Write the first chapter last, Among other ideas that seem weird to me

This post at Anne R Allen’s blog caught my eye: How to Start Your Novel or Memoir and 11 Clichéd Openers to Avoid

Because of course it did. Novel openings are an interesting topic. But the opening bit of this post is what REALLY caught me:

Here’s the most important thing for a new writer to know about composing the opening scene for your novel or memoir:

WRITE THE FIRST CHAPTER LAST

That’s right. I know writers who have agonized for months — even years — over a first chapter, never going on to tell their stories. Don’t do this. Instead, write a place holder. You’ll get to fix it later.

Really? I said to myself. I mean … really? Because you sure seem to think this is important, just look at those big, big letters, yet (a) I never do that, and (b) I can’t imagine doing that. For me, the opening paragraphs and pages and the entire opening chapter usually undergo much (much) less revision than chapter five. Chapter five is roughly the beginning of the middle, and that is generally where a manuscript falls apart and has to be stitched back together.

Every now and then a different chapter gets written and put into place before what I thought was chapter one. I think that happened with one or another of the Black Dog books. Or at least I’m pretty sure I remember writing a new chapter one for something at some point. Oh, now that I’m thinking about it, the first scene I wrote for Tarashana is going to wind up as part of chapter five or six or somewhere about there. The second scene I wrote for Tarashana was the actual opening scene. (I have about a hundred pages written, maybe a hundred fifty.)

But as a rule, I write the opening scene first and barely revise it. I most certainly do not ever write the opening scene or chapter last. Never.

By the time you’ve written the ending of your first draft, you’re going to have a fantastic, original take on your novel’s opener. You may decide to lop off the first (and / or second and third) chapters altogether. Or you’ll realize that the story should have started earlier rather than later than you originally thought.

That’s what happened to me with Ghostwriters in the Sky.

Oh! Well, if YOU did it this way, this must be super important advice for everyone.

I do actually have some advice here. It is not for how to write your novel. It’s about how to offer advice about writing novels.

a) Never assume your writing process applies to anyone but you, and

b) Definitely do not announce your writing advice in huge letters as though it should be engraved on a stone tablet handed down by God.

I will say, the post improves after this. It’s entertaining to read about cliched novel openings. It is also entertaining, imo, to think of cliched openings that work perfectly. Thus we get this:

9. The mirror scene

Of course LMB starts Mirror Dance with a mirror scene. This is certainly not a coincidence.

11. The alarm clock — queen of cliched openings

And I at once think of The Breach by Patrick Lee, which starts this way:

On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds.

He wakes up! This is actually a great opening paragraph, scene, and chapter. Patrick Lee pulls this off with no trouble because he’s a very good writer.

Anne R Allen does end by saying:

Of course, if you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may delight your readers.

I mean, mostly her advice is actually pretty good, and I do like her blog.

But I would never, ever write the first chapter last.

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1 thought on “Write the first chapter last, Among other ideas that seem weird to me”

  1. I had my heroine wake up first in Where There Is Smoke

    Of course, that I got in an explosion on the first page probably helped.

    But the trick when you know the ending first is to think yourself into your characters’ innocent ignorance so you can make them fumble it and actually have sufficient evidence to realize they should do the ending in the end.

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