Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chapter 1.

I am talking about the very start of your novel. The part where you grab the reader and suck them into the world you created in your head. The world that houses awesome characters, mighty conflicts and love interests galore.  What makes up a great beginning? Well, for me as a reader I want action.  I really like books that take me on a wild ride from the start. The first chapter is supposed to tell you basically what the whole book is about, right? That is what I am learning at least.

When I wrote my first draft, my first chapter was fantastic in my eyes. After learning more it was more backstory than anything else. This is not a bad thing in fact it was great for me as the writer. It helped me envision the scene more clearly and get to know my characters better-- especially my protagonist.  My CPs have helped in this department along with some open critiques. I also bought a book --Hooked by Les Edgerton.  I have only read a little of it and so far it is great. Most of the questions I have I am sure will be answered by this cute little blue book but I want to know from you.

The photo is not the best but there is a goldfish on it with a hook at the top --get it:) Anyway, I am on my fifth revision of my first chapter.  I keep going back to it. I think because I am stuck on my second chapter which is becoming trouble. Right now chapter 2 is a problem--not because of the content but there is so much to be done.  So I keep going back to chapter 1.

I have been reading first chapters of books that I have read. This has made me confused. Some books in my eyes still seem to have a lot of backstory but seem successful. Now I am not saying that my first draft would have been fine --no way it is really bad-- but what does the public like? I know what I like. The advice I have been given is to get to the action ASAP but some of these successful novels don't seem to do this --at least not to me.

Another thing I question --Is there a rule on how long your first chapter should be? I am guessing not.  I have read some that are thirty pages and some that are one. Would an editor or agent toss out a manuscript for length of the first chapter?

What do you like in your first chapter as a writer/reader?

How long do you feel a first chapter should be?

Any advice from your experience in writing a great first chapter?

Many questions I know but since I am constantly looking at this chapter it is what's on my mind. My normal lack of sleep doesn't help either. 

Since I spoke of beginnings, get over to Kelly's (Kelly's Compositions) and sign up for the First Page Blogfest takes place on April 2nd.

Happy writing and revising!


  1. Ahh first chapters, the most important chapter of the whole book, reeling them in. Not an easy task at times, you want to make sure it's perfect.

    I think the perfect beginning is an action piece, something that throws the reader in (but doesn't lose them) they have no idea what's going on but want to know, desperately want to know so they search through the pages and eventually have to follow into Chapter 2 for a better explination. As for how long a chapter should be I would think it's based on feeling, I suppose for the first chapter it would be okay to be a smaller one, but I am by no means and expert and look forward to the responses you get!

  2. I think it depends on the genre. Action books need action and short chapters. Romance novels need some back story and longer chapters. Young adult needs a mix of both and short chapters.

    As a reader I like short chapters just because I tend to read little bits throughout the day and I need to set the book down. And sometimes I find that book that I can't set down and my day goes to...

    Don't write this book for the public, you'll never get everyone to like it. Write the book the way it needs to be. Maybe have an audience in mind, but just write the book. (I know that's awful advice, but I believe in it. lol.)

  3. As far as I know, there are hardly any rules concerning the length of your first chapter. And in general I do like it when I get some background information at the beginning of the story. My favorite books seem to put most of the background info you really need for the story somewhere in the first 20 pages. Whether it actually fits in the very very first chapter might depend on how you mix background info and story - I really don't like it when a book starts with detailed discussion on how this led to something else, which had as a consequence that something entirely different happened, and at first glance this might have nothing to do with the story since it happened on the other half of the world, but we have to consider that... *bla*.

    You know what I mean?

  4. I'm with Aimie, I believe that you need to write the book YOU want to read. Because I think your passion will come through and readers instantly feel that, and that is what hooks them. Your commitment, your love for what you're writing. And you have that. I say go with your gut, it usually is pretty smart. I know that's probably not the answer you wanted.

    But I'm going to relate it to art just because I have a little more experience there, when I see a painting that was painted with passion, you can just feel it and even if it's not done the way you would paint it or even in the style you typically like, it still moves you, you can feel the hand of the artist in it and your swept away in their own passion and conviction for their work. More than you ever would be if they painted just to fit the market.

    I think the same thing goes for writers, write what you would love to read in a first chapter, because if you feel it than others will too.

    I'm not saying that we don't need to think about what the publishing industry wants, just that I think work that follows your passion is what gets readers to care.

