First Pages of First Chapters

What is the most important chapter in your novel? Some say it’s the first, and others argue it’s the last. They’re both right for different reasons. However, if your first chapter isn’t dynamite, no one will see that great last chapter

With today’s agents and publishers so swamped with submissions, you must make sure you’ve done everything possible to grab their immediate attention – and interest.

It doesn’t matter the genre in which you’re writing; what does matter is how you present the material.

I listened attentively at conferences when agents and/or publishers spoke about submissions, and at one a few years ago, a top agent said she could tell within the first couple of paragraphs whether or not the writer knew what she/he was doing. She said it may sound harsh, but with so many submissions each week, she usually read the first page, perhaps the second, before deciding if the material was worth reading. Then she, or another agent or publisher, can’t quite remember, went on to talk about first chapters, how important they were and what they must accomplish.

Now I understand what that first agent meant, because by now I’ve worked with so many writers over the years, teaching, editing, that I, too, can tell very quickly. It may sound harsh, but as in any other profession, experience does give an advantage.

And I look for that quality when I’m considering a new book to read. It must grab me, make me want to read more, and the ability to do so takes skill. It doesn’t have to be a murder, a car chase, or even a bank robbery, but whatever it is, it has to be written in a way, as another agent said, to create curiosity, usually by forming a question or several questions in the reader’s mind, and they must read to learn the answer(s).

Of course it’s great to have that car-chasing opening scene, or a doctor going berserk in the operating room. But if that’s not your genre, think about creating questions in your reader’s mind.

EXAMPLE:

The opening of Ten Times Guilty:

He waited in the stand of poplars behind the bus shelter, his black sweats fading into shadows cast by the midnight moon. A ski mask covered his face.

At twelve-seventeen, a Denver city bus approached the residential shelter. Air brakes hissing, it rolled to a stop and Cindy Harris, a sweater draped over her blue scrubs, stepped to the pavement. Glass shards from the streetlight crunched under her feet.

She glanced at the shattered light, then to the houses lining the gloomy street. The older frame bungalows, many with porches holding swings and chaise lounges, stood dark and silent.

Where were all the people? Surely someone was still awake, but there were no lights, not even from an upstairs window. She felt like a lone astronaut landing on a stark, barren planet.

With a whine of the engine and a cloud of exhaust fumes, the bus pulled away. Cindy desperately wanted to run after it and beg the driver not to leave her alone, but she’d never get home if she stayed on the bus. And she needed to fall into her bed for at least a couple of hours before she had to get back to the hospital for another sixteen-hour shift. Nurse’s training had been grueling, but she hadn’t known rough until several nurses called in sick and she’d had to pull three double-shifts her first week. She would get through it though; she’d be the best nurse County General ever had. Registered nurse, she thought, fingering her shiny new pin.

Straightening her shoulders, she left the shelter. At least she had only two blocks to walk. That wouldn’t be so bad.

For more about Ten Times Guilty, click here:

I’d hoped to cause the reader to ask who was the HE waiting at midnight? And what, or who, was he waiting for? Then, in the next paragraph, I presented a possible answer, a bus with a nurse as a passenger. I wanted to show her reactions to the dark, gloomy night. Then, of course, comes the bigger question. If SHE’S who HE’S waiting for, will he get her?

Questions, questions, questions, with setting, etc, woven in.

See how you can create questions in your readers’ minds, questions they’ll feel the have to read further for the answer.

I'm a novelist, short story writer, and I currently serve as Editor in Chief for The Knight Writers Magazine and CEO for L. Cooper Press, a service for writers. Thomson-Gale bought one of my novels, With Full Malice, for their 5 Star Mystery line, then Harlequin WorldWide Mysteries bought the mass market paperback rights. I lead a novel critique group in Redlands, CA, so if you're in the area and writing a novel, join us: http://www.meetup.com/SoCal-Novel-Writers-Workshop/ When I can't attend, M.L. Spencer, a fantastic fantasy author, leads the group. For information about The Knight Writers Magazine, check our website. We're always open to submissions: http://www.theknightwritersmagazine.com

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One comment on “First Pages of First Chapters
  1. Jenny Woodall says:

    Very sound advice for new and experienced novelists alike. The example you quoted sent chills down my spine, and made me wish Icould have read more.

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