The First Chapter is the toughest!
by Ruth Harris
Someone waves a gun in the first sentence.
In the second sentence, Jim (or is it Jill?) is walking his (or is it her?) dog in the rain.
In the third paragraph, the dog gets loose, runs into the middle of a movie set where the handsomest/most beautiful/most famous movie star in the world falls instantly in love with the owner of the toy poodle/doberman pinscher/golden retriever.
In the last paragraph, Jim (or is it Jill?) is tied up in a cellar. She or he is getting fired/laid by his/her billionaire boss. Or s/he is in the kitchen making cupcakes. Or driving a Ferrari on the Grand Corniche while some people (good guys? bad guys?) are going somewhere in a truck/tank/bus/boat/private jet.
So what is this? A mystery? A thriller? A cozy? A romance? Urban fantasy?
Who the hell knows?
Certainly not the reader who by now is gone, girl, gone.
Basically, what we have here is a mess.
Of course I exaggerate but, based on a recent random reading of “Look Inside” samples, I didn’t completely make this up, either.
Your first chapter needs to be seductive, enticing, compelling and coherent. Getting it right is crucial—and it’s not easy.
For some writers, including Anne and me, writing the first chapter is the last thing we do. Or, to be more accurate, rewriting the first chapter for the umpteenth time is the last thing we do because, by then, we actually have an idea of what the d*mn book is about. ?
Here are some first chapter problems I found more often than I expected—and some fixes.
Huh? There’s a plot?
Supposedly there are only seven plots but, whether you’re writing romance or horror, scifi or women’s fiction, you need to:
- Follow the demands of genre to satisfy the expectations of your readers.
- Have a plot (even if you’re writing literary fiction.)
You don’t start a sweet romance with a bloody shoot-out on a drug lord’s estate in the remote Zika-infested jungles of South America.
Nor do you begin chick lit with a scene set in a meth lab located on a space ship marooned in a distant galaxy.
Literary fiction should be free of intellectual and linguistic sins like cliché-d ideas, poor grammar, and banal choice of language even as the writer draws the reader in and piques her curiosity about what is going on and what will happen next.
Tips and fixes:
- Here is an extensive list of the major fiction (and non fiction) genres with definitions.
- Writer’s Digest offers a breakdown of genres and categories.
- The 17 most popular genres (and sub-genres) and why they matter.
- A guide to how—and why—to choose a genre.
- Tips from children’s book author Malorie Blackmanon on writing genre fiction for children.
- Flip your characters to create a plot twist.
- As Steve Jobs pointed out, you can only make sense of things when you look back so, to untangle the chaos and confusion, turn to the magic of the reverse outline.
Who dat? MC blues.
Back to Jim and Jill: Who’s he? A scientist, a nurse, a computer geek, an assassin, a monk, an Olympic weight lifter?
And Jill? Who’s she? A janitor, an astronaut, a C-suite exec, a waitress, a poet, an auto mechanic?
Jim and Jill? How are they related? Lovers, enemies, rivals, exes, teammates, classmates, collaborators, strangers on a collision course?
You should almost always introduce your protagonist in the first sentence or at least the first few paragraphs. When you create your MC (or any character), be real and be specific. Give your reader someone to root for, cry over, admire, relate to, be afraid of, be curious about.
Tips and fixes:
- How to write compelling characters with specific ideas to get you started.
- From blind spots to obsessions to psychic wounds, author Justine Musk offers 13 ways to create compelling characters.
- Jean Oram,The Helpful Writer, explains how to write the vulnerable character.
- Brian Klems tells how to add dimension to make an ordinary character stand out.
- K.M. Weiland, the award-winning and internationally published author, shares thoughts about the six different types of brave characters.
Are these people nuts?
Characters, main or minor, robots or zombies, superheroes or quilters, need to be recognizable and relatable.
Characters who don’t make sense (for example, the character who tries to fend off a fire-breathing dragon with a slice of gluten-free bread) will cause readers to bail but that doesn’t mean you can—or should—write boring, plain vanilla characters.
