Gerrard Cowan is the author of The Machinery (HarperVoyager UK, September 2015), a fantasy about a world whose leaders are chosen by a machine – until the machine breaks. It is the first in a trilogy; part two, The Strategist, will be released in May 2016.
Gerrard is from Derry, in the North West of Ireland, and lives in London with his wife Sarah and their two children. His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation. When he isn’t writing strange fantasy books he works as a freelance journalist.
Writers get pretty obsessed with their books, as everyone knows. At some point in the editing process you start to feel like you know the thing off by heart, so often have you read every sentence and dwelled on every paragraph. This is particularly the case with debut authors, like me, who want their first novels to go off with a bang, and not a poorly written whimper.
However, while I was guilty of going through every line of The Machinery like a sniffer dog searching for contraband, there was no part of the novel I worried about more than Chapter One. This was the case right from the beginning of the writing process. It would be the first thing any prospective agent or publisher would see of my novel. It would be the introduction to my book – in fact, to all of my books.
The Machinery has been out for over a month now, and I’m pleased to say that no one (so far) has hated the first chapter. Without giving anything away, it is set slightly outside the broader timeframe of the book, so I wondered if people might find that a bit odd. Thankfully, they haven’t (that I know of).
So what makes a good first chapter in a fantasy novel? For me, there are two major goals. First, you want to introduce your world to the reader, without shoving it down their throats. Second, you want to hook them into your story. I think that if you can tick both these boxes, you’re onto a winner.
The first element is critically important in fantasy, perhaps more so than in any other genre. If you’re writing a book set in 21st-century New York, there are certain things you can allow the reader to take for granted. But if you have created your own world, you have to work harder to give the reader a sense of it. Arguably the most famous opening line in fantasy reads: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’ From that one line, we know that fantastical creatures (Hobbits) inhabit this world, and that they live in the ground. We can already start to picture it.
My own novel is about a world whose leaders are chosen by a machine. This has brought great success, but there’s one problem: the Machinery is breaking. I struggled for a long time with how I could introduce this concept effectively. In the end, I decided to have the Machinery itself do the talking. The first line reads: ‘I am breaking, the Machinery said.’ It is speaking to a young boy, who is in the middle of his lessons. He goes on to read out a passage from a book, which explains the history of the Machinery itself in more detail. I’m not making any claims about my own opening chapter, by the way, except to highlight my ultimate goal: bringing the reader into my world, without boring them senseless.
Second is the story, the most important thing for any novel in any genre. You want to hook the reader in, but at the same time, you don’t want to overdo things. In other words, you don’t want to throw all the excitement into Chapter One, allowing the rest of the book to degenerate into an anti-climax.
One rule of thumb is to leave the reader asking questions, though you don’t want to make it so impenetrable that they’re left with too many. That might make them give up early on, especially if they don’t particularly care about the answers.
Ultimately, if you have a good grip on your story, you should be fine. When I first started writing my book, the Chapter One I obsessed over was a very different Chapter One to the current version. In fact, a version of that original chapter still exists in the book, but it is now about halfway through! This is because the story itself was still evolving. Once I felt I really knew the ins and outs of the narrative, the outline of the final Chapter One just presented itself to me. So I would advise anyone who is starting out to just get stuck in and write the whole book, and look upon Chapter One as provisional: remember, there’s never any harm in using the delete key.
I’m now putting the final touches to The Strategist, the second part in The Machinery trilogy. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to read the first chapter again …