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.
Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest by AJ Wells, who has read and judged slews of self-published books for contests. He has some good tips that, of course, you can take or leave. But consider them carefully before you leave. There are pros and cons to every tip in every aspect, and you want to spend a think or two on each as you’re considering a self-publishing effort.
Right now, there are lots and lots of people going that route, and you have to remember that the competition is tremendous. Everything you do can have a major impact on whether you can sell something or not. As an example, I always hear from other writers, teachers, agents, and publishers about Tip #2 on opening lines, and how extremely crucial it is. And then I read one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone books in which the entire first chapter was pretty much a play-by-play narration of a softball game. At the end of the chapter, a body was found on a shoreline.
This was perturbing to me when thinking about how a whole lot of really Big and Famous Writers can get away with a violation of Tip #2, but we struggling wordsmiths have to adhere to it or fail miserably. But don’t forget the Big Point: Robert B. Parker has written umpty-bunches of books and sold a bazillion of each of them, and all his fans know it, and they know they’ll get a good heap of entertainment out of it even if it starts a little wimpy. Most of the Big and Famous Writers can get away with it…you can’t. Never forget those thousands of people who are competing with you for readers. You have to get their attention or you might as well just keep your wonderful novel at home and read it to yourself.
Is self-publishing the route you need to take? Think about it and make up your own mind, but take a good gander at AJ Wells’ thoughts and consider them carefully before you take the plunge. And good luck.
5 Tips on Writing a Standout Self-Published Book From Someone Who’s Read Hundreds of Them
WD competition judge AJ Wells breaks down what will make or break your self-published book, from cover design to plot construction.
Jan 6, 2021
As a judge for Writer’s Digest self-published competitions, it’s my mini-Christmas when the books arrive. I can’t help but be in awe of the work these authors have done. At the same time, I have to admit that I feel strong disappointment when an incredible book has a critical flaw—as in a mistake that I simply can’t look beyond no matter how great everything else is—especially when that critical flaw is a common occurrence amongst self-published books.
The world of writing help often points to writing in general, yet I think that self-publishing is a genre unto itself. Therefore, here are five pieces of advice I’d give to someone planning to self publish.
1. Judge Your Book by Its Cover
It might seem obvious, but the cover is the very first thing a reader sees on a book. The right self-published cover invites precious readers inside, like a gracious host welcoming his guests for dinner. The goal is to get someone excited about holding your book and cracking it open.
Simply put, the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is for readers. Not self-published authors. This always pains me to critique, because the cover design often directly corresponds to money spent. As the financier of your book, you cannot cut corners. Imagine having your book published traditionally, and the publisher decides to apply budget cuts to the front cover. The author should be livid! Covers don’t have to be the fanciest, shiniest illustrations. Instead, they ought to present the essence of the book with the hope of hooking a reader in your specific audience. The quality is crucial. Unfortunately, just because your graphic artist friend drew something up for you, it doesn’t work if it doesn’t look professional.
The quality of covers isn’t always entirely money-related. Typos in the back cover synopsis absolutely sink a self-published book. Overemphasizing the author’s credentials or putting too many blurbs can overshadow the story and often don’t help win a reader over.
Some of my favorite examples from judging are The Word Dancer by Maxine Rose Schur and In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth W. Harmon. Both of these covers have an outstanding appeal of professionalism while also offering the idiosyncratic nature of the book.
2. Start on the Right Foot
If you’ve ever made a decision as to which book to buy from the bookstore based upon the opening lines, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes we don’t know why opening lines connect with us so effectively, but I’ve got some ideas as to what contributes to this “love at first sight” feeling.
The most successful books I’ve judged established tension immediately. They did not use the opening lines to describe the sunset or how the grass blew, but they focused directly on what was at stake. As best explained to me by Maria Kuznetsova, author of Oksana, Behave!, the line of tension must be taut from beginning to end of the novel. The tauter the line, the more conflicts can be hung from it.
Writing quality can be sensed immediately in the opening lines. This is not always foolproof, since self-published books can have inconsistent writing (bonus tip: watch out for disparate tones!), but if the beginning of a book lacks crisp, fresh language, I struggle to get excited about the rest of the book.
Also, I expect the beginning of the book to establish the rules, particularly when it comes to perspective and character intimacy (see tip #3). Ground me in the world of your book, but do so as a good host might. A good host doesn’t bore his guest with a detailed tour right off the bat, but rather points out what the visitor needs or wants to know so that the true entertainment may happen.
One of the most affecting opening scenes from this year’s competition came from Wilderness Therapy by Paul Cumbo, who directly placed his reader in the trauma of Whitaker (the main character) from losing his father, only to (spoiler alert) hang further tension later by adding the more affective scene: the drowning of Whitaker’s brother. Cumbo, most importantly, allowed the gravity of the tension to speak for itself and used crisp, vivid writing that allowed accessibility as opposed to overdramatizing these events.
Once again, I have managed to stumble across some excellent wisdom about writing. This is from the Career Authors website, written by Paula Munier, who is a literary agent, teacher, author, and all-around Knower Of Stuff. We all know that it’s been an extreme year, sneaking up on us and doing things to us nobody saw coming, but at least it has taught us things about the biz that are good to know. You gotta find the good where you can, and at least you don’t have to dig for this little segment of it. Ms. Munier has some well-thought ruminations about what The Year 2020 has done to us and for us, and what it means to the world of writing. Pay attention — it’s always good to have somebody else do some of the thinking for you.
10 Writing Lessons We Learned from 2020
Hindsight is 2020. I stole that great line from my son Greg Bergman, Editor-in-Chief for capitalwatch.com. This year was a nightmare, but we did learn a lot—the hard way—about our industry, ourselves, and each other.
1) Backlist matters.
As terrible a year as this may have been for frontlist (books published in 2020, especially in earlier in the year), backlist (books published before 2020) sold very well. Stuck at home, lots of people turned to reading for escape, entertainment, and enlightenment—and when they did, they often turned to the authors they already knew and loved. That’s why book sales were actually up this year—6.4% for print books alone—and established writers benefited the most. The industry typically neglects backlist, but that changed this year. Let’s hope that this new focus on backlist sales extends beyond the pandemic. And that frontlist rebounds.
2) Zoom events can work.
You have to feel sorry for those debut and midlist writers whose books came out in March, April, May, and June. With so many bookstores closed, all in-store book events were canceled, along with the book festivals and conferences and library events that celebrate authors and books. Those publishers that had ignored online events and digital marketing (and there were many) were dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, scrambling to create digital promotion and marketing campaigns as well as online events before they were completely left behind.
3) Writers write.
This year taught us that you can write at your kitchen table with your spouse working from home and your kids schooling from home and your dogs and cats barking and meowing from home. Or not. Either way, we all learned something about the way we work best—and how to carve out our sacred writing time no matter what happens or where you are or who’s in your face.
4) Writers write. Part Deux.
Writing under the aforementioned circumstances may have proved that you do indeed require, as Virginia Woolf warned us nearly a century ago, “a room of one’s own.” I’d been working mostly from our living room, my upstairs office serving double duty as the guest room where my son spent the early months of the pandemic before returning to the city.
When I was asked to do an interview with WABC TV with Sandy Kenyon, including footage of me at my desk, I realized that I needed to get a desk. I got one and reclaimed the guest room as my writing space. It’s the perfect hideaway as I plug away on book four in my Mercy Carr series.