Take a Close Look at that First Chapter

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

I’ve been asked to serve on a critique panel at a writer’s conference a couple of times. These panels allow for authors to read the first page of a novel out loud to a panel of editors and agents and every panel member responds with whether he or she would read more of the book based on that sample and why.  I am not a big fan of these panels because it’s hard for the authors to get up the courage to read the first page to begin with and then many of them are critiqued pretty harshly. For me, it’s hard to think of what to say with so little time to prepare a critique. I always try to be nice, yet truthful. Some editors and agents are just truthful and I’ve even seen an author cry. I hate that!

The point to all of this is that the first pages of your manuscript are crucial! If an editor or agent isn’t drawn into the story quickly, the chance of them continuing to read is very small. The submission pile is always huge and a bad first chapter makes it easy to say no. Don’t make it easy for an editor or agent to say no to your book. Make that first chapter shine.

In the submissions I’ve read recently, I have noticed that many first chapters focus too much on back story and character introductions instead of jumping right in to the plot. It’s great for you to have a thorough understanding of your characters and back story, but you should reveal these details to your audience gradually and naturally as you write. Thankfully, critique partners are great at catching problems like this, so please join a critique group if you aren’t in one already.

Take an honest look at your WIP now. Where does the story actually start? Is your first chapter (or two) necessary to the book?

22 Responses

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    Mine are essential, Rachel. l start with action in the first scene or something that reveals a fundamental personality trait for the lead character, like you would experience it watching a movie. I also write historical fiction that is drawing both male and female positive reader reviews. In my first two that are published and in the 3rd that will be out shortly, the first scene is in the POV of a male character. I’m wondering whether part of getting the men to want to read deeper into the books and to keep them reading to the end is having that first scene be male POV so it’s obviously historical and not romance that is the dominant genre. Even though some of the most emotionally intense scenes and crises related to the romantic thread, I think that first scene being male POV may set the expectation that there is much more to the plot than romance.

    • Carol, for what it’s worth, I suspect that most men feel uncomfortable with a female POV precisely because they can identify with it. Additionally many men are very moved by romantic themes…what is a ‘buddy film’ if not a kind of romance?
      * One can lay this at the feet of latent or overt homophobia, and that undoubtedly plays a role, but I think there’s a deeper issue, and I’ll go out on a limb. Please feel free to chop it off behind me.
      * The thing is, men know one unalterable fact, that there’s one thing women can do that they can’t. To put it crudely, men are forever barred from measuring themselves against the ultimate physical ordeal, that of childbirth. It’s a secret shame that each man carries deep in his soul the knowledge that women are indeed the tougher gender, and there’s never going to be a way to make it otherwise.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Fascinating male perspective, Andrew. We adopted when I was 40 because I chose career over children in my youth, so the only pain I had was writer’s cramp from signing so many papers. I’m very glad we became parents that way, but it was in response to God’s nudging that we should. Obedience pays, and our two kids are wonderful, probably better than what we might have made ourselves. Can’t say I’ve ever wanted to test myself against any kind of intense pain. What’s the correct spelling for “wuss?”

      • No need for you to know the spelling of ‘wuss’, Carol, because that is what you AIN’T.

  2. I just quit a book about four chapters in. First page, I was annoyed by run-on sentences. First chapter, I was put off by the dialog. Still, there was enough to keep me interested . . . until there wasn’t.
    * This is good advice, Rachel. I ask my critique partners if my first chapter captures their interest. I’ve been through it so many times myself, it now bores me. Reading it to a critique panel? The risk of public embarrassment versus the risk of privately landing in the reject pile? Scariest wonderful opportunity ever.

    • Shirlee, I’ve noticed recently that authors are leaving out the comma in compound sentences. They put the conjunction. But … I’ve wondered about this. If I hadn’t studied grammar so much the last few years, I suppose it wouldn’t bother me.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        I think the problem may be so much writing on touch screens where you have to tap a shift key to get a comma. My iPhone needs the alt character screen for a comma, but my Kindle Fire has 4 punctuation marks on the letter screen I sometimes omit the comma on the phone if I’m in a hurry..
        *Writing it wrong too often might be immunizing some against seeing the missing comma as wrong. For me, one missing comma looks like a typo. Many looks like ignorance or sloppiness.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Yes! When I was younger, I would read a book to the end no matter what. These days, I have such limited time that if the writing isn’t top-notch the book gets closed and is never opened again.

  3. Rachel, thank you for this post. It brought to mind a question I have about nonfiction books. I’ve been reading lately that many nonfiction authors are moving away from having an introduction. I’ve also heard advice to keep the introduction, but to give it more of a title, instead of just calling it “Introduction.” I’ve always thought of the introduction as an important part of the book, but some readers admittedly skip over the introduction to get to the ‘good stuff.’ I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think is best.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I like an introduction as long as it is very friendly and not academic. It helps me to know where the book is going from the beginning and shows that the author has focus.
      I do tend to skip forewords though. I know that little introduction done by some other writer is important to a lot of people, but I rarely read them.

  4. Daphne Woodall says:

    Looking back at some of my first pages I feel for the brave ones. Similarly I was working on a project and it took months for me to admit to myself I was interjecting backstory at the beginning. I threw out the first two chapters. I knew I could interject tidbits later.

