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The Increasing Importance of the First Chapter

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How important is the first chapter? Does it have the power to make or break a writer’s chance at success?

I recently started the first draft on my third contracted book. Before I sat down to type that opening chapter, I brainstormed a list of possible starting scenes. In fact, during the weeks of researching and plotting for Book 3, I kept a running list of opening ideas.

I don’t approach my first chapter lightly. I want to start the book with action—but not just any action. I want find just the right moment in my character’s life that sets the entire story in motion. Writers usually refer to this as the inciting incident—the igniting flame that starts the fire, the point of change in our character’s normal comfortable life, the incident that forces them to into ever-increasing conflict.

Most of us can agree that we need to craft that first chapter very carefully (Here’s a post I did about potential first chapter problems). But, can the first chapter really be the deciding factor for whether a book succeeds? Is it fair to judge a book primarily on the opening? After all, we’ve all picked up books that started slow and didn’t draw us in right away. But once we persevered, we found ourselves engrossed in the story.

In other words, just because we don’t like the appetizer doesn’t mean we need to get up and leave the restaurant. If we stay, we may still find the meal enjoyable and fulfilling.

Sometimes, we—especially as writers—are willing to take the risk that the ongoing story will be more palatable than the first pages. But what about the rest of the population, both inside and outside the writing industry? How willing are readers to persevere, especially when there are a lot of other tasty-looking stories that tempt their appetites?

That brings us back to my opening question: How critical is the first chapter, really?

I personally think the first paragraph, first page, and first pages are incredibly critical and only growing more so—for both unpublished and published writers. And here’s why:

The growing importance of the 1st chapter for unpublished writers:

Agents and editors alike grow adept at judging a writer’s skill and story in only a page. If you’ve ever judged a contest or done random critiques, then you’ve learned it’s very easy to get a grasp on the writer’s ability from the first page. In other words, you often can judge a book by the first few pages. Not always. But often.

Agents and editors have piles of manuscripts to wade through. As I mentioned in this post: Is the Query System Dying, my agent, Rachelle Gardner received 10,000 queries last year. Nelson Literary had 36,000 queries (about 120/day).

With such staggering numbers and with more people than ever before attempting to write books, writers usually have only one chance to make a good first impression. Fair or not, that’s reality. If the rest of the book is truly stellar, then why not make the first chapter reflective of that?

The growing importance of the 1st chapter for published writers:

Readers can sometimes be more forgiving of established authors who bomb their first chapter or two. However with the birth of digital readers and e-books and online marketing, readers often have the ability to preview the first pages of books from the comfort and ease of home. They can take as long as they want, without the various pressures that come from buying at a brick and mortar bookstore.

More and more online bookstores provide at least the first several pages for viewing. The first chapters of books are often offered free for e-readers. Amazon provides the first twelve pages of The Preacher’s Bride. Oasis Audio, the company that put my book into Audiobook format, posted the reading of the first chapter on YouTube.

In one sense, readers can “try out” a book or author before the purchase. If we don’t hook them with the free sample, they’ll move on to the next book. While the digital system can help us gain new readers if our chapter is impressive, it can also work against us. Readers can more easily walk away from our book if we don’t grab them right away. A blogger friend mentioned she did this very thing to an e-book recently. She read the first chapter, didn't like the writing, and deleted the book. What if the book had gotten better as it progressed? Well, we'll never know. And that's one author who lost a reader over a less-than-stellar first chapter.

My Summary: In the writing biz, as fulfilling as the meat and potatoes of our stories might be, we’ve got to hook the reader with the appetizer. Fair or not, one bite—sometimes, one sniff—is all our readers will take before walking away to find something else that tastes better.

What’s your opinion? Yes, great first chapters have always been important. But do you think it’s becoming more critical for writers to have outstanding first chapters? Is it fair to give so much weight to the opening pages?

64 comments:

  1. I agree that the first chapter is so important––and so tough to write. It takes me twice as long to write and edit my first chapter as other chapters.

