Authors! Your First Chapter Is Killing Your Book

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.

Authors! Your First Chapter Is Killing Your Book

The good old days, when self-publishing was for everyone because only rich people published books written by themselves, and everyone waded through first chapters like they were good for them.

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.

Authors! Your First Chapter Is Killing Your Book

This is actually Clipart. Honest to Blog. What’s it doing in Clipart? I don’t know. Who would need this for a presentation?

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.)

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  77 comments for “Authors! Your First Chapter Is Killing Your Book

  1. March 6, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    The first chapter of my book (yes, that’s right, this is a plug) Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper begins — unusually for a first chapter — with the first line, “All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers”. The result has been the same question repeated over and over by different people: “Who is this “She” of whom you speak? Who is the woman you imagine in her drawers?” Which is a good way to start a conversation but does rather draw attention away from the literary magnificence of the work itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Based on that first line alone, I’d buy it 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      I allow any plug which shamelessly indentifies itself from the off as a plug, John, so good stuff out of you on your literary magnificence, I like it. I agree that’s a killer first line. I should do a whole other post on first lines.

      My current favourite is from an Irish author called Liz Nugent (just to note I am actually being serious here about a subject which doesn’t invite any messing), from her book Unravelling Oliver:
      “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”
      Masterful stuff, and looking suspiciously like it was there from the very start.

      Liked by 3 people

      • March 6, 2015 at 3:35 pm

        And that’s the thing; normally (Normally! I’m a writer. What the hell does normal mean?) the first two or three chapters I write have disappeared before the book is finished — they’re just scaffolding to get the story up and running. But All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers was the first thing I wrote when I sat down to write Zappa’s Mam and it was still there when I finished the third revision and decided I was done. So was the rest of the first chapter — it had slimmed down by about half, but the half that was still there had always been there. It was a strange feeling.

        Liked by 2 people

      • March 6, 2015 at 5:08 pm

        That’s a great first line.

        Liked by 2 people

      • March 6, 2015 at 6:31 pm

        You know Tara, I sometimes think it isn’t even the WHOLE first chapter, but the first line. I decided to write my first novel to save myself from mid-life crisis at turning 40, and for me, it was all about getting that first line down on the paper, that then led me through to the end of the 120K word book. I gathered a ton of books, and read all the first lines (poor Dickens and Bronte and the like might not have done too well in our day and age). Some of them were unbelievably horrid, boring, trite, etc. I like the ones mentioned in the comments above, as they set up such suspense and wonder IMMEDIATELY. Here’s one from Nobel winner Toni Morrison (I wrote my thesis one of her works, so I’m biased). “They killed the white woman first.”

        Love the post, and thanks for getting the brain thinking (and the belly laughing, as always when I read your posts and following comments!)

        Liked by 3 people

        • March 6, 2015 at 6:48 pm

          “They killed the white woman first.” My God. That’s a killer, all right.

          Liked by 1 person

        • March 6, 2015 at 7:23 pm

          GREAT choice of first line, Mara. Toni Morrison is a master of the art (not to mention all the other literary ones).

          You’re right – good first lines result in readers immediately having a question – why? How? Who? If you nail that, the rest flows merrily downstream.

          And I love your choice of compliment, too. Ah, but I’m a sucker for the old sweet talk. 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  2. March 6, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    My first book is at the editor, and she made me write a Prologue with a battle, and put my second chapter first because it has a murder. So I now start my book 10,000 years in the past (the prologue) and then move to the present with the murder. Makes sense to me now that I’ve done it, but man, was it hard to do! Hoping to have it out around the first of May, and (shameless plug) it is called Fantastical Trips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 3:20 pm

      That’s exactly the sort of stuff I’m talking about. I’ll bet you’re not the only one whose 2nd chapter became their first. Straight into the action, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Not that I’ve managed to cut that far into mine just yet – THE TRAUMA 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  3. March 6, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    I’ve developed a failsafe idiotproof logical approach to chapter structure. Delete chapter 1 so that chapter 2 becomes chapter 1. Repeat this process until there’s only the epilogue left and publish. (I’ll be trying it out for the next novel.)

    Chris

    Liked by 3 people

    • March 6, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      Brilliant, Chris. In fact it should be a meme. Please throw it on a graphic and get that up on social media, immediately.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. March 6, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    Ooh that’s a painful post, but so true. It needed to be said… Thank you. Tomorrow I plan to revisit the first chapter of my book in progress. Ugh.

    Like

    • March 6, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      My pleasure to serve, your Peachiness! If I can make at least one author squirm with a post, I know my job is done. Ahem.

      Best of luck tomorrow 😉

      Like

  5. armenpogharian
    March 6, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    I must admit that as a reader, I tend to be rather forgiving of first chapters – I actually read the Silmarillion, more than once, although to be fair I don’t think I’ll ever read the first 50 pages or so ever again, but of course I’ve already bought the book. That said, I recognize that it’s very dangerous on many levels to use yourself as a reliable or reasonable facsimile of your readers. I have readers from my target audience (YA fantasy) read my stuff as I write and find their feedback very helpful if occasionally painful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:23 pm

      Ongoing beta readers are important – but so are fresh-as-a-daisy new ones once your book is finished, who can look at your novel and particularly your first chapter with a clean (or even disinterested) eye. I admire your ability to forgive first chapters. I gave up being nice a long time ago, because of peer pressure. 😉

      Like

      • armenpogharian
        March 6, 2015 at 11:34 pm

        I agree about fresh readers for the finished product and didn’t mean to imply they were unimportant. Although with the exception of one book, I typically don’t get too many comments about the first chapter.

