Monday, 14 July 2014

The First Chapter as Threshold

By Anne Hamilton


  • An opening paragraph of 50 pages. Yep, that’s right. It’s not a typo: 50 pages, not 50 words.
  • A sentence in the first paragraph in excess of 80 words. With nested clauses, rather than a progressive linear thought.
  • A prologue of five manuscript pages, entirely presented in an eye-straining font with baroque flourishes.
  • An appeal to readers half way through the first chapter—no kidding, a striking full-page direct marketing ad with big black borders for maximum impact—asking them to take to social media and tell the world how much they’re enjoying the book.
  • A sentence with four adverbs: one to start, one to finish and two in the middle. On the first page.

Elementary mistakes. Careless, you might think. The sort of errors made only by inexperienced or ignorant writers. Yet, don’t be too quick to decide you wouldn’t make a similar mindblowingly-simple blunder!

When I first started appraising fiction, I made myself a checklist of common mistakes to look out for. It started at four pages. It’s grown to nine. But, as I’ve worked with authors, I actually think that the First Chapter Blues I wrote about last week are not primarily symptomatic of problems with writing. I think the issue is spiritual.

It’s rarely about mastering the finer points of writing. First chapters are, in fact, the intersection of writing as a craft and as a spiritual beachhead. To look only at craft issues is to ignore what for many writers is real problem.

First chapters are thresholds. This is why so many of us self-sabotage at the very beginning. The problem isn’t really first chapters (or even first books—how many authors are ripped off by unscrupulous companies on their initial foray into the world of publishing?); it’s about our propensity to sacrifice on thresholds. The more significant the threshold, the greater the sacrifice.

Sometimes the sacrifice, paradoxically, is the book itself.

Most Christians have never heard of threshold covenants (also called ‘cornerstone covenants’). Yet, instinctively we ‘know’ thresholds require sacrifices. We are aware, without ever being told, of the real nature of the spiritual dynamic. We sense we aren’t going to cross the threshold from ‘unpublished’ to ‘published’ without paying a price.

Several options are present at the threshold but most Christians, being nice, choose not to sacrifice others. (A lot of the problem is that that ‘nice’ is not a fruit of the Spirit.) Instead we sacrifice ourselves through sabotaging our books. I see it all the time with authors whose writing suddenly takes a quantum leap upwards in Chapter 4—just after the most generous commissioning editor will have given up. Trust me, I recognise the behaviour—because I’ve done it myself.

Authors who regularly engage in this sort of behaviour need to realise it’s not about technique. It’s not about learning how better to craft an opening chapter. Once that’s perfect, they’ll find other ways to shoot themselves in the foot. Like the author who couldn’t re-submit to a waiting publisher because she decided there were half a dozen possible inconsistencies in her professionally-edited novel. It would take less than five minutes to fix the lot, but two years later, she was still in a spiral of anxiety about them and unable to decide whether or not they really were inconsistencies. Normally she’s not a ditherer.

At the threshold, our behaviour changes.

Not everyone has a threshold problem. But if your attempts to come into God’s calling for you are repeatedly met by constriction and wasting—then it’s not about your ability, it’s about you. You’ve got much more to get sorted in your life than a narrative hook, the rise and fall of tension across a dozen pages or whether you’ve Resisted the Urge to Explain.

Make no mistake—a threshold is a complex place. Its dangerous nature is attested throughout Scripture by the fact that, more often than not, a godly threshold moment has a pair of angels standing guard.

Many people try to run the gauntlet of the threshold and wonder why God wasn’t there for them. They feel betrayed. Of all the soul-destroying, faith-annihilating, hope-crushing events in life, this is often the worst. You finally get to move into the calling you believe God has always prepared for you but you are so seriously mutilated financially or emotionally or mentally as you step up to the doorway, you’re not sure you can ever risk going back.

You are indeed called to make a sacrifice, but never to be a sacrifice. If you don’t understand that at a heart level, then you’ll simply find ever more subtle ways of throwing yourself on your sword.

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Anne Hamilton has spent the last three years researching threshold covenants and prayer-counselling others about them. She was surprised to discover how easily they can be spotted in writing.

