13 February 2013

cast your crown: choosing the piece to start your chapbook

The Our Lost Jungle Chapbook Challenge: The Crown
Today’s task is to select the first work for your chapbook. If you’ve been playing with your chapbook already, you may already have a good idea of which piece makes the best beginning. If you haven’t, this post will help you figure it out. In either case, let’s look at why the first piece in a chapbook (or any collection of work) is so important.

first impressions

Did you know that, when meeting face-to-face for the first time, you have a matter of seconds to make a good first impression? The number of seconds tends to vary between three (which is horrifying) to ten (which is slightly less, but still, horrifying) … but the fact remains that you don’t have long to impress.

The same goes for a collection of your work. Watch people in a book store. The ones who go in without really knowing what they’re looking for tend to have the same book-finding habits: read the back, then flip to the first page and start reading. You’ll notice many readers don’t make it any further than the first paragraph. That’s how long you have to make a lasting impression on your reader with your chapbook!

“the crown”

The first piece in your chapbook is your crown. It’s the piece that announces that you are the master of the work you’re presenting. It’s the piece that tells readers to respect the work to come. It sets the stage for what they, as your captive audience, should expect in the following pages.

Some writers go into the process of putting together a collection thinking they can gradually introduce their readers to the writer’s skill. The truth is that, as your crown, it’s important that the first piece is a strong piece. You don’t want to gradually impress … you want shock and awe. It’s like reading that first great line of a novel. The first line or sentence or image needs to be what I call a “Go on” selection. (Think of Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael,” the narrative begins. If you’re anything like me, then you as the reader are saying, “Go on,” or, “Tell me more.”)

choosing your crown

The question is: How do you choose? If you looked at the chapbook we reviewed on Friday, you have three key elements that the first piece in your chapbook must have: it must set the stage, deliver the tone, and prepare your readers with a sense of expectancy. There are a few ways to choose the piece that does this, and a few things to look for in a piece you hope to use as the opening number:

1. Theme: What is the overall theme of your chapbook? Select the piece that best exemplifies, or introduces, this theme.

2. Chronology: What is the time landscape of your chapbook? Are you telling a story? In that case, there should be that “Once upon a time” quality to your first piece—a piece that tells the reader that this is where, how, and why everything gets started.

3. Repetitions: What phrases, images, colors, etc. get repeated the most in the pieces you’ve selected? Find a piece that contains a good selection of the repetitions that a reader can expect. (For example, as many of my poems deal with birds, flight, air, et cetera, I might choose my poem “On the Origin of Black Birds” as a collection opener.)

4. Publication: Maybe the piece you select as your opener is simply a piece that you know is well-liked … because it’s been previously published. Readers who know your work will remember it, and remember you, and be willing to follow you into the newness of what comes next.

a word of caution

As you get started with this task, beware the tendency to put pieces that are too similar too close together. This risks fostering a sense of boredom in your readers. When selecting the first poem or story or photograph for your chapbook, you’re working your brain in a lot of different ways at once. You’re not only considering the question “Where do I start?” but also “Where will I go next?” For some, two pieces that are similar may be what’s necessary to initiate readers into the world you’re creating. For the most part, though, you want to keep up that sense of anticipation … and if too many pieces are too similar right at the beginning, you lose that sense, and potentially you lose those readers.

No pressure, right?

Despite how “Do or die” all this might sound, remember that the big goal of this challenge is to have fun getting your work together. The product you end this month with may be a “final” or “finished” product … or it might not be. Either is okay! For now, just have fun with the process and remember that things can always change.

Now go on out there and play.


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  1. RE: " the piece that announces that you are the master of the work you’re presenting....tells readers to respect the work to come. It sets the stage..."

    I think I have the right piece.

    While the other pieces can be divided into mini-themes within the whole, this one piece can serve as an intro quite nicely

    1. That's great, Kiril! I've found when getting organized chapbook-wise, finding the opener is the hard part ... it helps everything else somewhat fall in line!


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