    As a reader I've noticed that my patience when deciding whether or not I finish a book is getting shorter and shorter. I used to get at least a quarter into a new book before I'd ever decide not to finish it. Now if it doesn't grab me in the first chapter or two, I move on to the next book.

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  2. I agree that the first chapter is important. The first few pages decides whether the reader want to continue reading or not.

    I, myself, as a reader, if I don't know much about the story I'll flip through the first couple of pages when deciding whether to buy a book. If the first few pages hooks me, then I'll probably want to continue reading.

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  3. Good morning, ladies! Julie, I've found myself with less tolerance in my reading too. I've attributed it to the "writer's curse" the inability to turn off the editor part of my brain when I'm reading. But I wonder if it's also partly cultural--the result of having shorter attention spans and having so much info. and entertainment at our fingertips. It breeds impatience which carries over into our reading habits.

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  4. I think the first chapter will either get you in the door or get the door shut in your face very quickly. An agent/editor doesn't have time to "wait" for a story to get good; it has to be good from the first sentence. Readers can now "look inside" books on Amazon. They won't get to see the good part if it's not in the first chapter.

    I have been revising a manuscript as requested by an agent, and I have been on chapter one for three weeks now. Even though the agent said that the beginning was good, I'm still not satisfied. I want every chapter to be A+ material even if I have to spend a month on each chapter.

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  5. Since I choose almost every book I read after perusing the first page...your advice is completely correct. Thanks Jody.

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  6. Great post! I definitely think the opening line, paragraph, page and chapter are HUGE, not only as a writer but as a reader. Last year I read over 200 books and I always decided not only what to buy but in what order to read, by the first page or so (then sometimes by skipping to the end to see how the last page is and occasionally the middle to see if that page looks good too lol).

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  7. The first chapter or few pages of a novel is supremely important, not just to attract agents and publishers, but readers. Whether I'm buying a paper book or an ebook, I always read the opening pages before I purchase. If the author hasn't grabbed me in a short time, I'm not willing to invest more time in their work.

    The exception to this is when I buy a book by an author who's already proven his/herself to me. I will always buy and read every book by A S Byatt or Kate Morton, for example. They can do whatever they want in the first chapter because I'll keep reading no matter what.

    Great post, Jody!

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  8. I give every book I read a "first chapter" test. If I'm not hooked by the end of the first chapter, I don't bother continuing. Simple as that.
    I know that might seem harsh, but really, there are a gasquillion books out there. I'm never going to be able to read *everything* that appears interesting. I can't even keep up with all the new releases for any given year, let alone catching up on previous years' releases, and working my way through the classics. So why should I waste my time and effort reading something that turns out to be, in my opinion, sub-par?

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  9. Love this post! Especially the "growing" part of the importance - I think the industry keeps changing and the standard keeps moving, and in that process the first chapter is growing more and more important. :)

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  10. I've always been a first page reader. If it hooked me, I'd read the book. I think it's fair. The first chap should indicate the style and pace of the rest of the book, imo.

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  11. The scary thing is that that is so true. I download a bunch of samples for my Kindle and read the first couple of chapters. Then I make a decision. I think as a writer, I've become less forgiving. I can usually tell if I'll like a book within the first chapter. And I can see why agents can tell by a query letter if the writer has some skill. I can usually tell by a query. Esp. with out impatient society, we can't have a slow build.

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  12. Great discussion. I'm at the beginning of edits on Draft 7 of my YA novel. I'm anxious to have it be done so it can go on submission, so I've been thinking a lot about this first chapter thing.

    Personally, I don't like to be thrown into the fire on page one. Like a fine glass of wine or a great dinner, I like to ease into it - get a taste of what's coming. I like to sense a mystery, feel connected to a character, not know what's ahead. The first chapter, in my mind, needs to be haunting, mysterious, and enticing. Don't hit me over the head. Seduce me.