35 comments:

  1. Love this, Anne--thanks for making us more aware of the deeper issues going on as we try to craft those first chapters. Just recently, I tried to explain to someone how authors (including me) often shoot themselves in the foot. I know at these times I need to look at what that battle really is all about and find strength in God.

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    1. Hi Jo-Anne,
      Yes, you're right in that it genuinely is a battle. (Hence the graphic I chose for this piece, even though I didn't mention battle in the post.) It doesn't occur to most authors that they are actually shooting themselves in the foot. Just because it's at an unconscious level doesn't mean it isn't deliberate. Sometimes the Enemy doesn't have to do much because we've done the work for him.

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  2. I like your comment about "nice" not being a spiritual fruit - I see too many author/reviewers saying "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all", and they seem to think that's a biblical principle when actually it's the Disney Corporation (Bambi). Of course, that's no reason for reviewers to be cruel, but "nice" and "honest" aren't necessarily the same thing.

    Jesus spent a lot of time being not nice, like when he chased the moneychangers out of the temple. Perhaps we should be a little less "nice" so we can chase the moneychangers out of Christian publishing.

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    1. Oh, Iola, Iola, Iola! I love this comment. In my book, Many-Coloured Realm, the heroine is a 'nice' girl. Who gets into all sorts of trouble in a fantasy world for calling others 'nice'. They take offence and query what they've done to deserve such an insult. 'Nice' in their world means that you have no enemies and therefore you've never stood up for anything or anybody against injustice. It's a comment on my passion for truth, mercy, justice and peace - which are the antithesis of 'nice'. (And, of course, it goes without saying that I was once a 'nice' person before realising what it really meant.)

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    2. Iola, I agree that being nice may not reflect honesty. It often contradicts the Biblical principle of speaking the truth with love.

      In defence of the reviewer-authors who say: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," this can be the wisest course of action for a couple of reasons.

      The publishing industry is small. I don't think it's a good idea for authors to publicly criticise a book that may have been edited by their future editor or publisher. Or, write critical reviews of books that are written by current or future author friends. That said, author-reviewers need to have integrity and honesty regarding the content of their reviews.

      I also think that unscrupulous people in the publishing industry target Christian writers precisely because they're counting on the fact the Christian author will be too nice to publicly call them on their bad behaviour. Iola, I totally agree with your perspective on chasing the moneychangers out of Christian publishing.

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    3. Hi Iola
      I couldn't agree more with your comment that unscrupulous people in the publishing industry target Christian writers precisely because they're counting on the fact the Christian author will be too nice to publicly call them on their bad behaviour. The issue here is that a Christian author should be forgiving (of course!) but all too often we decide that forgiveness means we should be silent. This is what the unscrupulous end of the industry is counting on. Sure we should be forgiving but does that mean we should allow others to be caught in the trap we were? That is allowing injustice to perpetrate itself. This is such a complex area that there are no easy answers but it's all to easy for authors to be deceived by publishers putting 'Christian' in front of their name simply as a lure.

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    4. Oops, sorry, Narelle. I meant to say 'Narelle' in that last post, not 'Iola'.

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    5. Annie, I agree. Writers can be too trusting of publishers who claim to be Christian, and not exercise due diligence by researching the publisher first before signing a legally binding contract.

      The forgiveness issue is complex. Our integrity and desire to 'love our neighbour' should dictate that, in principle, we have a duty of care to speak out. I know this is complicated by legal issues, and it's not always possible for authors who have been burned by publishers to make a public statement. One of the benefits of writing groups is the ability to privately share relevant industry information among members.

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    6. Narelle, I agree that author/reviewers have a potential minefield to negotiate and it's not unreasonable for authors to refuse to review a book rather than give a critical review. But I do have an issue when Christian authors say Christians shouldn't give critical reviews, because it's not "nice" (or worse, because it's not "Christian").

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    7. Hi Narelle and Iola

      Yes, it's definitely a good reason to be part of a writing group so that information can be privately shared. Not everyone thinks to ask the group in time, however. Often they make their inquiries just that little bit too late.

