Thursday, April 19, 2007

Your First Chapter

By Heather Moore

Are you stuck on that first chapter?
Even when you’ve finished your first draft, do you keep coming back to it, rewriting, editing, then rewriting again? First pages and first chapters are what an agent or editor will read first. If they aren’t drawn in by the first few lines or paragraphs, you’ve given them a reason to set your submission aside.

Consider these solutions:
1. Perhaps your first chapter isn’t the first chapter. Maybe your story really begins somewhere in chapter 2 or 3. Have someone read through the first 50 pages of your manuscript and ask them to tell you where they think your book really begins.

2. You may have overwritten the first chapter. Have you tried to cram too many details, unnecessary back story, or become lopsided with too much internal dialogue? If you continue writing the rest of the story, then come back to the first chapter after a few weeks or months, and you’ll have a fresh perspective.

3. Does your first chapter have a hook in the first sentences/paragraph? Start in the middle of a scene—right where the character’s life is about to change. If you start with external dialogue (what the character says) or internal dialogue (what the character is thinking), it needs to be unique, compelling, even surprising. Internal dialogue is usually considered stronger than external.

4. Visit a bookstore or library. Select ten books by well-known authors. Read the first page of each book. Out of the ten, which first page makes you want to continue reading? And why? Put yourself in an agent or editor’s place. They go through the same process.

5. Don’t be afraid to cut and rewrite. Some authors save multiple versions of chapters or scenes they’ve either cut or significantly rewritten. That way, you aren’t grieving the loss of throwing something away you spent a lot of time and thought on. Read the first chapter, then open a blank document. Start writing the beginning again, taking a different angle. Maybe instead of external dialogue you start with action. Maybe instead of description, you start with internal dialogue.

Finally, realize that the first chapter sets the precedent for the entire book. If you find yourself saying, “But it gets really good on page 45,” you need to take a second look. And remember if you are writing non-fiction, the introduction needs to have a compelling hook, as well as the first pages of chapter one. No pressure. Just make sure it's perfect :)


Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Excellent recommendations, Heather. I especially like the one about reading the first page of 10 books like an editor must do with our submissions.

Heather B. Moore said...

I must confess, it's something I've tried before when trying to compose a good hook in the opening paragraphs.

Janette Rallison said...

This is great advice. You're brilliant!

Annette Lyon said...

#5 is the key for me. I have more rewritten first chapters than anyone I know. I go into a new book knowing I'll rewrite the beginning ten times or more, and that's okay--even if it gets hard--as long as I'm willing to revise it until it actually WORKS. Great points!

Anonymous said...

I think I'm on the 10th rewrite of one of my books in progress. Thanks for the info. I'll incorporate it!

melissa c said...

Thank you for your recommendations. I am writing my first novel and I love to read. I have read just about everything I can get my hands on.

I agree about a good hook. If it doesn't grab in in the first page, I have a hard time wanting to go on.

I will keep this in mind as I go.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I hear ya, sister friend! In fact, my next project is to go back to a previously written manuscript and totally pump up the first few chapters. Or burn them, I haven't decided yet.