Self-appointed gurus. The internet is full of them. Even WordPress seems full of them. They’ve got advice and want to give it to you. Maybe it’s just the medium, but communication seems to be all one-way these days. Nobody asks each other anything. They tell them how it is. No ‘What do you think?’. No, it’s all top ten things you must do, top five things you mustn’t do, top seven…come on, at least make it lucky seven, to give me some shred of hope it might change my life for the better. So, forgive the old-school tone of this post. It won’t deal in certainties, but doubts. I may even throw in a question, just to see what you think (like what people used to do). Don’t get me wrong, the ability to communicate with like minds across the globe revolutionises our lives in a positive way, but we don’t have to be so damned didactic in our dealings with each other, do we?
My irritation is only worsened by the fact that one of these top ten ‘For the Almighty’s sake don’t do this’ lists has got me wondering about my first chapter again; wondering, again, about moving another chapter to the front instead. Am I displaying a sign of weakness here? I bet that’s on a top ten list somewhere. DON’T write anything that might make a potential reader doubt you know what you’re doing. But that ignores the fact that while a chronological story can only have one form, beginning to end, there are innumerable ways to cut the story up into bits and re-arrange it again as entertainment. There is no right answer.
Some background on my novel. It’s a crime novel. Kind of. It has six ‘protagonists’ (each also antagonists), each with four chapters in which to tell their side of the story in first-person point of view (before they all come together for the final chapter). Yes, you understood that right: six first-person narrators. It’s the sort of thing a writer shouldn’t be handling unless he’s David Mitchell or whoever, and even then probably not. It’s dynamite, either in a blow yourself to smithereens sense, or a here’s a cheque for a million pounds sense. The smart money, down to every last coin, is on the former.
Why am I talking about this? Because there are potentially different ways of beginning the novel. Character A could kick it off. Any of them could, and not even with their first chapter in a chronological sense. The first chapter I wrote, originally half the length and in a different tense, was for a creative writing exercise for uni. A young lad has just been let out of prison and begins his hunt for the grass that got him sent down. You might expect that first seed of a story to have grown into chapter one of my novel. No. It’s chapter sixteen. I think it was some kind of exercise on in medias res (starting a story in the middle of the action). As such it ought to be the first chapter, before I rewind the clock in chapter two, much as you might see in a film (crash bang wallop…’four years earlier’…), but I’ve played about with its positioning and eventually settled on its largely chronological place in the story, sixteen chapters in. However, it remains an option to move it to the front.
Why would I want to, considering it sits nicely back where it is? Because of the accepted wisdom that one needs to hook the potential reader, right from the very first second they stare at the page. How could anyone argue with that? You see, that’s where Austen screwed up with her ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ baloney. There is no place for a phrase like that other than in a list of top ten things you must do (or not do). It’s no way to hook a novel reader. Okay, that was a bad example to unleash my sarcasm upon. Pride and Prejudice could be improved by opening with Elizabeth Bennet being found naked next to a canal, her entrails being eaten by Carrion Crows (before they’re chased away by the SOCOs), and an estimated time of death between, well, you get the picture. But my question remains: why does every novel have to grab you by the short and curlies right from the off? I can quite happily listen to music that builds slowly toward a climax. If it can apply to music, why not literature? Sure, you can’t open with crap writing, there needs to be some sort of sense of quality, and the voice needs not to be off-putting (I nearly bailed out of Cloud Atlas early on), but if the cover blurb is right, if you’ve sold the concept before the reader even turns the first page, they should be on-board, prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride, content that at some point it will all be worth the investment, shouldn’t they?
Okay, so to re-cap, we’ve got six first-person narrators, plus a refusal to have a dead body on page one and the police with a serial killer on their hands by page two (no wonder I haven’t got an agent eh?). Let’s leave the ex-con in chapter sixteen where he was. What are the alternatives? In pole position (no dancing pun intended) currently lies the escort girl, who gets roughed up a bit at chapter’s end (don’t worry, she’s a tough cookie). Is this going to put female readers off? I’ve been over and over this in my mind and I fear the answer is, yes, some. But then if I move it back to chapter two, it’s still there. It’s not gratuitous, it’s part of the story, but only I can know that for sure without revealing how I wrote the book. I want it in, and maybe sometimes you have to decide that for the sake of the integrity of the story you are going to have to accept losing some potential readers along the way, readers that may include some familiar with Freud, thinking: ‘There’s the whore, where’s the angel?’
That brings me to the remaining viable option as chapter one narrator, the other main female character: the ‘angel’. She’s the one I want to win and you possibly would too. But here’s the thing: she doesn’t get to begin to tell her side of things until chapter six. Why does that matter? Well, it might not, but I think there is more of that lovely accepted wisdom out there, that you need to identify your goodie from the beginning, so the reader can latch onto them, get behind them, become them in their minds. This argument does have its merits. If we say that generally most people are good by nature, and that most readers quickly seek to identify and then become the protagonist in their heads (especially so in first-person POV), then to avoid disturbing this good reader by making them live inside a bad character’s head, we generally get spoon-fed a goodie-protagonist we are comfortable being for the next few hundred pages (hopefully nobody really wants to be Humbert Humbert, the paedophile in Nabokov’s Lolita, charming though he may be). As sensible as it may be to load my goodie into chapter one, show her inciting incident, invite the reader to step inside her head, isn’t this just a bit too formulaic? This is the hero(ine), all I really need to do is guess whether Sean is going to give her a Hollywood ending, or not; that’s it. It’s too easy, yet it’s textbook (and for good reason). I can imagine an editor saying ‘Look, you’ve got to open with her, it’s the rules.’
Well, I don’t like rules. I don’t like being told how to write. Surely it’s a recipe for the death of originality? I want a reader to absorb chapter one and think ‘Yeah, I could get behind this person’, but then feel the same during chapter two, chapter three, and then eventually for some backing away to kick in: ‘Hmm, I’m not sure about this guy after all, and this woman, I had her pegged all wrong from the start.’ I want ambiguity, uncertainty in there, for as long as possible. Actually what I really want is for different readers to root for different characters for different reasons, mirroring how we root for people in real life: because they’re funny, or successful, or kind, or unlucky in love, or whatever. This, to my mind, should preclude moving my ‘angel’ to chapter one, yet an editor probably would.
I thought I was past all this when I decided I was done with approaching agents; with sending the first three chapters. During that phase I’d decided that chapter three was pretty funny, enough to put a smile on the face of an agent, and providing a counterpoint to the underworld London of chapters one and two, so it needed to be ‘in’, which meant I needed to keep the front three as they were (and are); not move either chapter sixteen or six to the front. That never sat right with me, thinking about organising the chapters tactically, to help sway a third party, rather than them just be ordered how I felt best. But despite removing agents from the equation, there remains a tension between what I want and believe in, what I think readers want, and what I think an editor wants, and it’s hard to arrive at the answer, if indeed there is such a thing. You tell yourself you’re not going to listen to the little voices in your head, but then you turn on your computer, and there are the gurus, and the top ten things you absolutely must not do, and when some of that advice is from people with things called ‘qualifications’ and ‘experience’, you really have to be quite resilient not to cave in to it all, and just trust your own instincts.
Oh, I dunno. What do you think?