Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beginning and Ending Chapters--Bookends You Can Work on First

My weekly book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center are wrapping up their six-week fall session this month. We're reviewing what we've learned about first and last chapters. In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts, bookends to keep a writer going forward with a book project.

Many writers start with outlines. An outline seems the best way to manage a huge project like a book. Outlines stall me. I use an outline, like I use notes cards and a writing notebook, but outlines can't form the basic structure of my book. It becomes too linear, too predictable. If it doesn't surprise me, it won't surprise the reader.

I use islands to start a book. Kenneth Atchity (author of A Writer's Time) introduced me to the concept of "islands," although Natalie Goldberg and others use them too. Islands are nonsequential units of writing, dramatic moments in fiction or memoir, teaching moments in nonfiction.

I begin my book in islands, not worrying how they're going to link up. I just let myself write freely.

Freedom's great. But have you ever noticed what happens when there's too much freedom? Islands become hard to organize. The writer starts to lose perspective on her project. I use another tool, storyboarding, to help this. But even more effective is the exercise of first and last chapters.

Your First Chapter Must Have . . .
In our summer session, my writing classes worked on their first chapters. I asked them to consider these "must haves" in a first chapter:

1. Introduction of main players (narrator, others) via anecdote
2. Introduction of main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Placing the reader in a relevant container (physical and emotional and cultural setting) that will echo throughout the book

The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.

We workshopped (shared with discussion) our chapter drafts and crafted them during the summer session. I saw huge improvement in everyone's writing--it was as if the focus on a small part of the book, one essential chapter, helped the writers see strengths and weaknesses in their overall writing.

By fall we were ready for the last chapter. Even though nothing in the middle had been written yet.

Your Last Chapter Must Have . . .
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.

This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.

What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.

What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.

This Week's Exercise
Spend time with your first chapter, your last chapter, in whatever shape they might be. Craft them if you haven't already--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Then, using the notes above as a checklist, analyze the chapter drafts for what's missing and what's too much.

Any time you spend on your bookend chapters will teach you a lot about your writing in general.

And if you live near the Twin Cities, consider joining me for a writing workshop on this subject. It'll be on Thursday, November 5, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center. The workshop is called "Container, Dilemma, and Players: Three Essential Elements for Making Your Writing Come Alive," and we go into more depth and try writing exercises for these important chapter elements.

Registration is limited. For more information or to sign up, go to www.loft.org and search for the workshop title.