    Now I feel like I've left my own opinionated blog post in the comment section. Ummm. . . Sorry about that :)

  5. Personally, as long as the entire book isn't laid out in the first chapter I don't mind backstory.

    First chapters are hard. REally hard. I struggled with mine. For months. I have a tendency to over-explain and throw in tons of backstory. I think I finally nailed my chapter 1. Hook, line and sinker. LOL. But I still struggle with throwing in too much info. It's really hard for me to spread it out, though I've learned that's the best way to build suspense and keep the reader wanting more. Just give them enough to pique their interest and then make them follow the bread crumbs learning a little at a time. LOL. ; )

  6. I know this is an extremely complex question, and I wish I had some wisdom to offer you. As a PB writer, I don't really deal with this problem - Thank God. :-)

  7. Maybe I'm just a weird reader but I don't toss a book just because the first chapter sucks. I strive to finish every book I start because if someone took the time to write it then I can spare the time to read it all. That's what I will want readers to do for me. (Interestingly, I've got my mom doing this, too: "Since I have a writer for a daughter, I may as well give every book I pick up a chance." Gotta love the youthful influence.)

    With my first chapter, I try to drop the reader into the middle of something and then immediately take off into the story. I like action but if you have an awesome first chapter and the rest of them are sub-par, you've lost me.

    Not quite sure that helps you at all. Just my thoughts. :o)

  8. this is a really great post, and it poses some really great questions. i remember the first draft i ever wrote and my first chapter was pretty cruddy. i think i was just so excited that i'd written something i was convinced it was amazing, haha. but after you keep writing for awhile, it becomes almost second nature. after reading enough books and writing enough books it just becomes.. easier i guess. i don't really have a formula though. interestingly enough, with the book my agent signed me for, the first chapter was never something she had a problem with -- i never had to revise it. i was surprised it even worked.

    but i think first chapters should be short -- maybe 5-10 pages, and they should immediately dive into something, and they should end with something that makes the reader want to, well, keep reading.

    just my two cents. not sure it even makes sense.

    best of luck with all of your work!!

  9. Great post - I've been hearing a lot about 'Hooked'. My perception of what a first chapter should be: an initial hook to get the reader into the story that helps set up the world of the protagonist, but not necessarily a lot of backstory, etc. My first chapters tend to be fairly short and I try not to let too much history creep in! It's so hard!

  10. I've never written a lot of back story in my first chapters because things start in media res- right in the middle of action. Yes, there is some back story, but there's a fine line between "Let me tell you about my past" and something like "this wasn't the first time I'd been here". As for length, I have no clue. My chapters have a tendency of stopping when the want to stop.

  11. I've been researching and agonizing and talking to people about this for at least a year now. I think it boils down to a few things.

    1. Regardless of genre, you don't necessarily need physical action (i.e. a fistfight or a car accident). These things can actually seem contrived and turn readers off. But you need to have *something* happening that will draw readers in and make them want to know what happens next. Sometimes all it takes is an intriguing voice.

    2. Readers are typically obsessed with finding something to read. They need their next "book fix.' So, they aren't that discriminating. The people you need to worry about are the agents. The jaded, overworked, underpaid, "you have five seconds to get my attention before I hit the delete button" agents. Or, to be even more specific, their jaded, overworked, underpaid interns who are picking through the slush pile and filtering which the queries are actually exposed to the agents' eyeballs, and may not have as much experience at picking winners as the agent herself.

    3. New writers have to follow much stricter rules than those who are already published. Once you have a contract and have built up a following, you can have a lot more flexibility.

    4. Every rule is made to be broken.

  12. P.S. Here's a really good article from Writer's Digest that I stumbled across:

  13. Excellent post! You're right in that the first chapter is so hard to write. You have the presssure of trying to hook not only the reader, but any potential agent or editor if you're still unpublished. I agree with many of the others that you should start in the middle of things but remember to get to your first character"turning point" fairly quickly. As for chapter length - I've read books with chapters anywhere from a few pages up to 30 or more. I think it just depends on the story you have to tell. In my WIP, my chapters are all anywhere from 8 - 12 pages. Good luck with your chapter:)

  14. I figure most books I've read have around 20-25 chapters. So, for a 100K word manuscript, that's about 4,000-5,000 words per chapter. So that's how I'm dividing mine up.