Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 23, 2013

Second Chapters

Writing a first chapter is like tracking down the perfect outfit for a big occasion, then knowing the hem needs to be adjusted, or the right scarf found, while  already having second or seventeenth thoughts. Did the scarf change everything, and should I start again? A second chapter is more forgiving. We’re older, and the outfit doesn’t seem quite as important, and if it’s a little bit wrinkled, so what? We’ve set up the characters, and can let them speak. A second chapter doesn’t have all the bother of pulling in readers with neither too much nor too little information, but it’s time to develop what’s at stake in the small world we created. We’ve brought readers through, but can we keep them? Maybe we should get out the iron one more time.

Like every chapter, my second one will go through a lot of drafts. But because it’s not quite so slippery or delicate as chapter one, this is the place I keep coming back to when I stall on my way forward, peering for threads I might be able to use. Looking back over my own work is a little like reading as a diligent English major. Themes or symbolism can pop into view. Back when I was in college, I never wanted to take this too far, and I don’t want to take it too far as a writer, either. It’s good to carry maybe a plastic toy shovel, not a killer spade. And the trick is to not bring in the vocabulary of someone who’s infatuated with literary theory, but to register, say, the differences that might come from describing someone’s hair as silver, tin-colored, or some other variation on metallic, make a choice, and move on, trying not to leave footprints of an author who thinks too much. Sometimes a rose is a rose, a bird is a bird, spring is a season, and swings, seesaws, and slides are just part of a playground.

Whenever we look back we’re likely to find something new, the way something may emerge from memories of someone’s long ago words, pauses, or gestures. Most of us grow up with shadow stories, and perhaps ten or twenty years later think, Now I get it. Let’s hope understanding as a writer isn’t quite that slow, but something can always be spotted from stepping back, like a new feeling that rises from an old photograph.



  1. Lovely. 🙂 And I’m with you, revising, and deepening. This draft I’m trying hard to increase the pacing and the tension. Making sure the MC is thwarted (Darcy Pattison’s word – and I love it). Cheering you on!

    • I’m still calling this writing or sketching out as I’m far from making my way through to the end, even a false one, but there is that revising happening as part of the process. Every sentence pulled to see if it squeaks. Good luck with the thwarting!

  2. As always, you pin down the process! The neat and delicate and difficult process!

    • Thanks, Amy. Hope you had a good birthday!

  3. I love chapter two, too. I grit my teeth and push through the first five chapters before I go back and lay more brickwork. But chapter five (where I am now) is closer to the edge of the diving board. So, like you, I go back to chapter two and visit. It’s more comfortable and friendlier than chapter one, which may or may be the actual starting point. Or chapter three, which seems a little uppity, or chapter four, which tends to waffle.

    I’ve never thought of chapters as clothes, or friends. But I like the idea. I’ll have a Kleenex ready for sniveling chapter six, when I get to it.

    • This could be a good scrapbook project, to make up wardrobes and personalities for each chapter. I like the idea of a Kleenex chapter, and so does Aristotle, I’m certain.

  4. You always give us so much to think about and to savor over, Jeannine. I’m particularly listening to this: ” trying not to leave footprints of an author who thinks too much.” I’m guilty of loving description a little too much at times, especially in my longer stories. But they can be intrusive, and I can just hear the reader saying with exasperation–just get on with the story!

    • Aw, I’m glad I can prod you to think and savor. The description thing is hard, with such a variety in tolerance for it among readers and writers. But these days I think it’s best if we can listen to inner readers who whisper to get on with it. But after examining the places we’ve set up for clues to character and themes. Good luck, my loud friend (do you like that reinforcing adjective?)

      • Yes, I love it! And just what I need to hear this morning. 🙂 Here I go….

  5. Wonderful, as always, Jeannine. I particularly hear the no’s to loving too well a particular turn of phrase. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Sarah. It is always sad when we must kill our darlings (though I prefer to tuck them into soft little folders than to swing an ax).

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