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  13. I have to agree, Jody and say the first chapter is CRITICAL. Point in case, I'm reading a book by a bestselling author right now and the first chapter completely BORES me. I am totally disconnected with the characters and the setting. In fact after a week I'm only halfway through chapter one. I'll keep reading 'cause I know the author well enough to know I'll get sucked in sooner rather than later, but ... if this author was a debut author - I might shelve the book.
    I'm heartless! WOW!! :P

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  14. Hi Jody, I agree with the post and with your commenters. The first chapter has to pull the reader in and make them want more. Esp. true for unpubbed writers, but also for pubbed ones, given the sheer volume of new books every day, week, month plus virtual "sneak peeks" courtesy of our dazzling internet-driven world.

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  15. First chapter is so important! Great topic. But for me, the hardest part is actually the second and third chapter. (I write short chapters, so that might still be someone else's first chapter.) Because even if I start out with something exciting, the inciting incident, etc., it's challenging to keep that momentum after the intro. I can't tell you how many times I've rewritten the first three chapters of my book -- More than any other part of the manuscript.

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  16. The first pages are the key to it all, both as a reader and as a writer. I'm constantly struggling to believe that I've captured my readers at the best possible point of interest.

    Thanks for the link and the post!

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  17. I also agree on the importance of the all-mighty first chapter (first sentence, really). I will usually give a book more than the first chapter to hook me...but not much more. And, for agents/editors reading thousands of "firsts" a year...yeah, it better grab them!

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  18. FYI: I just linked you on my new blog post. Thanks for the inspiration! (Warning: It's rated "R")

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  19. I agree about the importance of the first chapter--even the first paragraph. I expect most readers, like me, simply don't have time for a boring start.

    Thanks for the post! I also love your other post listing first chapter problems.

    ~Carla (carla-jansen.blogspot.com)

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  20. Reading a great book on this now--Hooked.

    I often "try out" books from established authors and find myself putting some down because there are just too many that are successful at grabbing me right away. (I've also been known to pick some back up when I'm in a different mood.)

    ~ Wendy

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  21. Hi Jody- I totally think first chapters are important. In fact, I put down a book that I borrowed from a friend just last week about 10 pages in because the first chapter wasn't holding me. Likewise, when the first chapter grabs me, I'm very likely to keep reading the book. In non-fiction, I think the first chapter is less important but the introduction is SUPER important. It needs to summarize the ENTIRE book in a catchy and fun way that'll make people want to buy it. So many people buy non-fiction books based on the intro.

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  22. You're absolutely right. The first chapter is the most important chapter in the entire novel. It's what starts the story, introduces the characters and the setting, and the main conflict.

    You give a lot of great tips, Judy. Thanks a lot!

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  23. I love this post! And I'd even go further to say that even that very first LINE is highly important. I want something that's going to hook me right from the start.

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  24. I think we're living in an impatient, ADD society. This is not a good thing. This is the same mentality that causes shoppers to trample each other on black Friday to get to the good stuff first. I know I'm giving an extreme example, but it fits. We are so impatient that we can't trust authors to lead us at their own pace, rather than ours.

    "Good" is a relative term, as well. Readers all want and expect different types of story beginnings. I prefer slow Ian McEwan beginnings--somebody else might prefer Stephen King.

    As a reader, I will read any type of book. I look for rhythm and writing style above all else. Sometimes it takes writers a while to get into their rhythm, though, so, again, patience is key.

    That's my perspective as a reader. I can't speak for editors or agents, obviously. All I know is that good writing is not easily quantifiable. It just has that special "thingness". I say that after having judged an essay contest two times running and a poetry contest. And the opinions between the judges, at least in the essay contest, differed greatly.

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  25. I suppose I'm a little harsher. Books that don't come recommended only have a page to impress me before I put them down. This has been my process since I was a teenager. Walk into the [insert genre here] section of the library, start picking up books, read first page and, if hooked, check out. If not, return to shelf and repeat process. I don't think authors have ever had the luxury of a bad first chapter. But, with the digital age you're right, it's only getting harder.

