The title of the discussion at the 2017 Roanoke Writers Conference was “First Chapter Fatal Errors,” led by Texas writer A. Lee Martinez. With years of writing (Martinez has published nearly a dozen books) behind them, years of participating in writing critiques at the North Texas DFW Writers Workshop, “I’ve heard a billion chapters,” Martinez said, “including plenty that make the same mistakes over and over.”
Never fear, Martinez was here, to help his audience of writers deal with the dreaded opening sentence, scene, character introduction, even first chapter.
He started with the easiest things to fix – clichéd openings. His list of don’ts:
- Don’t start with descriptions of weather (goodbye, dark and stormy nights)
- Don’t start with a character waking up
- Don’t start with a character looking in a mirror
- Don’t start with a dream sequence
(“Well, maybe you can have one of the dreaded cliché openings," he admitted, “but they have to be really exciting.”)
|A. Lee Martinez|
“I know somebody here will raise your hand and say, ‘but James Patterson did it.’ James Patterson can break the rules. (New writers) can’t.”
However, Martinez was willing to relax pressure on another major writerly hang up: opening sentences. I feel like raising my hand here and saying, but aren’t we constantly told that the first sentence is what will hook the reader?
Look, he said, “agents and editors know that first sentences are the easiest things to fix. Don’t worry about being perfect,” Martinez said. “Agents don’t expect you to have perfect copy editing. (Just) try not to have typos in your first sentence.”
Think a little larger, he said, such as first chapters.
“The biggest problem people will have with first chapters is, they don’t know where the story starts. The best way to start your novel is to know why you’re starting it. Nobody cares about characters thinking about thinking. I write fantasy and science fiction, where it’s common to spend pages establishing the world. What we need are characters and a problem.”
Use the opening, he said, to introduce a character and the unusual moment that changes that person’s life, “that propels the story. . . You can almost never go wrong by going with a character doing something interesting.”
“It’s real easy to do this thing where the characters spend too much time thinking. Have your characters interacting with the world. What they’re doing should be relevant to their life. It doesn’t have to be something big. . . Emotional tone is so important. Establish the character, establish the problem. Physical action is always good, but as you go on, emotional action is better.”
What about character dumps, with an entire cast introduced in a single page or two? Or opening with violent action?
At the beginning, Martinez advised against introducing more than two or three characters, which is enough to provide conflict. And neither action nor conflict have to be violent.
“Characters can be on the same path but have different methods.” It’s that difference in methods that can give the story a satisfying conflict.
“Depending on the genre, it never hurts to open with a mystery. Then have a tone you’re establishing. You have to find your style – and your weakness. The reason it’s hard to teach creative writing is because it requires an honest look at your own works."
This is one of his reasons for joining a writing critique group.
"Any artistic creation is an attempt to communicate." If it can't be done in a small group, how can a writer expect to communicate with a wider audience?
What about length, an audience member asked. How long should a first chapter be?
“As long as it needs to be,” Martinez answered. “You have to know why you’re writing the chapter, and then you’ll know where it ends. The easiest thing to remember about a chapter is, end it sooner than you think you should. Start it later and end it sooner. And then,” he added wryly, “end it sooner than that.”