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 We sense we aren’t going to cross the threshold from ‘unpublished’ to ‘published’ without paying a price.
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.
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.