First chapters, angels, whores, and self-appointed gurus

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?


6 thoughts on “First chapters, angels, whores, and self-appointed gurus

  1. It’s probably true that choosing self-publishing does free you from some of the conventions and fashions of contemporary literature – along with the practical need to hook an overwhelmed agent’s or publisher’s reader quickly enough to lift your m/s out of the tottering slush pile. But then, do you need to hook a reader in the short ‘look inside the book’ excerpt on Amazon, for example? I’m not sure. I haven’t used that feature very often to make a buying decision, and when I have it’s been more to check that the writing is good quality.

    My attitude to rules is that many are helpful, a few I don’t agree with, and you have to choose whether and how much to be guided by each one. They can be helpful tools, but it’s probably impossible to slavishly follow all of them anyway, not least because sometime they contradict .
    But if you choose to disregard a rule, I think it’s probably wise to do so knowingly – in other words, you know what that rule’s trying to say, you can see the sense in it, but with this particular book, right now, you think it’s better to play it another way. And if that’s your considered opinion, then by definition it’s the right choice. No-one knows your book better than you, and in the end you have to do what seems right to you – it just might take a long time to get there.


    • Hi Christopher,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      My beef with these so-called rules was centred on backstory, specifically no backstory in chapter one. I’ve seen definitions of backstory that are about as clear as mud (‘the story before the story’ – eh?). I would explain it as that part of someone’s past that precedes the inciting incident in a novel’s story arc. As such I fail to see why backstory shouldn’t appear in chapter one, as long as it contributes some insight into the personalities of the dramatis personae. If it is irrelevant, padding, then yes it should be cut out, but then that applies to any chapter, not just chapter one, and that applies to any writing, not just that part relating to backstory. Relevance is a minefield in itself. A writer may intend relevance that a reader fails to see. Curiously – and I discussed this just yesterday with a friend doing her Masters in Creative Writing – readers sometimes see relevance that a writer had not intended, and that is because we all bring our own search for meaning to the table when we read fiction.


  2. Interesting discussion. As the ‘friend doing her Masters in Creative Writing’, I can say that we are currently being encouraged to experiment as much as possible with our writing. So yes, break the rules, but as Christopher points out, know the rules that you are breaking, and break them for a reason. As you already know of course, you have set yourself a tall order having 6 protagonists! So whose story should start the novel, I guess that is the basic question? Maybe as the title is Judge of the Dead, you should start with the judge? If his first contribution isn’t intriguing enough (and I do believe you have to hook the reader in the first chapter – I often read the first page of a book I’m checking out in a store – it lets me know the quality and style of the writing for one thing, but also, if I’m interested in the character/story, I’ll want to know more) you can re-write it so that it is? Your analogy to listening to a piece of music – yes, often music starts small and builds up, but there is usually still a hook at the beginning, that makes you want to listen to more, especially if it builds and builds. Does your story do that, through the different characters? Or is the reader sent in circles? Do they get confused? Irritated? It’s really hard for you as the writer to spot this, because of course you already know the story, so I think it’s useful to get as many readers to help with this as possible. I’ve certainly learnt from the MA that feedback is essential. In my own case, I am also struggling with the start of the novel. I have written quite a lot of backstory, I’m not sure if I need all of it in the story itself – that’s not what the novel is about, but it does help to flesh out one of the characters. Just started reading ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler. Plenty of food for thought on rules and breaking them in there!


  3. Thanks for replying, Maggie, I know you’re busy. Or at least more accomplished than me at pretending to be.

    I think I answered the rules thing with Christopher, the crux of it being the problem of separating out the real ‘rules’ – constituting (to my mind) rational best practice passed on by people who absolutely know what they’re talking about – from the sort of white noise ‘rules’ posted up by random people on the internet (er, like me) which I need to learn to ignore.

    Start with the judge, hey? I want the first chapter options narrowed down, not expanded. Flipping heck, dear dear, tut tut, what do I pay you for exactly? [Ed – he doesn’t pay her really, not even a bean, the skinflint.]

    I’ll give it some thought, but it’s unlikely. I’d need a very good reason (or substantial bribe) to change the order the chapters are lined up in right now. The judge’s first chapter is probably the most light-hearted of all so I’m reluctant to kick off with that as it would set the tone as comic. It’s not the most gruesome crime novel ever written so I would at least like to open with a bit of darkness.