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  26. I couldn't agree more. I have spent countless hours on my opening chapter for the exact reasons you listed! :-)

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  27. I'm seeing that the majority of you have the opinion that the first chapters are critically important to you in your own reading habits.

    Jill Domschot brings up a good point, though too. We all have different tastes, and what suffices as a "good" hook for one reader, might not to another.

    And Alexis, your point is well taken too. Readers won't hang in there with us, if we don't keep them going even beyond chapter 1.

    Great discussion today, everyone! Am loving hearing your thoughts!

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  28. Off to look at my opening chapter...

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  29. I agree. Although I lack the experience at this that you have, I think it's valid. As a reader whose time is limited too, it's hard to stay with it if the opening is not very appealing.
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  30. As soon as I saw the title of your blog post, I automatically went to Kindle books on Amazon and how often I download free samples. I've got about fifty samples on my Kindle. I read the first 10 pages or so and then my Kindle says "Sample over. Would you like to purchase this book?" The ones I purchase? There the ones where I get to the end of the sample and I go, "No!! I need more!" So yes. I think the first chapter is much more important now than it was a couple years ago.

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  31. Totally agree here. Voice is the biggest determinant for me, and that's pretty easy to see within a page or two. While I don't necessarily expect the plot to be set up in the first couple of pages or to see major character development, I do expect to see good writing from the opening lines onward. However, if you haven't established something of interest to make me want to read past the end of chapter one, great voice or not, I'm probably putting the book down. If there's nothing to interest me at that point, it either means the writer didn't start the book at the right spot, which would make me question the rest, or it just isn't my type of story, regardless of the stellar writing. Such is the subjectivity of reading.

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  32. Very well-balanced article :-)

    I agree, if one depends on agents and editors to propel a book, the first *whatever* must "grab" them.

    And, even with readers getting more integrated into the process of author acceptance, you have to also "grab" them...

    The surging of self-publishing is spewing all sorts of written crap into the stream but also letting writers who know how to "grab" readers get grabbed faster.

    Talk about upheaval!

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  33. You may some good points. I tend to agree that the first chapter is crucial. My problem as a reader is that I read slow. I enjoy reading but unlike my husband who reads very quickly, it tends to take me longer and requires more concentration. That said, since reading is an investment of my time, if it seems like it's taking too long to get to the good stuff I lose my motivation to continue. There are books I have stuck with before, despite slow openings, but that's typically because they have come highly recommended. My two cents: start strong, end strong! :)

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  34. For me, first chapters are important when deciding if I should read the book or not - however, I mainly decide based off the back-cover-copy. There has been a time, though, when I decided not to read a book just by reading the first chapter. The way that the author wrote was too complicated to read. The words didn't flow, and it was more "telling" than "showing". It just didn't grab my attention.

    So yes, I do think that "first impressions" do matter and writers should strive to grab the reader's attention within the first couple of pages. However, there are times when you begin to fall more in love with a book the more you spend time with it, even if it doesn't instantly spark interest.

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  35. I remember being told that first paragraph or even sentence needs to hook the reader. So I think your first chapter needs to be great. I also think that the population in general has a short attention span and won't take the time to read a book that doesn't "wow" them from the start.

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  36. Since getting published, I don't struggle quite so much with opening chapters---mainly because I've had to write the synopsis long before writing the book. But writing that opening scene, figuring out just where to start the story used to drive me absolutely crazy.

    Maybe this is something you can address in another blog post, because I'd love so see your take on it: How much do you like to know about your characters' backstories before you start that first chapter? Also, how much detail of the story do you know ahead of time before starting that first chapter?

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  37. I definitely think the first chapter is vital for engaging the reader (or agent or contest judge), and one of the reasons is that there are so many more writers competing to get published right now than in the past.

    Don't get me wrong, publishing has always been competitive, but it's worse now than ever. To stand out, we have to produce top-quality writing from page one.

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  38. Often, I read the first chapter online before I even begin looking for a copy of a book. If it doesn't keep me interested, then I won't take the time to get the book, much less read it.

    So, yes. For me it's paramount.Thanks for another great post.

