Beginnings or my love/hate relationship with first chapters

When the idea hits, I usually ignore it.  Just like the plants in my flower beds, it has to want to survive.  It has to be strong enough to withstand drought and heat.  When I first started writing, I was afraid I’d lose ideas that flashed into mind if I didn’t write them down.  Now, I snub them.  I tell them I’m busy.  But if one keeps pestering me, wiggling around in my subconscious, starting to take life, hefting on muscle and substance until I can’t ignore it, then it might be big enough to amount to something.  That’s when I jot down its basics on paper.  Then I put it away.

I won’t start a new book until I’ve finished the one I’m working on.  By then, the novel I’m half or three-fourths of the way through isn’t the fun thing it started out to be.  Subplots have piled up.  Minor characters have voiced their opinions, and major characters are cussing me for all the crap I’ve put them through.  The new book, the blank page, beckons.  “Start me and leave those folks behind.  Think of the new things you can do on my pages.”  The lure of the unknown looks good, but it’s just a trick.  Once I’m halfway through its pages, another new idea will call to me.  And if I succumb, I’d never finish a book.  So I write down the idea that won’t go away and push it aside.

Not until I dot my last i and cross my last t, and I’m thoroughly sick of rewrites and polishes on the novel I’ve finally finished, do I pull out my whiz bang idea and let it blossom in my  mind.  Not that it hasn’t been trying on its own.  Random plot points pop into my head at odd times.  Sometimes, I write them down.  Sometimes, I don’t.  How much do they want to be on paper?  Christian, the protagonist of my story, wants more magical powers.  He wants to control fire.  Okay, I can live with that.  Brina, the girl he trips over on the cobblestone street, has a bit of an attitude.  Do I like that?  Yes, she’s started to grow on me.  What really surprises me is that I even like one of the “good” vampires, so now he wants a bigger role.  Will that work?  Sure, why not?  He can be a subplot.  But they all have to hit their cues, once I figure them out.  And that’s the fun part.

I start the first chapter with apprehension and excitement.  Ideas are pinging from all directions.  I know the story’s setting.  I know the inciting incident and the story’s big problem.  I have enough plot points to get from beginning to end.  So I’m ready.  And then the real work starts.  How to bring the story to life?

My writing friends would gladly tell you that I beat first chapters to death.  They’re hard to write.  You have to hook the reader in the first paragraph with….something.  It can be a character.  Your voice.  An incident.  But something has to draw the reader into your imaginary world.  And you have to let the reader know what the book’s big question is, what drives it, pretty early on.  The sooner, the better.  All while creating interesting characters and establishing the book’s setting and tone.  I never get it right the first time…or the second.  I finally get what’s needed on paper and then write on.  Then I go back to it after half a dozen chapters are on paper.  I try again.  I either make it better or worse.  I can never tell.  I write another half dozen chapters and tinker with it again.  I hit three-fourths of the book and realize it’s still not right.  And the whole novel is ready to be wrapped up, and it’s been more work than it promised to be.  For Christian and Brina, more witches crept into the story than I expected.  But I like them.  How do I juggle them with the vampires who showed up and keep them distinct?  Christian’s mother–so nice and so nurturing–works as an anchor.  When did that happen?  Not sure, but it works.  Even Cook wormed her way into the plot.  Not expected, but they all pitch in to solve the book’s big problem, so they can stay.  If I can figure out how to weave them into the book’s big finale.  And that’s when a new idea hits me.  Something wonderful and untried, something that won’t get complicated and give me gray hairs.  But it has to wait its turn.  This story needs finished.  So Christian, Brina, witches, and vampires battle to victory on the final page.  And I look at my problem, first chapter one last time…and of course, it’s not quite right.

For me, that’s the deal with first chapters.  They entice me to write them, insist on coming to life, then give me grief until I finally call the book quits.  First chapters are tricky, slippery things.  But this new one, the one that’s calling to me…that might be a whole, different story.

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