    I might blog on hooks at a later date so keep your diary free, going Christmas shopping could be risky, you could miss my ‘wot I fink abart hooks’ post and then you’d be sorry.

    Does the reader get sent in circles and get irritated? I don’t know. Are you telling me they do? It’s a risk, of course. It’s a relatively linear plot but switches across six perspectives, so yes, the reader will have to do some work, no doubt about it. No cosy sticking to one character from the off and shouting ‘Yes!’ when they triumph on the last page or ‘Nooooooo!’ when they fail.

    I think there may be more of an argument for pandering to perceived reader expectations if I were approaching agents for traditional publishers, but I’m not, I’m done with that. If I’m going to be an indy author, I can at least write an indy book. Why conform at this stage? Why write yet another slightly different version of crime novels that have gone before, many of which are pretty much the same plot but with different character names and settings? Oh, look, another serial killer, how exciting, never seen that idea before (zzzzzz). I’ve written the book I wanted to write. If readers can’t or don’t want to work with the elements they don’t like, in order to enjoy the elements they do (hopefully, there will be some of the latter), that’s their lookout I’m afraid. I’m not in this for the money so I might as well at least be true to myself. Would I rather have 10 people who ‘really liked’ my book (I should be so lucky eh?) or 50 people who just ‘liked’ it? Probably the former. Once you take money out of the equation, which, let’s face it, really shouldn’t be a reason for writing in the first place, all that is really left of value is the author-reader connection isn’t it? Someone has read what you’ve written and got some degree of enjoyment out of it?


  4. I have four POV myself, (well, three, and my co-writer has the other one) and even though I’m not writing them in first person, that’s just a writing style preference. At the moment I’m writing each of them chronologically. They each have their own story that the reader knows will come together because they’re circling the same (minor) characters. Do I have any idea who I’m starting with? Not at this point. I do know that I want to start the book with the scene/character I find most interesting, and I’m going to give my readers credit for not being gnats with short attention spans. Come on, THEY READ BOOKS, they have proven that they can sit still for a certain amount of time and most of them will give a story a chance to around chapter two (from talking to other readers). I also use Amazon’s “look inside this book” for writing quality and style, not for “the hook”, because the blurb/story is the hook. By the time I’m looking in the book, I already want to buy the book because the story appealed to me. It would have to be some shitty writing to stop me getting it. As a reader, I don’t really care what order characters appear in, as long as each of them are interesting. As a writer, I fuss over my own work. Too much, likely.

    Love the “self appointed guru” comment btw, so true. I’m kind of one of them: my blog explains each step I’m taking while self-publishing my books and the results I get from them… not soap-boxing. (Or so I hope!)


  5. Hi Delia,

    Yeah, I was using ‘hook’ in a loose sort of way, but I think it has a widely accepted definition as a pithy one-line phrase that draws the reader in, and likely to be the first (or last?) sentence of the blurb? I’ll worry more about nailing that down when the time comes.

    I agree with you that by the time I open a page, whether that be in a bookshop or on an e-reader, I probably already want to buy the book. Even a good title can spark my interest, before I’ve even read any cover blurb. I bought Murakami’s ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ on the name alone, and have never regretted it for even a second.

    You say you plan to start with the scene or character you find most interesting, which makes sense on the face of it, although there is a counter-argument that once you start with the most interesting scene you’re putting pressure on yourself to either maintain that interest all the way through, or at least to let the reader down gently. If you’re going to have lulls, and I’d argue lulls are necessary, even in thrillers, then they need to be well-written, interesting lulls. I suspect most writers would admit that out of beginning, end and middle, they struggle with the middle. There is an inherent danger of middle part sag, which is not surprising as inciting incidents and denouements are almost by definition going to be more interesting or exciting than the journey from the former to the latter.

    I’m not quite sure whether you were implying you are writing one character from beginning to end, and then switching to writing another character and dropping their sections into the story at the appropriate points? If you’re using a third person narrator I would have thought you could just write through from beginning to end, flicking focus from one character to the next, but maybe that’s what you are doing and I’ve misunderstood. Maybe you’re talking about plotting rather than writing? Anyway, I wish you inspiration with it. I find it always arrives if you sit there and start tapping away at the keyboard. Touch wood, I’ve never had writer’s block yet. Obstacles yes, but solutions have always presented themselves if I’ve put my mind to it.


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