To begin with, let’s make one thing clear: first chapters SUCK. The best first chapters in the world still suck – for writers, that is.
The simplistic beauty of killer first lines and blockbuster beginnings, which hook the reader in several different ways, will usually cause their writers to collapse in a puddle of headachey sweat, eyes rolled back, tongues lolling, unable to form any sentences at all. They are that difficult. And in publishing, they are what set out the queens amongst the quacks.
The Real First Chapter
It’s not news to any writer that first chapters have to be perfectly brilliant and brilliantly perfect: everyone knows that. But they are also often the hardest chapters for writers to let go of. We get attached to them, because when we wrote them, we were falling in love with our stories. And we think everyone else will, too.
Earnest Author 1: There’s the bit where we decided Farquhar was going to lose his leg in the war! [sighs fondly]
Earnest Author 2: Awww! That was when it became clear to me that the house on the hill should in fact have been the brothel on the train track. [gently smoothes hair back from story’s forehead]
Earnest Author 3: [sob] That was the pivotal sentence which revealed the inevitability of Rover’s death to me. Lovable, loyal, shaggy-haired Rover. The most heroic lumberjack-fireman-financial advisor in the West. [blows story’s nose and gives it a kiss]
Our first chapters are where we excavate our stories, seeking out the diamonds which no doubt lie beneath.
Except they’re not. Mostly, our first first chapters are long-winded, boring, and bogged down in unnecessary description. They are a slap in the face of plot, and a clip on the ear of action.
Guilty, Your Honour
I recently completed a novel which seemed to me to be such a great idea that it practically wrote itself. I duly polished my first few chapters and submitted them to a few choice competitions. Unfortunately, nobody else agreed with me upon its brilliance. I came to the tardy realisation that when I was merrily polishing my first chapter, I should have been taking a chainsaw to it instead. And laughing maniacally while I was at it.
Many indie novels have first chapters full of beauteous description and loveliness, setting up character and location and theme and motif and Blog knows what else. However, with traditional publishers, these are the first to go. The big shiny scissors comes out, and if two or three sentences make it through, we can consider ourselves lucky.
I have read some fantastic indie books with positively brutal first chapters. But most of the time, I haven’t, because the sample I downloaded didn’t grab me enough for me to want to read on. Instead, I looked at the opening prose and thought: I can’t do another 300 pages of this much description/introspection/grammar crime. Sorry.
Some indie authors believe that only copy-editing is required on their books, meaning that there isn’t even a nail scissors applied to their work. I’m saying this because I’ve been told this, several times. I’ve had comments on blog posts from authors who tell me that they could trust their grammar check to none other than themselves; that they are the best people they know of to edit any book, let alone their own; that nobody knows their story better than they do; and that they can’t afford an editor anyway.
This is all, as they say in this fair country, a load of complete and utter bollix. Everyone needs an editor, and every first chapter needs a chainsaw.
3 Dont’s, and a Half-Do
1. Don’t let your first chapter be a sign to the world that you self-published your book.
2. Don’t let your first chapter be a red flag that you edited your own book.
3. Don’t forget that if you’re asking someone to put their hand in their pocket to buy your book, you owe it to them to be professional, and kill your first chapter darlings before your book sales commit seppuku in front of you.
The Always End With A Question Question
How about you? Ever read a first chapter which screamed Editing Orphan? Or is anyone else out there willing to admit to first chapter abuse? (Please don’t let it be just me. I’m needy like that.)