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  39. This IS a great conversation! I spend far more time on my first paragraph than I do to most of the novel. I strongly believe in a power sentence to start your novel off on the right foot.

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  40. Hey everyone!! Thanks for joining in the discussion! I think whether we like it or not, the digital age is changing the way people make buying decisions. I know it has for me! And it's interesting to see how all of this is impacting the way people buy books.

    And Kaye, thanks for those great questions! I will definitely tuck them away for a future blog post! I'd love to hear how you handle your backstory too!

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  41. I like your method of coming up with several openers.

    It is important to get the 1st rigiht.

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  42. Agreed, agreed, and again I say: AGREED.

    Preach it, sister.

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  43. I enjoyed your post, Jody. On the one hand it's important to have a jazzy first chapter. On the other hand, we need to write the first draft and not get paralyzed by overanalyzing or overediting the first chapter, just as the manuscript takes off. Sounds like a bit of a balancing act!

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  44. Thank you Jodi. I have been thinking on this for a while now. I had an instructor once tell me that it was impossible to write your first paragraph (or chapter one) before the piece is completed. I have also taken as example William Shakespeare - for if his plays didn't excite the audience in the first page, he would have an awful mess of tomatoes to clean!
    Thanks for posting wonderful things! Nicole Cherrie

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  45. While it doesn't quite seem fair, it still makes sense (sigh). Especially in the tight market that exists these days.

    I absolutely LOVE the "Try Me" feature on Amazon, where you can read a snippet of an author's style to see if you like it. Or just to get a good feel of what's out there in published land. Nice.

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  46. At one time I think readers were more willing to plow though slower first chapters because once they had purchased or borrowed the book they were going to finish it. Today's readers are more careful about how they spend their limited time, and with the various preview options it's easy to be picky about choices.

    If the first page or two aren't very well written, or don't capture my interest, I assume that's indicative of what the rest of the book will be like. So I do believe first chapters are important, but with all the emphasis on hooking readers, sometimes we can spent more time on a beginning at the expense of the rest of the story. A reader whose expectations aren't met by the story beyond those first pages will feel gypped and won't likely pick up a future book by that author.

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  47. I'm so much more critical of the first chapter since I've begun writing. I don't know that it is a good thing, because sometimes I think stories unfold a little later than others.

    Like Katie, I've gotten into downloading lots of free ebooks. It is so easy for me to read a chapter or two and then delete if they aren't doing anything for me. Writer's really have to up their game and make that first chapter active and compelling.

    It's gotta be FABULOUS!

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  48. I find that most of what you said makes a lot of sense. I almost missed it in my first book. Now off to my WIP

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  49. Carol Garvin, I think you're right. We might be able to buff up our first chapters until they shine, but not put as much effort into the rest of the story. I've seen that in contests, where writers final year after year in contests for unpublished writers, but then never go on to get a book contract. Those particular writers usually developed a great opening to a story they either didn't complete or didn't develop enough.

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  50. Timely post, Jody!

    I JUST brought my Kindle home yesterday. I finally made the purchase because I'm writing a new column for Savvy Authors reviewing fiction novels from a writer's perspective and demonstrating the positive use of craft as a teaching point pulled from a different novel each month.

    The first review was rough because I had to rewrite all my hand written notes and retype the passages of the book I used as examples of a teaching point.

    The Kindle allows me to highlight passages, make notes and then upload them all to a word document (or other document).

    I also discovered the Kindle allows me to "Try" an author's book before I "Buy" it. Which will save me one HECK of a lot of money! I have shelves of books I bought in an attempt to use them for this column only to get a chapter or two (or less) in and realize there was little quality craft to use as examples.

    With the "Try" on kindle, I'll be able to have a much better idea of whether a book will contain the mastery of craft I'll need to illustrate different points.

    Last night I downloaded 45 trials by authors I've been wanting to "Try". Who has the money to go out and drop $200-$300 just to test out an author's voice or style or ability to carry pace or plot? Um...not me.

