Let's start with CHAPTER ONE: Do's and Don'ts Agents Look For.
Over the past few months, I’ve been going over some of the notes and reviews from beta readers for my two most recently completed manuscripts. Not that I’m making excuses for past mistakes when I say that, since I’ve no longer been chained to a 9-5 job thanks to the COVID 19 pandemic, I’ve had a lot more time to put into my writing. Time to dig deeper into the mechanics of how to create a book that people will want to read. Let’s face it, even though talent and imagination are at the forefront, there are still processes that must be followed.
Much like when a builder constructs a home, there are steps and blueprints that must be adhered to or the whole thing will crumble. Therefore, I have been delving deeper into what agents, editors and publishers look for and why they reject so many projects.
Let’s start with CHAPTER ONE, which will be what is requested as a sample of our writing. Agents and editors want to get hooked from the first paragraph, connect with the characters and fall in love with the story. Below are a few of the DON’Ts I’ve recently learned, and have been guilty of in the past, that will turn off agents before they even read the full manuscript.
1. An overly slow opening. Give your audience a reason to continue reading your book. Getting to the meat of the inciting incident should grab them and make them need to read more.
2. Generic or clichéd beginnings. Such as the character waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, or a dream sequence. Premonitions or overt foreshadowing is another type of clichéd opening.
3. Overwritten prose. Don’t try so hard to impress your reader. Yes, a great opening is what you’re looking for but don’t overthink it. In some cases, less is more. You have to hook the reader into wanting to find out what is going to happen next but if you try too hard, you could have the opposite effect.
4. Too much descriptive detail. “Conflict is the heart of all great fiction.” Actually, the entire story will probably be about conflict and your opening chapter should be as well. Description and detail should come later as the story itself unfolds.
5. Backstory or info dumping. Big no-no. (I learned this the hard way :( Opening with the inciting incident and/or conflict without a backstory will only entice your readers to want to know why and how your character got to this point. Readers are smarter than some of us really give them credit for. They don’t need to be led by the hand through the story, they want to learn themselves, so let them.
6. False beginnings or Bait and Switch. Focusing your first chapter on a character, getting your reader to fall in love with them, and then killing them off before the second chapter, can really disappoint your reader and make them feel cheated. Or if you begin your chapter with an enticing or engaging sequence that turns out to be a dream can also give your audience the same feeling.
7. An unnecessary Prologue. There are arguments that this device is ever necessary. If you feel it is essential to the way your story unfolds, then use it very carefully. While it doesn’t count as the first chapter, it should still follow the first chapter guidelines with even more enticing elements.
I found this small list on a website called Writer's Edit. This is an invaluable site for those of us who are still looking for the recipe to write the perfect fiction novel.
Now, a short checklist for things to look for, (or DO’s) in your first chapter.
1. Introduce your main character. Open your scene with your protagonist. Just because television and movies don’t do it this way, books are a whole different animal. Whoever the reader meets first will be who they will bond with.
2. Make us care enough to go on their journey with them. There’s no real tried-and-true formula for this but agents and editors want a “sympathetic” protagonist. Think, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights. Honestly, I hated this character yet most consider him the epitome of “the tortured soul.” I considered him a mean-spirited jerk. But the point here is that Heathcliff’s character has captured the hearts and minds of readers since 1864. And how about Scarlett O’Hara from gone with the wind? She was nothing more than a spoiled little rich girl but people still find her character fascinating. Characters don’t have to be as flawed as the ones I just mentioned, but they should be memorable and relatable.
3. Set the tone and theme of your story. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, light and flirty is the way to go. If you’re writing a thriller, not so much. Use your genre to set the tone for the first chapter and follow it throughout the story. That’s not to say a romantic comedy can’t have suspense, or a thriller can’t have humor. Just not in the opening chapter.
4. Let the reader know when and where they are. If you’re writing a contemporary thriller, futuristic science fiction or historical romance, let the reader see it in the first few lines. But don’t overdo the description. Give only the absolute necessities and fill in the details later in your story.
5. Introduce your antagonist. To clear up any misconceptions, there is a huge difference between villain and antagonist. Whereas a villain is the evil person bent on serial murder or taking over the world that must be thwarted by the hero, the antagonist can come in many forms. It can be an entire society, a company or even an addiction.
6. Ignite the conflict and give us a goal. The conflict is crucial in the opening scene and is what drives the plot. The inciting incident is where your protagonist begins his metamorphosis to reach his goal. Both are needed to keep your reader locked into your book.
1. Introduce the other major characters. Don’t let minor characters upstage your hero. As a matter of fact, you’re better off with no minor characters showing up in your opening chapter.
I hope what I have shared with you today helps you find your own process for writing your first chapter. Writers write and rewrite and . . . well, you know where I’m going with this. So, don’t give up if your responses from agents aren’t what you hope for. The publishing industry is subjective and if one agent declines, the next one may very well FALL IN LOVE with it and want to sign you up immediately. So keep plugging away and keep writing.