Chapter One. Two seemingly innocuous words. But they strike bone-chilling fear in most writers. If these first few pages fail to hook the agent/editor, your chance at getting published can fizzle in the few seconds it takes them to hit the eject button. No pressure, right?
So most of us know what a first chapter needs in theory. Starting in medias res, right in the middle off things. Hook the reader, draw them in, instantly. So why is it so hard to accomplish? According to these Harlequin editors, writers often fall into one of these first chapter categories.
Photo by Kazi Harok Al-Arafat (click pic for link)
The Free Spirit
This writer doesn't outline or plan, so she's not sure where her story is going, who her characters really are, or what the plot points will be. So this ends up in a meandering, unfocused first chapter.Solution: Make sure that you revamp that first chapter dramatically after the whole story is together so that the threads are started clearly.
This writer writes her way into the story. Chapter one turns into a sea of backstory and description to set up the story instead of actually starting the story.Solution: Often it is hard to start a story without writing out the backstory for yourself. Do this as a writing exercise, not as the first chapter. Then take the elements of that backstory and sprinkle them in throughout the story.
No-Man (or Woman's)-Land
This is related to the procrastinator. The writer spends too much time on other things and doesn't introduce the main characters until Chapter two. This is more important in some genres than others. In romance, hero and heroine should both make an appearance quickly. IMO, YA should also start with the MC. In suspense or thriller, you may have an opening incident from the killer's perspective or something so there are exceptions.Solution: Your story is ultimately about your characters, so make sure we meet the main ones quickly. Endless description, world-building, etc. in chapter one will lose a lot of people.
Saves the Best for Last
This writer thinks that readers will hang on until chapter four or five for the main conflict/action to get going.Solution: Start your story where it "gets good". If you find yourself saying to your beta-readers, oh just wait until you get to here... you may want to cut those first few chapters.
This writer is the storyteller so sets about telling us everything from the author's perspective instead of letting the characters talk for themselves. This separates the readers from the story.Solution: Let the characters show the reader what's going on.
The Party Animal
This writer loves characters, lots of them, so there's a party of minor players and a swarm of names bombarding the reader in chapter one. Who's the MC? How can we tell?Solution: Minor characters and subplots are great, but keep it to a minimum in the first chapter. The reader has to be able to identify the MCs.
This writer knows how to write a killer opening line and scene. But after that, goes down in a blaze of glory. Think of these as that great movie preview that makes you desperate to see a film, then after you spend your 8 bucks, you realize the preview was the only good part of the movie.Solution: Treat every chapter like the first chapter. You can lose a reader at any time. So make sure every scene is interesting, moves the plot forward, and keeps the reader wanting more.
I'm hoping that in my recent WIP, I haven't fallen into these categories. With the short length of category romance, you don't have a choice but to jump in and get thing rolling quickly. But I know with my first WIP, I definitely suffered from a combination of the Procrastinator and Saving the Best for Last.
Have you found yourself in one of these camps before? Which one do you gravitate toward if not paying attention?
Alright, now a few links:
- Editor to Rent created a list of Marks of an Amateur that they see in submissions. Really helpful.
- And, I wanted to mention for those of you who are new to this blog that I am now marking all writing craft entries with the "writer toolbox" label. So if you want a quick link to all crafty things, click on writer toolbox in the labels box in the right sidebar. Or click here.
- And lastly, I now have a retweet button at the bottom of each entry, so if you find an article helpful, I'd love for your to tweet me. Wait, that sounds dirty. Well, you know what I mean.
UPDATE: Just ran across this article today on what TO DO in the first chapter over at The Kill Zone. Check it out. Great stuff
Alright, that's it. Make sure you let me know what type of first chapter writer you are. :)