Every word of your book is important. Every chapter. And I’ve mentioned before that the emphasis on the first sentence and first chapter — by everybody who gives advice about writing — irks me because a lot of the big names write tons of backstory and weather and character building in their first chapters and still have great success. But I also mentioned that they have the big followings, and the agents and publishers, and the reputations, and their readers know they’re going to come through with what the readers are looking for, so they get away with it. We somewhat smaller fish in the pond can’t get away with it.
So there you go. The first sentence and first chapter are your targets and you have to turn them into polished gems that will scintillate in the eyes and minds of all those who encounter them. Why? Well, there are several reasons. If you’re looking for an agent, almost all of them want to see your first chapter with your query, and if that doesn’t shine, they won’t want to see any more. Same with publishers. People browsing in the bookstores and libraries will look at the opening to see if it sounds interesting. When you browse through Amazon looking for your next read, and you see a book with a little sign next to it that says “Look inside!”, what do you see? The first chapter. So that’s the hook you use to land all the readers you get. And it has to be a sharp hook with good bait.
Enter Elizabeth Sims — author, contributing editor at Writer’s Digest, and Wise Person Of Note. She wrote an article for Writer’s Digest 10 years ago that they’ve recently unearthed and it’s as pertinent now as it was then. She has a good discussion on crafting that first chapter and you would be another Wise Person if you would read it through and cogitate upon it at length. You do need to be writing on your latest project, but a few minutes spent with this nicely-written article will help you sharpen and bait that hook.
8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One
Fiction, like food, is an art and a craft. Here’s how to blend inspiration with technique and serve up an irresistible Chapter One. Learn eight ways to write an incredible first chapter.
MAR 1, 2011
When you decide to go to a restaurant for a special dinner, you enjoy the anticipation. You’ve committed to spending sufficient time and money, and now you’ve arrived, and the place looks good and smells good. You smile and order an appetizer. When it comes, you enjoy it as a foretaste of the larger, more complex courses that will follow, but you also savor it for what it is: a delicious dish, complete in itself. If it’s a truly great appetizer, you recognize it as an exquisite blend of flavor, texture and temperature. And you’re happy, because you know you’ll be in good hands for the entire evening.
Isn’t that what it’s like to begin reading a terrific book?
The first chapter is the appetizer—small, yet so tremendously important. And so full of potential.
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 a great query letter, a great Chapter One can attract the attention of an agent. It can keep a harried editor from yawning and hitting “delete.” It can make a bookstore browser keep turning pages during the slow walk to the cash registers. And yes, it can even keep a bleary-eyed owner of one of those electronic thingamajigs touching the screen for more, more, more!
Fiction, like food, is an art and a craft. Here’s how to blend inspiration with technique and serve up an irresistible Chapter One.
#1: RESIST TERROR.
Let’s be honest: Agents and editors like to make you quiver and sweat as you approach Chapter One. All those warnings: “Grab me from the opening sentence! Don’t waste one word! If my attention flags, you’ve failed—you’re down the toilet! In fact, don’t even write Chapter One! Start your book at Chapter Four! Leave out all that David Copperfield crap!” From their perspective it’s an acid test. They know how important Chapter One is, and if you’re weak, they’ll scare you into giving up before you begin. (Hey, it makes their jobs easier: one less query in the queue.)
Here’s the truth: 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. Now is the time to gather your guts, smile and let it rip.
Your inner genius flees from tension, so first of all, relax. Notice that I did not say agents and editors are looking for perfect writing. Nor are they looking for careful writing. Honest, original and brave. That’s what they want, and that’s what you’ll produce if you open up room for mistakes and mediocrity. It’s true! Only by doing that will you be able to tap into your wild and free core. Let out the bad with the good now, and you’ll sort it out later.
Second, remember who you are and why you’re writing this book. What is your book about? What purpose(s) will it serve? Write your answers down and look at them from time to time as you write. (By the way, it’s OK to want to write a book simply to entertain people; the noblest art has sprung from just such a humble desire.)
And third, if you haven’t yet outlined, consider doing so. Even the roughest, most rustic framework will give you a sharper eye for your beginning and, again, will serve to unfetter your mind. Your outline could be a simple list of things-that-are-gonna-happen, or it could be a detailed chronological narrative of all your plot threads and how they relate. I find that knowing where I’m headed frees my mind from everything but the writing at hand. Being prepared makes you calm, and better equipped to tap into your unique voice—which is the most important ingredient in a good Chapter One.
#2: DECIDE ON TENSE AND POINT OF VIEW.
Most readers are totally unconscious of tense and POV; all they care about is the story. Is it worth reading? Fun to read? But you must consider your tense and POV carefully, and Chapter One is go time for these decisions. It used to be simple. You’d choose from:
a) First person: I chased the beer wagon.
b) Third-person limited: Tom chased the beer wagon.
c) Omniscient: Tom chased the beer wagon while the villagers watched and wondered, Would all the beer in the world be enough for this oaf?
… and you’d always use past tense.
But today, novels mix points of view and even tenses. In my Rita Farmer novels I shift viewpoints, but limit all POVs to the good guys. By contrast, John Grisham will shift out of the main character’s POV to the bad guy’s for a paragraph or two, then back again. (Some critics have labeled this practice innovative, while others have called it lazy; in the latter case, I’m sure Grisham is crying all the way to the bank.) It’s also worth noting that studies have shown that older readers tend to prefer past tense, while younger ones dig the present. (If that isn’t a statement with larger implications, I don’t know what is.)
Many writing gurus tell you to keep a first novel simple by going with first person, past tense. This approach has worked for thousands of first novels (including mine, 2002’s Holy Hell), but I say go for whatever feels right to you, simple or not. I do, however, recommend that you select present or past tense and stick with it. Similarly, I advise against flashbacks and flash-forwards for first novels. Not that they can’t work, but they seem to be off-putting to agents and editors, who will invariably ask, “Couldn’t this story be told without altering the time-space continuum?”
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.
If you’re still unsure of your tense or POV choices, try these techniques:
Go to your bookshelf and take a survey of some of your favorite novels. What POVs and tenses are selected, and why do you suppose the authors chose those approaches?
Rehearse. Write a scene using first person, then third-person limited, then omniscient. What feels right?
Don’t forget to consider the needs of your story. If you plan to have simultaneous action in Fresno, Vienna and Pitcairn, and you want to show it all in living color, you almost certainly need more than one POV.
And if you’re still in doubt, don’t freeze up—just pick an approach and start writing. Remember, you can always change it later if you need to.