Round Robin – Does getting the First Chapter Right Mess Up the Rest of the Book?

This month’s topic is the first post of the fifth year of Round Robins and has been suggested by Skye Taylor:

Has so much emphasis been placed by other writers’ advice, publishers, reviewers, etc. on authors to have a spectacular opening page/1st chapter that the rest of the story sometimes gets left behind? What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

As many of you know I am a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The RNA runs a scheme, possibly unique, whereby people may join as ‘New Writers’ and for a modest fee submit a MS once in the year for critique by an experienced writer in their genre.

I was in this scheme for 5 years and submitted 5 books. The critique of one stated baldly that I wrote a very good first chapter, but the reader needed the rest of the book, too. So, you might say, I’ve had contrary advice and indeed paid for it.

Dancing shoes with medals

I see exactly where Both Skye and the anonymous NWS reader are coming from. I came to the understanding many years ago that it’s the puzzle I’m interested in. My house used to be full of drawers containing the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a play or, and this is what eventually made me understand why I never finished anything, the back of a hand-knitted jumper. Once I knew where the story was going or how the knitting pattern worked, there was little need to complete.

I was enchanted by Elizabeth Hawksley’s lovely post about her vintage, antique even, sewing machine. You can read it here. While I knew many people in the late 60s and early 70s who did make and wear their own clothes, my efforts were in general not fit to be seen. Being an ‘A’ student, I learned Latin after 2nd year and so never developed the discipline of making a garment. That’s where the NWS scheme triumphs, I think. You have a go in year one and learn a bit. In year two you do carry that learning forward…and so on. The discipline of completing an annual MS was invaluable.

Other advice will suggest the ending needs to be strong and, in romance, that the ‘black moment’ has to be apparently unsolvable. Carried to extremes all of this turns good writing practice into pastiche, in my humble opinion. Yes, readers remember particular bits, but it can be surprising when people tell you in conversation which bits. They aren’t necessarily anything to do with the landmark moments.

The Menzieses’ House No 20

My friend awaits my Edinburgh based regencies so she can walk the pavements she walked while growing up in Buccleuch Place and indulge in a little sentimental reminiscing.

Other lovely people have been mulling over this topic and they can be found on their blogs below:
A.J. Maguire  http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-YV
Anne Stenhouse  https://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

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21 thoughts on “Round Robin – Does getting the First Chapter Right Mess Up the Rest of the Book?

  1. …. im going to be honest, I got really confused reading this…. i may just be sleep deprived, but this jumped around a couple of seemingly unrelated points / topics??

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    • Hi Ace and sorry to make you feel as if you’re sleep deprived. What I hope I’m saying is that I agree a Good first chapter is necessary: that I do write good first chapters: but that, having done so, I’ve worked out the rest and was inclined to give up. I mentioned Elizabeth’s post about making her own clothes because I thought it illustrated the tenacity a writer needs to not only work out the pattern, but get on with the mechanics and finish the job. I pay tribute to the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme because that’s the route I took in order to develop the staying power which is as much a feature of writing as having an idea and talent. Really sorry it’s not clear, but thank you for dropping by. Anne

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  2. I’ve started first chapters and put them aside, too, but not because I had figured the puzzle out and knew where the story was going, but because I didn’t or only sort of knew where the story ended, but wasn’t sure how I wanted to construct the maze to get there. Like everything, we all do similar things in different ways.

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  3. I’ve started first chapters and stopped, mainly because of the amount of research it was going to require. I could be at it for ten years. My current WIP could be like that, so I’ve started a new novella, a contemporary romance that promises to be lighthearted and fun. Now, if I could just get past the first page. LOL

    Marci

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  4. I can’t fault your comparison to sewing as I do sew. I learned how to sew a skirt on home ec in the 8th grade, then my mom gave me a sewing machine as a wedding gift. I sewed most of my kids clothing and much of my own back in the day, graduated to fancy sewing with smocked dresses and baptismal gowns, then learned how to make lycra leotards. I still sew and over the years my craft has gotten better with less effort. Writing is very much the same, the more you work at it, the better it can become. You find out by doing what doesn’t work and what works really great and eventually come to a place where getting the hook, the plot and endings, character development all become easier and less fraught with problems.

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    • Hullo Skye, Wow! I’m always in awe of people who can sew – or draw. Thanks for suggesting the topic. I think we’ll all now pay more attention to the ‘rest’ of the book. Anne

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  5. Hi Anne, that’s interesting what you say about the writing being a puzzle that you’ve already worked out in your mind. I enjoy working out the puzzle, too, far more than the actual writing! Once I have the story mapped out, writing it is a bit of a slot, but I try to puzzle over whether I’m keeping the reader engaged. It’s hard work writing a novel that keeps a reader’s attention from start to the very end.
    I enjoyed your post. I’ve finished many knitting projects but given up on much of my sewing!

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  6. I enjoyed your post. I found it interesting that you liked puzzles and once you figured it out you lose interest. If you follow that premise than as a writer we need to keep our reader from figuring out the puzzle until the very end.

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    • Hi Beverly, Yes, it’s one of my big challenges in that I do like to resolve things, but to make a whole book you need to keep the reader, fairly, guessing all the way through. Anne

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  7. Honestly, I think that the reader eventually learns to trust you in the narrative. If you’ve carried the tension through the first 5 chapters, they start to relax and have already committed to reading the book. That’s not to say we’re allowed to let the tension go, just to say that we’re allowed to expand and really bring life to the page at that point.

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  8. I get it. Once the puzzle is solved, there’s no challenge for you to continue. But every story is a learning experience for the writer. I’m glad you persevered and used your talent to write stories for us. The program for new writers is a wonderful opportunity. I hope many “newbies” take advantage of it.

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