A Book’s First Chapter

When I started writing my book I envisioned a flash-bang-wallop start that shook the reader up. You know, throw the reader into the middle of noisy mayhem. (and I still like the idea of doing that).

All the advice given to writers is to grab the reader by the lapels on the first page. But as I redrafted the book and reworked and reworked the first chapters I decided to wind the readers in to the story by slightly devious means. In the finished version, the story starts with a retired German policeman watching a group of people in a coffee shop. They’re a weird looking crew and he worries in case they’ll cause trouble for the cafe and its owner. He’s quietly in love with Elise, the owner, but she’s been playing it cool. The way women do.

The story opens in Munich in Germany. In a cafe styled like a Starbucks, because the owner likes to keep up with current trends. The windows stream with rain and Max, the policeman, is in his favourite chair keeping an eye on things. He knows from experience what people will do next. Usually.

I read the chapter over recently while I sorted the book out for upload to CreateSpace. Every time I do an edit or look at the book for any reason I get engrossed in the story and a part of me wonders what will come next. Which strikes me as an odd thing for the writer of the book to think.

So, reading it again I was struck by how the chapter had changed since its first outing. As it was rewritten again and again the basic structure stayed the same but more and more detail crept in. Text was layered on text but the chapter never increased in size, its still one and a half pages long. But the slight touches to the descriptions and some nuances to the sentences have created (pardon me saying this since I’m the author) a depth that the reader can wander through.

At one point Elise finds that Max is carrying a gun and she flashes with anger touched with concern.The sentence also embeds a memory in the readers’ minds for a significant event in the next chapter. The gun is there to tell the reader that it’s not a lightweight story, there’s violence to come. The trick was to show all of that to the reader in one short burst using as few words as possible.

Reading it struck me that I’d fallen upon one of the secrets of writing, to rewrite and keep adding to the story but to use the same number of words or thereabouts. To keep enriching the experience of the reader with touches that they might not consciously see, until they feel as if they were sitting beside the retired policeman watching the scene. But without making the prose dense or confusing.

I also paint (portraits mainly) and the analogy of starting with the basic outline then working and working at a face to put layers and layers on the canvas to give the image depth, is the same process as writing. The reader doesn’t realise that they’re looking at the work of days and nights to make every small detail just the way the writer intended. But they enjoy the experience even though they may not understand why.

And it doesn’t matter, because they should be concerned with what happens to the characters next and not about how the writer transported them to that place and time.