  5. Rachel, may I make a suggestion for the ‘reading panels’? Don’t have the author read their own work; use a neutral speaker (perhaps the moderator), and read the offerings anonymously. It saves face and brings more objectivity to the reading itself. (This was the technique used by my mentor, Marvin Mudrick, in his writing classes, and it was extremely effective.)
    * I’m not really a fan of jumping straight into plot; I prefer getting to know the characters, and at least a bit of backstory. To examples might be illustrative:
    1) The first chapter of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” opens with the line “Willie Kieth’s first day in the navy came close to being his last day on earth.” He then backs away from this rather alarming introduction to describe what would normally befall a young man arriving at the navy’s officer candidate school at Columbia University in 1943. It’s a different world, and to understand WHY Mr. Kieth almost died you have to get a picture of how the situation came to be. It’s not something most readers, being civilians, would be able to picture.
    2) In ‘Round The Bend’, Nevil Shute devotes the first chapter to the background of the narrator, Tom Cutter; only late in the chapter is the protagonist, Constantine Shak Lin, introduced. Shak Lin goes on to become something of a religious leader in Asia, while working as a mechanic upon aeroplanes in the air freight service begun and run by Cutter; but to know how and more importantly why they got there, how their friendship turned the events of the story as it did, you have to have that backstory well in hand at the outset. I don’t believe it could be done through small reveals ‘along the way’ without making something of a caricature of the either character.
    * In my own work, I’ve tried to use the familiarity I assume a reader will have for the situation to be the touchstone.
    – The protagonist in ‘Blessed Are the Pure Of Heart’ is a Viet Nam veteran with PTSD, and the opening chapter introduces the isolation he feels, and some of the things he subconsciously does to hold on to his youth (like driving an old VW Beetle). I wanted to make his later actions, which would be atypical of a ‘well’ man living in his milieu, to be relatable.
    – ‘Emerald Isle’ has a veteran as the protagonist, but PTSD isn’t his issue; a lost love is, and I could jump right into that story.

    • Jaxon M King says:

      Great idea with a neutral speaker. I would prefer that with the review of my work in order to get truly honest feedback .

    • Rachel Kent says:

      A neutral speaker is a wonderful idea! I will suggest that next time I am supposed to sit on one of these panels.

      And great job evaluating your own work! Sounds like you are on the right track. Also, thanks for the examples from published works.

  6. Sherry Mondragon says:

    I started out freelancing for magazines and quickly learned from the editing that my actual lead was in the second paragraph. I learned to write the first paragraph to get it out of my system, then toss it after I found the real lead.

  7. Jaxon M King says:

    Thank you, Rachel. I am currently rewriting my novel, playing special attention to the first three chapters. Chapter one is definitely the squeaky wheel for me. It’s getting the most grease because of the very reasons you wrote. I am finding so much information on the internet, including you tube vids, geared toward helping authors fine tune their first chapter(s). And honestly, I can feel the work getting better.

  8. Carol Ashby says:

    ACFW just sent out the reminder of the October 15 deadline for the First Impressions contest for unpublished authors. It’s a great way to get feedback on the first 5 pages of your manuscript.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Thanks for this, Carol!

      And if the feedback is hard, you can cry at home by yourself instead of in front of a bunch of people!

  9. My first chapters have long been banished to a “background” file that only those who want a sappy, teenage romance and tragedy as a prequel to my romantic suspense will read. I’m not counting on getting many requests.
    The beginning of my WIP has undergone many more changes, revisions, and total rewrites than any other part. Still learning, but I hope I’m getting there.

  10. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks so much for this…in a pre-revised version, I had a slow 1st chap. with a huge amt. of backstory through plenty of dialogue for the lead character which seemed to mask it. But little acton. Thanks for making it indelible!

    I’ve since scrapped entire first chap. and jumped right into the second which has a lot of plot/action with both characters involved. (historical romance).

    Now the story’s slowed again with third chap. How much inclusion of thoughts/internal conflict) should we introduce in those first three chapters?

    Male vs. female POV: I think it’s very hard writing for the opposite gender; no matter how masculine or feminine we think it sounds. I’ve read high adventure/suspense stories written by men; enjoyed them, but not quite as much as I would women’s fiction. I’m looking for a breather in tough forward-driving writing styles or plots, and many times don’t find them–or at at least don’t get that feeling. Like a wild ride at the carnival, once you’re on…you gotta hold on!– and wait it out.

  11. Angie Arndt says:

    My story, especially my first chapter has undergone many revisions. Because of the loving advice offered through contests (which rarely want more than the first few chapters), my sweet critique partners, and my mentor, my heroine has become stronger and more interesting, like my manuscript.

    One thing that I stubbornly held onto throughout this process was a short prologue from her father’s viewpoint. But as judges and this post point out, the story actually started with the next chapter. The prologue was the backstory that could be woven in throughout. Although I loved writing it and it added depth to my character, it’s now relegated to the “Old Scenes” folder.

    Thanks for the confirmation, Rachel!

  12. Jodi Bracken says:

    Thanks Rachel. I always like reading books and such blog posts, but I have to say that I like reading all the comments just as much. The community that has been built up here is a rare thing 🙂