Monday, July 11, 2011

Perfecting the First Chapter

By Julie Daines

I thought I'd add to Scott's excellent post about revising by touching a little on the all-important first chapter.

We all know how important the first chapter is in getting through the slush pile, but some writers can't seem to get past it. They spend months and months revising and editing it trying to get it perfect, but never get around to finishing the book.

That is where Scott's advice is so important. The best way to have a perfect first chapter is to FINISH THE BOOK. 

The first chapter sets up the whole novel. If the ending is unwritten, how can the first chapter set up the story to its full extent?

The first chapter should do several things:

1. Have a hook. Grab the reader’s attention and give them an idea of what to expect. But how can the writer know what the reader should expect until the work is completed as a whole?

2. Create a sense of voice. Voice takes time to develop. If you want a consistent voice, you have to write to the end. By the end of your story, you're voice will be organic and real. Then go back and fix the voice in the first chapter to make it consistent.

3. Use the perfect POV. Meaning that whichever point of view you choose to write from, it should be for a reason. And all the other elements in the story--setting, description, emotion--should be told only as they relate to the MC and the point of view. Sometimes it's hard to know if the point of view we've chosen is the right one for the story until we've gotten to the end of the book.

4. Establish the main problem of the story. According to Martine Leavitt, the best books must have the problem front and center. I've found for me, the problem I start out writing about doesn’t always end up being the most important one in the novel. That’s why it’s so important to know the end before the beginning can be perfected.

So, follow Scott’s advice. Finish your work. Let it sit. Then go back and revise the heck out of your first chapter. Your work will be stronger, more powerful, and more meaningful if you do.

For more advice on the first chapter, see my blog post here.


Andrea Mack said...

Such great advice, Julia! Thank you. I think the first chapter also sets up the tone for the story and lets you know what to expect.

Scott said...

Great advice. I know a guy who really wants to write a novel but can't get past an imperfect first chapter. I keep telling him to write the whole thing, then go back, but he just can't do it. As a result, it's unlikely he'll ever write one.

Peggy Eddleman said...

I think I might have to go back to my first chapter now and make sure #4 in your list is strong enough. Thanks for this!