The Trouble with Opening Chapters

June 20th saw the return of the Hot Key Young Writers Prize, a writing competition which looks for the best, undiscovered middle-grade and young adult fiction from 18 – 25 year-old writers. It seeks talent and imagination and in return offers the chance to snag a potential worldwide publishing contract and editorial support from the Hot Key editors. Exciting! If you’ve read this blog before you probably know that I love Hot Key Books but you may not know that I also write (unless you’ve taken a gander at my ‘about’ page).

From 2009 until 2012, I studied Creative Writing with English Literature at the University of Chester (a course I would recommend) with a view to become a published author/poet as well as to further my knowledge for my future publishing career. Writing has always been a big part of my life, from the moment I could hold a pen – I remember being given a Pocahontas notebook near its release date in 1995 and scrawling what I thought was a story about Pocahontas on its pages, having found it a year or so ago I can confirm that it is scribbling rather than writing but the act of (what I thought was) writing a Pocahontas story in pencil in that notepad is one of my most vivid childhood memories.

Once I’d gotten the hang of all 26 letters (with the exception of the capital ‘E’, which I modified by adding two extra lines to cure the loneliness of the one in the middle), I could very rarely be torn away from my stories. They started with animals, mostly rabbits, and then I moved onto an obsession with all things Victorian, writing a story about a young girl who finds an abandoned house and discovers, upon going through the door, that she has been transported back in time (clearly inspired by the brilliant Tom’s Midnight Garden), among many others. I have always adored writing.

When I was younger writing was free and easy and I didn’t have to worry about the importance of the opening or whether my syntax made sense, all I had to do was untangle the knot of ideas in my head and try to write it in my neatest writing (I always knew stories were worth more than just being a messy unreadable scrawl) but now that I am an ‘adult’ embarking on my ‘proper’ writing journey it’s less about getting everything on the page even if some of the details are muddled and more about getting it right and on the page. I struggle with that part.

Getting the opening right is arguably the most important part when entering competitions or querying, it is the first thing judges or agents and publishers will see of your work, if it doesn’t capture them you won’t have much luck. My openings can be weak, my opening sentences tend to pack a punch but the chapter that follows that sentence if often not the best it could be. When I write my opening chapters, I don’t know my story and they end up becoming rambling, info beasts; they become back story. Very recently I discovered the answer to that problem: I’ve started deleting my first chapters.

I am embracing the much used ‘kill your darlings’ approach (referenced both by William Faulkner and Stephen King or in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ‘murder your darlings’) and it is working. I write better openings when I don’t think that they are openings.

Once I am a few chapters in, I jump back to the start, extract any paragraphs or phrases that appeal to me and then move the rest into a new document, using it only for reference and world-building. I would recommend this practise to anyone. Don’t think your opening chapter is working? Try getting rid of it, try starting with chapter two. You might be surprised at the results.