The dreaded Chapter one

Chapter One:

It's what draws readers in, or turns them away. It's what sets the tone and voice for the entirety of your book. And, probably most frightening (at least for me) is that it's what will snag you an agent, or get you tossed in the slush pile.  

But what makes a good chapter one? I may not be a published author, (just yet. Give it a year) but I'm one of the pickiest readers you'll ever have the pleasure of knowing. Whenever I walk into a book store or library, I read the jacket sure, but I also read the first few pages of chapter one. Why? Because I'm not going to a buy a book that doesn't snap my attention quick and hold it fast. Being a writer makes style really important to me as well.

So again, what makes a good chapter one? In this year's addition of Writer's market, Guide to Literary Agents, there's a chapter called, "8 Ways to Write A Great Chapter One" by Elizabeth Sims. And she puts it nicely.
"As an aspiring author, the prospect of writing chapter one should not intimidate, but excite the hell out of you. Why? Because no other part of your book can provide you with the disproportionate payoff that an excellent first chapter can. Far more than any great query letter, a great Chapter One can attract the attention of and agent. It can keep a harried editor from yawning and hitting "delete." It can make a bookstore browser keep turning the pages during that slow walk to he cash register.  And yes, it can even keep a bleary-eyed owner of one of those electronic thingamajigs touching the screen for more, more, more!"
 The eight points are eight good ones, though some I find self explanatory and others I find easier to do in first person. (Seemingly her preferred POV. And I'm starting to notice  the more popular POV now a days
But I'll bullet point some of the pointers brought up for each in case you don't want to get this fantastic book.
  1. Resist Terror: Taking into consideration how much is riding on Chapter one, it's easy to get nervous about it. In some cases people get so worked up about perfection that they never get around to the first sentence let alone chapter. "Agents and editors, all of them, are paper tigers.Every last one is a hungry kitten searching for something honest, original and brave to admire- [Notice] hat I did not say agents and editors are looking for perfect writing. Nor are they looking for careful writing. Honest, brave and original. That's what they want, and that's what you'll produce if you open room for mistakes and mediocrity." 
  2. Decide on Tense and Point of View: "The point is, you want your readers to feel your writing is smooth; you don't want them to see the rivets in the hull, so to speak. And the easiest way to do that is to create fewer seams." 
  3. Choose a natural starting point: I find this one especially true for fantasy and science fiction writers who create a world from nothing but the stardust in their imaginations. Sometimes it's tempting, really tempting, to use the first chapter (or sneak a prolog in there) that tells all about what happened with your world, what's changing in it, what's happening  that's impacting the characters. But do you really need to get this information across in chapter one? More often than not, no. If something is really important to the story you can always put it in latter. "The brother's Grimm did not begin by telling about the night Hansel and Gretel were conceived; they got going well into the lived of their little heroes, and they knew we wouldn't care about anything but what they're doing right now."
  4. Present a strong character right away: Not strong as in physically strong. Unless that's part of their character, but strong as in, a good, powerful voice filled with presence and personality. "Don't be afraid to give all the depth you can to your main character early in your story."
  5. Be sparing of setting: Jump right in. I know you want to get all the detail in. After all chapter one is exciting. You can feel it all, smell it, taste it, and you want your readers to experience it just as clearly. But action is what the first chapter needs. You can always go into detail latter on, when things have slowed down. "Pack punch into a few details. Instead of giving the history of the place and how long the characters have been there and what the weather's like, consider something like this, "He lived in a seedy neighborhood in Kansas City. When the night freight passed, the windows rattled in their frames and the dog in the flat below barked like a Maniac."
  6. Use carefully chosen detail to create immediacy: The example she uses here seems to be more about Show and tell. (See my earlier post called Show VS Tell) But the point she makes seems to be, if your an expert in something, know something relevent to the story, put it in. But don't go into a lengthy, three paragraph long discussion or internal monolog about it. A few, well placed scenes can show it just fine. Sometimes I find it best to get across through natural, fluid dialog. 
  7. Give it a mini-plot: Perhaps my favorite of the eight tips is this. Every chapter should be a short story in of itself, but none so much as chapter one. It should have conflict, sharp, decisive action, and a small resolution. For example in my current work, "The Cursed Prince."  Aaden is troubled from the start. He's locked in a tower room in the first paragraph. Makes a decisive decision to climbing down a tower in the middle of a storm by the second page, and a knight is chasing him to top it off. By the end we have him out of the castle walls, and limping towards the nearest village.
  8. Be Bold: "The most important thing to do when writing Chapter One is to put you best material out there. Do not humble introduce your story- Present is with a flourish. Don't hold back! Set your tone and own it. Your going to write a whole book using great material; have confidence that you can generate terrific ideas for action and emotion whenever you want."
I know I have to work on some of these points. (mostly getting right into the action instead of going into pointless details like the shade of their cloths.) But I found them so helpful I wanted to share it with others too, so I hope this helped.

Now for the juicy bit of this post. As I mentioned before, I'm a picky reader. For the first three people who post a comment, with a link to their first chapter, I'll read it and let you know what made me keep reading, and what turned me away.

Comments

  1. Hey Melissa, I'm glad you got some good stuff out of my piece. Thanks for sharing it! Here's a first chapter of one of my books: http://www.elizabethsims.com/chapter1LS.php
    Best wishes to you and your writing,
    Elizabeth Sims

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting. =D I'll go check it out.

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