Sunday, November 1, 2009

FIRST CHAPTER ADVICE: My Final Freshman Year Report Card, Remembering, and Talking Like Turtles: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Hi Meg,

At the story's resolution I find myself returning to the very first chapter. Here is a note I jotted in my blog journal back when we were just getting started:

It is important to know what the character’s wants are early on. What problem is he trying to solve? What is the purpose of the journey on which he is about to embark? If I don’t know what a character desires, how can I root for him and hope that he gets it? Here, on page 6 we get his emotional want, “I want the world to pay attention to me,” and we get his concrete want, “I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.”

Alexie seems to be promising us that this character is going to try to get off the reservation, and in so doing is going to be paid attention to. Because I like the character, I am eager to read on and see how he does it.

In these final chapters we are assured that through the course of his journey and his struggles, Junior has indeed succeeded in achieving both his concrete and his emotional wants. Richard Peck, at the SCBWI conference in LA said that the first chapter should be a table of contents for the rest of the book. He went on to say that there is no way to write the first chapter until you have finished writing the rest of the book, because how on earth can you write a table of contents without first knowing what the contents are?

He’s a smartie, that Richard Peck!

I think that so many of us, when trying to write novels, stress at the beginning about the first chapter. Sherman Alexie has artfully written his book so that the first chapter truly does provide a snapshot of how the book is going to end. As a writer the take-away message to me is this: Finish writing the book! Finish that crappy first draft and when you have found the path the story is trying to take, and brought it to its logical conclusion, then you can go back and write a first chapter that truly is a table of contents for the rest of the book.

STORYSLEUTHS' TIP #20: Stop worrying about the first chapter. Let your character tell his story, and then you can figure out how and where that story should start.