      As for "nice", Iola, the fact is: the truth is never nice. That's the nature of truth. It's confronting - and it's supposed to be. God loves us just as we are but He also loves us too much to leave us just the way we are. I believe that should be the model for the way we approach reviews: with courtesy and truth. If we don't offer constructive criticism, then it will leave the author just the way they are. With nothing to consider about improvement.

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    8. Iola, thanks for the clarification. I agree, a critical review is about providing an honest opinion. It's unreasonable for authors to expect that all their reviews will be nice. Annie, I agree, truth is confronting rather than nice.

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  3. Hi Annie - that was a really thought-provoking post. I've never come across the concept of threshold covenants before and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I think for a while I probably shot myself in the foot before I ever attempted the first chapter. Once I got to the first chapter, I felt I'd already gotten over that problem, but it doesn't mean self-doubts don't still creep in. I can certainly relate to the idea of writing being a spiritual battle. I can think of a few times when I've experienced spiritual attack after writing something or before I was about to write something important. A good reminder to keep our guard up and to remember that following our calling is write is not a piece of cake - unless we're food critics I guess ;) Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Nola - I've been exploring the concept of threshold covenants for 3 years and I still haven't got my head entirely wrapped around it. However, once you've got the basic idea, you'll find it alluded to constantly throughout Scripture. I've come to the conclusion it's impossible to understand the Book of Judges without knowing what a threshold covenant is. Just about every story there, especially the last few, are about the devastating results of threshold covenant violation.

      Of course it's possible to self-sabotage before the first chapter. Some writers find it hard to get that far. I remember it took me nearly two years to get the first sentence of Many-Coloured Realm out of my head and onto paper. I would make up whole scenes while I drove 40 minutes to work and had the book mapped out in my head, but the moment I came to type anything out, it would all crumble as I tried to get even a single sentence going.

      Only when I found threshold covenants in Scripture and realised how badly they could go wrong did I begin to understand my inability to even get the first sentence down.

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  4. Annie, thanks for your challenging post. We all self-sabotage in different ways and we can't ignore the spiritual dimension.

    I hadn't thought about the transition from pre-published to published author as a threshold, but it could explain the seemingly bizarre behaviour of some authors. At one extreme there's the excellent writer who has received numerous accolades from unpublished writing contests but hesitates when it comes to submitting their mss to editors/agents or exploring indie publishing opportunities. The other end of the spectrum is the author who is impatient to publish their book due to the urgency of their calling. These authors are ripe to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people because they're desperate to publish and share their message.

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    1. Hi Narelle -

      There's another threshold too in the scenario you've described. A writer who has been impatient and gone to a vanity press has, generally speaking, simply created a new threshold. If they decide to try again - and look for a traditional publisher - they've really created another and different kind of threshold. All the self-sabotage rules return to play.

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    2. Annie, that makes sense. I assume the original self-sabotaging behaviour can be harder to overcome at the new threshold due to the additional negative baggage from the vanity publishing experience.

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    3. Hi Narelle,

      That's why I called it "soul-destroying, faith-annihilating, hope-crushing" - once you've been round this mountain a few times, you begin to wonder why God has never turned up. If He really exists. If your faith is the problem (then you realise it's bigger than a mustard seed, so that can't be it.) So maybe Christianity is not true after all.

      I've come across so many people over the last couple of years who, as Thoreau described, live lives "of quiet desperation" because they can't figure out whether they can afford to hope again.

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    4. Hi Annie, It's scary to think that a Christian writer's desire to publish a book could lead them into a crisis of faith. It can be hard to discern whether our writing is a calling or an offering. I read an excellent post on this subject a few years ago.

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    5. Hi Narelle

      I never thought of this as a "crisis of faith"! I've found, in fact, that it reveals the deep already-existing things about our faith that we'd rather not know. People who experience constriction or wasting on a writing threshold aren't experiencing it for the first time. Usually they'll have a history of having their ideas stolen by someone else; other people taking credit for their initiatives and gaining a promotion on their work; being offered a job in another city (or even country) and selling up everything, only to be told on the day they're leaving that the position is no longer available. This will be part of a long line of threshold problems - except the person doesn't realise that the pattern actually involves a threshold.

