Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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think the first paragraph, first page, and first pages are incredibly critical and only growing more so—for both unpublished and published writers.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The growing importance of the 1st chapter for unpublished writers: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?
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