Monday, 4 July 2011

That tricky first chapter

It’s like getting the lede right on a news story: It has to be succinct, draw in the reader, compel us to read the rest of the piece, give us a taste of what is to come without giving it all away. It’s the point from which all else unfolds. It holds the glimmer of intrigue that gets us thinking, keeps our eyes moving over the copy.

It can be the trickiest part of the story; it used to be that reporters were dunned by a pesky copy desk to ‘make it sing,’ ‘make it tighter,’ ‘make it shorter,’ and so on. It could drive a reporter/copy editor nuts.

Writing that first chapter – the one you might be sending to an agent – is just as bad. There’s a proliferation of writing/publishing courses out there and the few I’ve sampled hammer it home: The first chapter has to sell your story; it has to have a punch; it has to be well-written. One instructor mimed an agent shuffling through manuscripts, reading the first sentence or two and throwing the first chapter on the slush pile. Frightening. Is that how they do it? Five seconds with a first chapter and it’s decided?

Then you’d better get it right. And therein lies the problem. What’s right if your work has never been accepted? What will make that five seconds a winner? How can you possibly know? You can’t. You can only hope that the writing – and rewriting – gets your first chapter to a tight, manageable, alluring and exciting read. You have to hope that the point of the story is so tightly wound from the starting point that the rest of the tale unwinds quickly and beautifully – like a fast ball hit by Jays’ slugger Jose Bautista.

There is no magic solution to the first chapter: It’s a shot in the dark. I suppose ‘believe in yourself’ is as good a mantra as any. Show it to friends you trust. Take lots of advice. Don’t be wounded by criticism. Try to be subjective. Stand back and look at your work. And rewrite. Then rewrite it again.