On First Chapters

Today is the last day of the Fall 2013 semester at Ball State University, and my last day as an M.A. student. Graduation is tomorrow, but having put my friends and family through that rigamarole once for my B.A. back in 2010, I didn’t feel much need to go through it all over again. (Plus purchasing master’s regalia through BSU costs $90.37, yeah, no thanks. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent enough money on my degrees.)

Anyway, as this chapter of my life closes, I’m thinking about beginnings. Book beginnings, to be precise.

This past semester I took a fiction class with Cathy Day on linked stories or the short story cycle. In most graduate creative writing courses, students produce short stories because–well, they’re short. In a class that lasts only a few months, you don’t have time to write something long, let alone get it workshopped by your peers. This natural tendency toward the short in creative writing classes means that long-form fiction often gets ignored or pushed by the wayside. Cathy’s solution was thus: write several short stories, but link them in some way–via recurring characters, setting, theme, what-have-you. The result being that, while you’ve still been writing short stories, you’ve also been learning something about how to write longer fiction.

Out of this course came the beginnings of a multiple point-of-view novel for me. (Think Game of Thrones, for example. Several characters, with each chapter devoted to one character’s viewpoint.) In workshopping my piece, though, my readers kept encountering a big problem: they didn’t know what the heck was going on in the first chapter.

Here was the problem: my point-of-view character for this first chapter was a woman on her deathbed. She was confused and disoriented, and as such, this first chapter was confusing and disorienting for my readers. Not a good way to start a book. So, here are a few of the things I learned not to do in a first chapter.

1. Don’t assume too much. The story was all there, in my head, and if the readers just stayed with me they’d get it too, right? Wrong. If you’re telling a story, just tell the story. Don’t skirt around it assuming readers will pick up on all the hints. I expected my readers to pick up on the backstory without me having to tell them about it.

2. Don’t try to build all your suspense through mystery. I didn’t want to give too much away in my first chapter because I wanted to give the readers a reason to keep reading. Well, they’re not going to keep reading if they have no idea what’s going on and can’t relate to the characters. A little mystery is good; too much is frustrating.

3. Don’t throw characters’ names around without introducing them properly. This falls in line with assuming too much. I expected readers to pick up on who all these people were through the characters’ conversations. Heck with that. If Martin is Mary’s husband, just say it.

4. Don’t be afraid of interiority. I think reading too much Hemingway has made me guilty of this. I mean, his story “Hills Like White Elepehants” is pretty much just dialogue and action. We almost never get inside the characters’ heads. But just because Hemingway got away with it doesn’t mean you can or should. Get inside their heads and walk around and don’t be afraid to tell the reader what you find there.

Okay, so those are a few of my takeaways from workshopping my first chapter. Do you have any other suggestions? Mistakes you’ve made in your opening chapters or scenes?