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    6. And I forgot to add, Narelle.
      I believe writing is an offering.
      Writer is the calling.

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    7. I've recently read Writing in Obedience by Terry Burns and Linda Yezak, which does distinguish between a calling and an offering. It emphasises that one isn't any more than the other ... if we are seeking God and writing in obedience.

      However, Anne, I like your way of looking at it as well.

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    8. Hi Iola
      Have you reviewed it here or on Goodreads? (Couldn't find any on Goodreads but it's been a bit iffy lately, so not seeing a review there doesn't mean there isn't one.) I'd be very interested in what your thoughts on it are.

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    9. Iola, yes, it was an article related to the Writing in Obedience book. Annie, the following link may be helpful.
      http://www.bestsellersociety.com/the-writers-view-question-for-thursday-dec-20th-is-writing-a-calling-an-offering-or-something-else/

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    10. Annie, I will be writing a review but haven't managed it yet. I recommend all Christian authors read it though!

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  5. So much to ponder on within this post and the comments. One thing that came to mind was that the truth with always set you free whether its nice or not nice... But often opinion is presented as truth... and we need wisdom to know the difference.
    And no matter where we find ourselves in the writing / reading world... There is nothing too big for God to turn around for the good of his kingdom.
    Could it be ... "soul-destroying, faith-annihilating, hope-crushing" we we do things in our own strength ?

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  6. Hi Michelle - you've nailed it. The problem is doing things in our own strength and thinking it was otherwise. Though that's not all of it. Once we've made a sacrifice to the Enemy on our first run (whether that was writing or something else), we need to come out of our agreement with the Enemy's purposes.

    I agree with you that the truth will always set us free, nice or not nice. The issue is that, if we make niceness a rule, then we have elevated it beyond truth. When it comes to opinions, we have to realise they are just that - opinions. When the opinion is couched in the form of a review of our own writing, then we need to take a step back and ask if the review is valid or not. (Not nice or not, but valid or not.) Because if we object simply on the grounds it's not nice, then we're pandering to our own pride. That's something I've really had to work on regarding negative reviews - asking myself if the person has something valid to say. (True also for positive reviews, though we rarely think of them. But I became wary of positive reviews when I got 3 five stars reviews from perfect strangers BEFORE a single copy had come off the press. Simply because I posted a Giveaway.)

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  7. I wrote a lengthy comment on this post - and it disappeared! I'd poured out my heart somewhat personally and can't bring myself to do it all again :(
    Suffice to say, I so appreciate everything you write! Rhonda

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    1. Hmmm... and sometimes the disappearance of things is a threshold problem, Rhonda. Typifying the "wasting" aspect.

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  8. Mm-mmph! Much food for thought. I'd always pushed my characters across that"threshold" but hadn't thought of myself having a threshold to cross. And yet as I think back on my writing experience, Annie, I realize that's exactly what I've been doing in my writing journey. You can only take in so much when you first begin...even to wondering if it's what the Lord wants you to do. And once I got through that first door, I have had several other big learning steps to take me through to the next. Thanks for explaining it's actually a spiritual thing.Hah! Everything in our Christian life has a spiritual reason and I sometimes forget that.

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    1. Hi Rita -

      Yes, we do forget sometimes that our characters reflect ourselves - to a greater or lesser degree. And you're right - we do so often question if it's what the Lord wants us to do. Especially when we have to work so hard to make our writing noticeable in the market... instead of just getting on with the writing.

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  9. Do you ever feel a sermon or book or blog post is talking directly to you. That is me in this case. Thanks Annie.

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  10. Hi Dale - those who are not affected by threshold problems are few. Very few, in my experience. And they have something unexpected in common. They belong to a long generational stream of Christians. It's my view that someone in a previous generation dealt with the threshold covenant issue.

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  11. That last comment to Dale is very revealing.

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    1. Hi Rhonda - yes, I think it's revealing too. However my sample size isn't big enough to be sure this is the explanation for a lack of threshold problems. I think this is harder to deal with now because many people do not have any idea what a covenant is, whereas back two centuries ago people were much clearer in their understanding. They think it was simply a more solemn contract.

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