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Craft of Writing, Fiction, The Writer's Life

First Chapters

Ask me what I’m reading these days and I’ll tell you, “First chapters.” That’s not the title of a book—I’m reading the first chapters of some of the books on my favorites shelf. Often, not even the entire first chapter, but the first few pages.

Since the move from Michigan to Washington took over a month (and maybe I should write a book about incompetent movers and Draconian mortgage lenders), I wasn’t able to work on my latest novel attempt. After all that time away from the ms I figured I’d better go back to the beginning, and reorient myself into the story.

It wasn’t quite what I remembered.

The first chapter was beautifully written; it was profound in places… and it was kind of boring.

This is what the people in my former critique group told me, but of course I wouldn’t listen. It’s also what an agent who judged a contest I recently entered wrote about it.

So I’m reading first chapters of successful books, trying to absorb how the writers established their stories and characters, while creating desire in the reader to know more about them. As I’ve read so many times before, a writer has only a few pages to entice a reader, or an agent, never mind how good the story turns out to be later. It’s a product of our instant gratification culture, but it’s what we’ve got, so I’ll have to adjust.

I’m seeing aspects that never registered before. I just reread chapter one of Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. I remember that novel as a fascinating exploration into the workings of the brain. But the first chapter started with a flock of cranes, an auto accident, and a sister desperately trying to reach her injured brother.

Even that intellectual giant, Umberto Eco, found a way to pull his reader into an extremely complex story, by having two children explain the science in chapter one of Focault’s Pendulum, so that even the most naïve reader could understand it.

I’ve always shied away from what I see as overused tropes to begin a story, the ones that, to me, border on the sentimental or gimmicky. When I start a story in medias res, I go all the way—I don’t fool around with backstory and explanations. But that can leave readers ungrounded. Maybe I could find a compromise in technique.

Maybe, finally, I’ll get the need for a more engaging pull into my head.

Maybe the time away from writing was a good thing.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “First Chapters

  1. If you really want to perform an experiment in reading only first chapters, you should re-read Italo Calvino’s book “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.” As you may recall if you’ve seen it already, it’s a book composed ONLY of first chapters. I love it and think it’s a hoot. I’m glad you’ve gotten re-settled and are able now to work on your novel. If it’s anything like your stories when you finish, it’ll be great to read. Happy housewarming!

    Posted by shadowoperator | July 12, 2014, 5:46 PM
    • Thanks Victoria. “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller” is one of my faves. I’ll definitely pull it out and reread (if I can find it—my cataloging system has been annihilated by the move).

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | July 14, 2014, 5:04 AM
  2. Sounds like an excellent idea. One of the best first chapters I ever read was Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Scary good beginning there.

    Posted by girl in the hat | July 13, 2014, 5:28 AM
    • Despite the fact that Ian McEwan stole an idea of mine for a novel (actually he had it separately, but still), I will take a look. Thanks Anna.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | July 14, 2014, 5:05 AM
  3. I loved the first chapter of The Face Thief by Eli Gottlieb. Not the rest of the book so much, unfortunately, but as first chapters go, his definitely grabbed me.

    Posted by Averil Dean | July 13, 2014, 12:51 PM
  4. Just started reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Very interesting first chapter!

    Posted by miriamagosto | July 15, 2014, 4:04 AM
  5. You are spot on. The time away from writing, which always makes me feel anxious at first, always ends up being a good thing for me. It’s so hard to see clearly when I’m buried in it day after day.

    Posted by Teri | July 17, 2014, 6:39 PM
    • The good news is that a lot of the writing (after the first chapter that is) still seems engaging. This one does have promise, I think.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | July 17, 2014, 7:06 PM
  6. I’m all for time away from writing. It’s a gift. It helps a writer return to a piece with fresh eyes and a new perspective. I’d say give that hybrid model you’re toying with a try. If it doesn’t work, you can always rewrite it! Hope Washington’s treating you well.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | July 19, 2014, 10:14 AM
  7. Washington’s been great so far. And I’m pretty much done reviewing the WIP, which means it’s time to get serious about continuing the work. Where to take my characters next…? I hope they tell me soon.

    Posted by Joe Ponepinto | July 19, 2014, 2:13 PM
  8. Hi Joe, reading all those first chapters sounds like a really great exercise. I should do that myself.

    I have a question about a comment you made at the end of the post: where do you think this aversion to being potentially sentimental or gimmicky is coming from? Who is it you perceive being unimpressed or distanced from the story by such devices? Is it a reader, a critic, yourself the author, or other writers? What’s the specific problem if you make a mistake and veer into sentimentality?

    (By that question, I’m not implying that you should deliberately do something gimmicky on page one. It just sounds like those two terms you mentioned are covering an awful lot of territory. That’s what leapt out to me reading the blog post.)

    (Add Haruki Murakami to the reading list of first chapters? Several of his stories and novels, for instance, begin with or quickly introduce very obvious “storytelling” devices, and those devices always seem, at least to me, to work really well.)

    Posted by Daniel | August 1, 2014, 1:02 PM
    • Hi Daniel. The voices of my mentors echo through my head whenever the idea of sentimentality hovers too close to the page. The sentimental, the gimmicky, to me is cheap, or as one of my mentors put it, “unearned.” Blatant case in point: I just watched the movie “Gravity,” with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. It was given four stars and had some academy award nominations, so I thought it was going to be good. Right off the bat the Bullock character blurts out that her four-year-old daughter died. Awww. Now we are supposed to feel sorry for her, even though we really don’t know anything about her. Let’s find out what stakes she faces and whether she can handle them before we make that judgment. Granted, Hollywood movies are aimed at the maturity of 12-year-olds, but the same analysis applies to fiction. To ensure success in publishing these days, it seems authors (especially new authors) must instantly tug at the heart strings of readers who won’t (or can’t) give characters the time to develop.

      Makes me wonder when a successful author uses such appeals in his/her writing, if it was a conscious move or not. And if conscious, whether having done so bothers them, and makes them think they’ve caved to pressure from the market.

      I have one of Murakami’s novels around here somewhere. I will try to find it.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 1, 2014, 2:52 PM

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