives the action. This is what grabs hold of the reader and keeps them reading late into the night.

I know exactly what Duckling wants at the beginning of Book #2. And there are a whole lot of things standing in her way – some she knows about, some haven’t appeared yet.  But this at last gives me a focus for that first chapter.

Meanwhile, the days are getting colder in Lauderdale – and Harry is doing situps in front of the fire.

Onward!


12 Responses to “First chapters”

  1. Shakira says:

    Hi!
    I love writing and have started many stories but I always end up thinking they are no good and abandoning them. I never get very far into it because I can never get the start right.

    I’ve tried doing the ‘Once upon a time…’ thing and just started in the middle of something. The story I’m trying to right now starts with ‘Amy sat by her window and looked out towards the bay.’ It’s about a princess that has to go into hiding by living on the streets because there is a plot to kill her, but when the assassins find her gone, they imprison the king and queen and take over the throne. So she has to keep living on the streets, trying to free her parents and stuff. Also she learns magic and is given a ‘street name’

    Anyway, I’m getting off topic. The next bit of the intro is the king’s adviser telling her about the plot and getting her ready to be out on the streets, but that’s where it’s gotten really boring. It’s pretty much ‘blah blah blah,’ the adviser said. Amy blah blah blamed as she said ‘blah blah blah,’

    Any tips on how to start?
    Thanks in advance, Shakira

    • Shakira says:

      Blahed not blamed, sorry.

    • Lian says:

      Firstly, the start of a story is one of the hardest parts – I quite often don’t write the start until I’ve finished everything else. So it’s a good idea to start in the middle or wherever else you feel like. I love the sound of your Amy story – great idea for a plot, and lots of conflict. Plus she is going to have to change a lot to achieve her goals.

      But don’t worry if the story isn’t sounding good at this stage. My first drafts are always AWFUL. Honestly, they are nothing like the finished book. That’s because the first draft is my play draft or my experimental draft. I pretty much write whatever comes into my head in that first draft, because I’m trying to find out where the story goes. And I’m also writing fairly freely to give my unconscious mind a chance to play. It’s when I come to the second draft (and the third and the fourth and the fifth) that I start making sense of things. That’s where I look at scenes where everything is just blah blah blah, and change them.

      But there’s something you can do to improve your scenes right from the start. That is, ask yourself ‘Where is the conflict in this scene? What does this person want and how badly do they want it? What will happen if they don’t get it?’ A scene has to have conflict – that’s the core of all good fiction. And I don’t mean just an argument. Conflict might be e.g. the adviser wants to get Amy out of the castle, but he wants to her to go to a particular place, maybe somewhere safe where he can keep her under control. So how is Amy reacting to this? What does she want? Maybe she is suspicious of the adviser. Maybe she doesn’t want him to know what she intends to do. So she is saying one thing but intending to do something completely different. Or maybe she is disagreeing with him out loud. Or refusing to listen to him. Maybe she is packing, while he is trying to persuade her to travel light. Or maybe he’s packing all these things she doesn’t need, and she wants to go with just a clean pair of knickers and nothing else. So – conflict.

      You see how any of these possibilities immediately make the scene more interesting? There is conflict in every scene. And at the end of every scene, one of those people has won. If the adviser wins, Amy goes out into the streets with three suitcases. Or she goes to stay with the adviser’s mother, who can also not be trusted. If Amy wins, we get a completely different outcome to the scene. And whatever happens, whoever wins, it sends us into the next scene.

      I hope that makes sense! If you have a look at the page “Hints for young authors” you might find some more on this topic. Good luck with the story, and remember to play in the first draft.

  2. Shakira says:

    Thanks so much! I think I’ll have it so Amy is trying to take a heap of luxury thing and the adviser is tryin to stop her. She ends up taking the stuff but when she’s out on the streets it gets stolen.
    I read that you don’t read other people’s work but do you know who I could ask to proof-read my drafts? My parents will just say it’s good even if it isn’t and my sister will say it’s bad even if it’s good. My friends don’t really like this type of book so I don’t know if I should get them to do it.
    Also would you count it as copying if the type of magic she learns is music based. Do example if she wants to conjure fire she hums/sings/plays a fast, aggressive type song?

    • Lian says:

      I think that’s a good solution if she is trying to take a lot of stuff and the adviser is trying to stop her. That allows for plenty of conflict.

      Trying to find someone to read your work is difficult, isn’t it. Parents and siblings are no good, for the reasons you said. And friends are a bit hopeless too, because they’ll probably say it’s good, no matter what they think of it. But you don’t want anyone to read your first couple of drafts, because that’s where you’re experimenting, and you want to keep it private. The best thing is to write several drafts (with a couple of weeks between each one), then put it away for maybe a month so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Time is a really useful tool when you’re writing. When I’ve just finished a story, and I read it through, I always think it’s either really good or terrible. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle, but I can’t see that until I’ve got some distance from it. So I always put my stories away for a little while when I finish them, then come back and read them again. Then I can usually see ways of improving them.

      Offhand, I can’t think of anyone you could send your work to. But I’ll keep thinking about it and if I come up with something I’ll leave a note here. Check back every now and again. Just in case.

      No, I wouldn’t count it as copying. When you’re starting out as a writer, it’s fine to borrow ideas from people. But it’s also a good idea to change them so they become your own ideas. In fact we all do that all the time. It’s when you write exactly the same thing that it becomes copying.

      • Lian says:

        Do you have a teacher you could ask to read it? If you explained that you really wanted to improve your writing, and asked for serious feedback, that could be helpful.

  3. Shakira says:

    Thanks again.
    I think I could ask my English teacher but I’m not sure if she would have time to read it.
    I borrowed Icebreaker and Path of Beasts from the library today and what I’ve read so far is really good. Thankyou for sharing your creative genius with everyone!

  4. Shakira says:

    I know you don’t read people’s work but how about just a first few sentences? They’re the start of a different story and I’m not sure if they really ‘flow’ or intrigue the reader enough.
    Carts trundled up the cobblestones street, the horses and donkeys treading carefully on the icy road. Winter peered around the corner of the baker’s shop, brushing her snow white hair out of her eyes. The smell of fresh baked bread drifted over to her on the wind as the bakery door opened. She walked inside as her stomach grumbled.

    ~Shakira

    • Lian says:

      I really like this, Shakira. You have set up the atmosphere right away, and we get some sense of the setting, because there are cobblestones and horses and donkeys rather than cars. And of course we also get a sense of the time of year. The only thing I would say is, beware of using too many adjectives. Adjectives tend to weaken our writing rather than strengthening it. Verbs and nouns are the engine room of writing. Don’t worry about this in your early drafts, but it’s something to think about when you go back to edit your work.

  5. Shakira says:

    Thanks for the advice. Reading back through it I can see that there are a lot of adjectives: cobblestoned, icy, snow white, fresh baked. It sounds a little bit repetitive.
    Just from reading your website and the few replies I’ve had from you, I think my writing has already gotten a bit better. Thanks!

    • Lian says:

      You’re welcome!

      P.S. Do you read your work aloud? To yourself? That’s a really good tool, and I always do it to pick up where things sound a bit clunky or repetitive, or where I’ve overused adjectives and adverbs. Part of learning to write is educating your ear, so you pick up things like this.

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