Once I have a full chapter-by-chapter outline in place, it’s time to start writing–but that doesn’t mean the writing is going to be automatically awesome. I don’t recommend that everyone rewrite their first chapter a zillion times until it’s perfect, but I do recommend a lot of free-writing at the beginning of a new book, and in my case this was multiple attempts at the first chapter. Each book, and each viewpoint character, has its own particular voice and style, and it’s important for me to find this voice as early as I can.
When I wrote I Am Not a Serial Killer, I did a bunch of free-writes to try to pin down John’s character. Most of these were just John talking about stuff: I gave him a topic and let him go. This doesn’t work for every book or character, but for a very strong, very peculiar character like John it worked really well. His character had to drive the book, more so than the plot or the villain or anything else, so I needed to get it right. None of that early writing would have worked in the book, but it let me know who he was and how he talked and how he thought; once I had that firm in my mind, it was easy to say, “okay, the plot starts here, and John is doing this,” and then just let it go from there.
The specifics of that first chapter–that our introduction to the story is neither plot nor dialogue, but a detailed description of an embalming–was also very carefully chosen, after a couple of first chapter attempts that didn’t really “feel” right. The first chapter is a promise to the reader, and the rest of the book is the fulfillment of that promise, so I built my first chapter around the specific promises I intended to fulfill: the main character is very smart, very scary, and kind of inhuman; the book is going to include a lot of creepy details and dead bodies; even the climax is foretold by the first chapter, though I won’t say why for those readers who haven’t read it yet. Perhaps the biggest promise of that chapter is that the book will focus on the character first, and the plot second; the murders that drive the plot are mentioned only in passing while John does something else.
For Strawberry Fields, finding the character’s voice was very important for a different reason. It’s a much more plot-oriented book, and while the character at its heart doesn’t need to be as layered, he still needs to be interesting and competent; his actions and reactions need to drive the story. In my first two attempts this didn’t come across well because I was making him too weak–he’s delusional, after all, and depressed, and it was very hard for him to seem strong when I was trying so hard to make him seem crazy. I pulled back on that and punched up his competence and kept starting over from scratch, showing different scenes in different ways until I found a way that worked. What I’ve settled on is a sort of “secret agent” mentality, where the main character talks and acts like a hero in a spy movie because that’s how he sees his life–he’s surrounded by all of this weird, dangerous stuff, but rather than just letting it happen to him he takes an active hand in trying to fight back and escape. The balance between competence and insanity is a very difficult one to walk, but it’s proving to be very interesting.