Saturday, December 20, 2008

Never Polish the First Chapter Until the Final Draft is Done

by Jean Henry Mead

I’ve rewritten a first chapter many times before progressing to the second, only to find that it had to be rewritten to fall in the line with the rest of the novel. I finally learned to write it once and forget it until the first draft is done.

I’ve never been able to outline a novel because I literally give my characters free rein. And they rarely submit to what I’ve planned for them. They have minds of their own and I wouldn’t want them doing something out of character. In my current Logan & Cafferty series, my feisty 60-year-old senior sleuths surprise me by doing things I’d never consider before sitting down to write. Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty live with me 24/7 while I’m writing about them and they have their own plans for what should happen that day. Sometimes I have to retreat to chapter one to include some of their "brilliant" ideas.

In A Village Shattered, Logan and Cafferty gather their friends to discuss the serial killings taking place in their retirement village. Out of that meeting came many new ideas about who the murderer might be and why he or she was on a killing spree. Until the third quarter of the book, even I didn’t know who it was, and I was forced to return to early chapters to flesh out the killer by adding inner monologue.

In the second novel, Diary of Murder, due out early next spring, I take my sleuths out of California and place them in a motorhome in the middle of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. Fortunately, that had happened to me, so I could write convincingly about the life and death experience. The blizzard starts the novel off with a bang, but they face a similar situation later in the plot, so I had to swap some snowy details between the first and later chapters so that they didn't appear too similar. Weather plays a lage role in any northern state, and gives the plot an element of danger.

In A Village Shattered, the opaque San Joaquin Valley tule (too-ley) fog hides the serial killer, but I didn’t even think about the fog until I was writing chapter three. Having lived there for a dozen years, I know the horror of trying to drive in pea soup fog, so I switched seasons and went back to chapter one to add it to the plot. In doing so, it tied all aspects of the story together. 


Lillie Ammann said...

I've met "writers" who have been working on a novel for years ... and still aren't past the first chapter. They keep going back to polish it over and over again and never get any further.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I think most novice writers do that, don't you, Lillie? And it certainly ruins the plot's rhythm.It can also set you up for writer's block.

Mark Troy said...

Sound advice, Jean. I think of the first chapter as serving the same function as icing on a cake--it entices the reader into the book, the way icing entices the eater to have a slice. Like the icing, the first chapter goes on last. In every draft but the final the purpose of the first chapter is to get the author to the second chapter.

Dana Fredsti said...

It's funny - my first chapter always makes me happy when I write it, but I invariably go back after the rest of the book is done and add a prologue. Main thing is just to get that first chapter done...

Peter said...

Cool blog! Check out mine, it's on books too:

I love mystery and also adventure books. They're great. Have you ever read Dragon Keeper?

Morgan Mandel said...

I need to plow ahead more. You have good advice here.

Morgan Mandel