    Yes, beginnings are more important than ever. That mysterious blend of action, character and story question that makes you need to turn the next page.

    Also timely because, like you, I've just started writing the beginning of my next book, my option book, as well.

    Challenges are good. They push you as a writer.

    Thanks for the post.
    (And the column won't be out until Feb :)

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  51. I once took a writing workshop that concentrated on the first sentence, and first paragraph for the entire week of the course! One of the best yet, I must say.

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  52. I don't think the importance of the first chapter, even the first few pages, can ever be over-stated. Even after buying a book, I won't finish it if I don't feel drawn and connected to it. It's a source of constant concern for me in my own writing.

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  53. I totally agree! When I told you about the ebook I deleted, that's why I thought it was a self-pub. I couldn't see that first chapter grabbing anyone's eye.

    I'll be blogging about it today. I just finished another ebook that also started rather slow. But I couldn't wait to read on... The difference? I can't tell you here, or I'd have nothing to write about! lol

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  54. It's more important now than ever. Especially in this digital age where we expect news and information fast. I recently read the first pages of "Of Mice and Men." I wonder if that beginning, which is slow for today's standards, would have made it past the slush.

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  55. The situation has become so that the book that starts slow can't be able to attract attention or may not find agents or publishers. They say the conflict should start in the first chapter only to attract the readers. Writers now only satisfy the need of the readers, agents and publishers because writing depends on those people.

    And when the situation has become so, then start the beginning in that way, with a bang or an action or a twist.

    We want to judge a book from the first chapter or first five lines and thus the need for the thinking to write the first chapter with something.

    Nevertheless, there are books that start slow but bang later, but that is rare specie and newbie writers should not write their books in that way. Of course, established writers can start in that way as they have got readers base and faith of all.

    Jody you have touched a very good topic. A useful post as usual. Thanks.

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  56. You gotta grab 'em while you got 'em. There is so much competition, so many choices, that impatient readers, movie viewers, or what have you will just quickly move on to the next thrill or whatever titillates them. But there are also a lot of different types of readers. Although trying to clinch readers with strong openings is important, it is equally to get your book into the hands of those who will appreciate your style. So even if your style is slow to interest the reading masses, if you can get your book into the hands of the niche audience that is looking for someone like you, that is equally important.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  57. Hi Arlee,
    Good point. We really do need to know our audience. And if our book is geared for a niche group of readers who will appreciate our particular style, then that's when I'd say it's important to know and consider some of the smaller presses that may be able to direct your book to that auidence.

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  58. This blog has inspired me to keep working on my first chapter which is stale in comparison to the rest of my book. A friend suggested that I write a preface, but I refuse. If I can't jump-start my story in chapter one, then I should not tease my reader with "what is to come." I need to show them right away how amazing the story is. (This is not to say that I don't enjoy a good preface. I just want my writing to shine without one.)

    It's only fair to offer a stellar first chapter when you are asking someone to read 36 more. Why should they trust that you, an unpublished, unproven author is going to get any better with the turning of the page? And even if you are a proven author, you might be unproven to your current reader.

    As an aspiring novelist, I look at Chapter 1 like I used to look at my resume and cover letter. I've got to give the agent a reason to choose me right away. And if I ever cross-over from amateur to professional, I’m going to dress to impress my reader just as much as I did the agent.

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  59. Hi arkohio,

    Glad the post could inspire you to keep working harder! I like your comparison of Chapter 1 to a resume or cover letter! Very true! Thank you for chiming in!

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  60. harder when shopping online because not all books have excerpts available for browsing. bubblegum casting

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  61. Jody you have touched a very good topic. A useful post as usual. Thanks. bubblegum casting

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  62. I read that Virginia Woolf once said if she'd stopped to think about what she wrote, she'd never have written it at all.
    Now all I have to worry about is the editing. I'd love to know what your self-editing checklist consists of. Espresso Maker Reviews

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  63. I'm still not enjoying it to its full potential. I'll have to sink some money into a good gaming rig, before I can enjoy the best of its graphics Ungagged

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