Tips and Fixes:
- Neurotics can be fascinating. (Fear Of Flying)
- Even fiendish serial killers love their pets (Silence Of The Lambs)
- Bad boy friends make good reading. (Bridget Jones)
- Monsters are memorable. (Frankenstein)
- Sadists will grab your reader’s attention. (Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest)
- Characters with unexpected supernatural powers have a life of their own. (Carrie)
- Loners on a mission draw interest. (Jack Reacher)
- A shark with an appetite terrorizes a resort community. (Jaws)
- A friendly dolphin. (Flipper)
- Canine characters, mostly good but not always, from loyal Lassie to rabid Cujo.
- Extinct animals come back to life via DNA in dinosaur-driven Jurassic Park.
Where the eff are we?
Glam, glittering Shanghai or a muddy, miserable migrant camp?
A gated community, an ethnic enclave, a down-at-the-heels trailer park or a Downton Abbey drawing room?
Your setting is crucial and, done well, setting can be almost as important as a riveting MC.
Tips and fixes:
Anne went underground: “The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh. I should have known better than to wear a dress on a day I had to take the subway, but in the middle of a New York heat wave, I couldn’t face another day in a pants suit.”
Ruth hit the streets: “I stepped out into Second Avenue, I held out my arm for a taxi the way Ralph did but none stopped. Without six foot, two inches of ex-cop standing next to me I apparently no longer existed. Proof positive—as if I needed anything more to undermine my confidence—that I had reached the age at which women became invisible.”
Where are we? Couldn’t be anywhere else except the Big Apple, bay-bee!
- Author Jody Hedlund offers five tips for writing better settings.
- Here’s how to use all 5 senses to create your setting with some easy exercises to help get you started.
- An approach to setting that includes examples from Tim O’Brien, JK Rowling and James Joyce plus a self quiz to help refine your own attempts.
Togas or tiaras? Roman or Regency?
Historical or contemporary?
War or peace?
Peasants or princes?
Clothes, said Mark Twain, make the man. And the woman, as any woman in her right mind knows—whether she’s shopping at Saks or Lululemon, at the mall, the thrift shop or on her tablet. Clothes are also psychology, sociology, history, identity and help create the character and convey the time and setting of your book.
From shoes to swimwear to evening wear, whether you’re writing about Betty Boop or Gordon Gekko, Alexander Hamilton or Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or Khloe Kardashian, about Catherine the Great or the girl next door, their clothes are your secret weapon, a powerful signal and a way to bring your characters into focus for yourself—and for your readers.
Tips and fixes:
- Fashion blogs like Man Repeller are up-to-date on this-minute looks and trends.
- Vogue.com highlights the latest in high fashion.
- Styles of the Victorian era.
- Fashion, à la Jane Austen.
- Period US military uniforms, Old West, Gilded Age and antebellum wardrobes.
- Garance Doré blogs about current trends in beauty, fashion and lifestyle.
Out! D*mn typo!
I wish I didn’t have to include this but I see sooooo many basic editing errors when I cruise the “Look Inside” offerings. Typos, grammar and punctuation matter if you want to attract—and keep—readers. There’s lots of free help all around the web so please tidy up the essentials.
Tips and fixes:
- My editing post tells you what oopsies to look for and what to do about them.
- Kristen Lamb lists 10 editing tools will help you self-edit.
- Here’s Anne’s post with A Checklist For Editing your First Chapter
- And self-editing tips from Catherine Ryan Hyde
- A search for How To Edit A Manuscript will bring up dozens of helpful sites.
Be Like Nora!
Nora Ephron said that the reason the beginnings of her books are better than the endings is that she revises, rewrites, polishes them over and over. And over again. So put in the necessary time and work, and begin your book with a chapter readers will love and you will be proud of. It’s worth it!
by Ruth Harris (@ruthharrisbooks) June 26, 2016
What about you? Do you write your first chapter last? What tips can you give for getting that opener just right? Do you judge a book by its “Look Inside” pages on retail sites?
A Note About the Amazing Disappearing Blog:
This blog has been under attack by hacker bots for the last few days. When the mass attack gets overwhelming, the host shuts down the site. That’s what has happened a number of times this week. Apparently the hackers are breaking into to small business websites all over the world, especially Canada, and holding the sites for ransom (we are hosted in Canada.) The good news is, our security has kept them out so far. The bad news is, we might have to shut down again if the hackers come back. Don’t freak out. I’m doing enough freaking out for everybody :-)…Anne
This week Ruth talks on her blog about her tough but funny heroine of the Chanel Caper and Anne continues her poison series with a post on castor beans and ricin.
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