        Like

        • March 6, 2015 at 11:47 pm

          Oh, I don’t think you implied that at all! I was just thinking of the people I know who read as I write – by the time the thing is finished, sometimes they’re so familiar with it that you have to wonder if they know too much about what you’re trying to do, to spot that you haven’t done it. Tricky business that.

          Like

  6. March 6, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    Love this post! Makes me want to go sort out my first chapter! Love posts that make you take action 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      I was going to reply to your comment, but I’m afraid now of disturbing you in the middle of your action burst of busyness.

      As you were. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. March 6, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    Conor Goes Leapfrogging – Chapter 2.
    That got you in at the deep end. No first chapter in this one. Straight into the action. Then, quite unexpectedly,

    THE END.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      Ingenious, as usual, Conor – hardly surprising, says I. But you’ll be in line for a major arts bursary for sure – just as long as you stick a melancholic tractor in the end somewhere. Can I be in the audience when you’re interviewed on RTE?

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 6, 2015 at 11:31 pm

        Perhaps I could take my cue from film and drive the tractor into the RTE audience in a prequel? That would tie everything up nicely with all of us dead, no need to do the interview and my current book ending elegantly preserved for further posteritous (my word) additions.
        Time to sleep, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 6, 2015 at 11:45 pm

          I think you’re on to something there, Conor – might it be the post-novel? Where the prequel kills everyone off, rendering the novel existentially impossible? I’d still love to see you explain that one on The Works, though – is there any chance you’d let me drive the tractor so I could time it properly…?
          I understand if you’d like to sleep on this one.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. March 6, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    When I started sending my first novel to agents (and ignoring the advice from my only friend in the business to send it a literary consultant – I mean all my friends said it was brilliant!) I received not just letters of rejection, but almost of repulsion. A year later I spent the money on a 17 page report from a consultant explaining that my grammar, punctuation, structure, POVs, etc needed some serious attention… but (and there followed some reviving praise and some excellent pointers). I rewrote, burying an altered chapter one about a third of the way in. The transformation was magical. So now, I write the book, then add some new front chapters, then send it to a consultant, then rewrite. Always, that last thing I am working over is chapter one. Sorry, you touched a nerve there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:12 pm

      That’s actually an interesting one too. What is everyone’s opinion on MS assessments? Just got one done but after revising I’m pretty sure it would be idiotic of me not to get another one. In that way are they a waste of money when pitted against a structural edit? Structural edits are so expensive though … In a dream world obviously everyone would have a developmental edit and a copy edit but if you can’t afford then would MS assessments do(the lady had a copy edit pretty much done too)?

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 6, 2015 at 11:33 pm

        It probably depends on who did it; how much you trust them; how much you changed, hence the necessity for another edit… it’s a tough one. Have you any beta reader(s) who could give you more informed advice?

        Like

        • March 7, 2015 at 12:03 am

          MS assessment would have been done by one of the bigger names in publishing in Ireland-ie a professional reader who I wouldn’t have known beforehand and paid for. My beta readers have dropped off the face of the earth due to new jobs, babies and moving houses. I’ve looked up some of the indie websites where people are starting out as betas/proofreaders and other online forums eg reedsy, as wella s on Goodreads, but it seems the world and their mothers are looking for betas at the moment!!!! I used to always say you should befriend one person who’s a plumber, one who’s an electrician and a builder but now I’m thinking, how int he hell are none of my friends editors?! That being said I’m not sure I’d want a close friend doing it anyway, I want someone who’ll tear it apart-not tip-toe around to save feelings!!So yup, this has been one of my biggest issues, my lotto win is no longer going to finance a house, it’s to have a devil-may-care attitude to choosing my edit process!!

          Like

          • March 7, 2015 at 12:07 am

            Grand so. When you win, I’ll be your beta reader for the meagre sum of a besquillion euros. That’s a bargain, now, mind.

            On a more serious note, I’m sceptical about non-professional, anonymous critique online. I know it’s a necessity sometimes, but… well. You know yourself.

            Like

            • March 7, 2015 at 12:13 am

              I know, some of them gave examples of their editing online and errors jumped off the page, was truly shocked. Anyhoo, one way or another it’ll work out!Thanks so much, Tara, and great post as usual (how many bloggers can you say that to and truly mean it?!) 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      But Hilary, no self-respecting author earns their stripes without a few letters of repulsion. As long as it wasn’t revulsion, I should think you were doing rather well. Plus, your chapter one was obviously less putrid than most, if it partially found a home later on. As for touching a nerve, I possibly should be the one apologising. I’ll be back with a decent one, if I can make it funny.

      Like

      • March 7, 2015 at 9:49 pm

        brmaycock is right, there is still a lottery even when you pay for a professional job and when I sent my last novel to a Consultant they were suspiciously nice about it and their comments included spelling errors. I then did have an agent bite and rewrote it for her, but she didn’t take it. After making so many changes I needed another (different) Consultant crit. This was well worth it for the writing, but horribly expensive.
        Re the new first chapter of novel one, a big name agent loved it and asked for the whole ms, but didn’t take it. I was naive and instead of revising it, I settled with a tiny (and excruciatingly incompetent) independent. Learn, learn, learn…

        Like

        • March 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm

          Which just goes to show that everyone has a different opinion, which makes it almost impossible to know whether you’re learning the right lessons on top of it all! I feel your pain, Hilary. But it’ll make a fabulous chapter in the memoirs…

          Like

  9. March 6, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    My kindle is going to be laden down even more from the comments above(the plugs not only worked, the first lines grabbed me too!). The first chapter is a damn killer. I handed my MS over to a girl to read and received the reply from hell just a day later- that basically she didn’t mean to be rough on me, but I’d let myself down and she’d expected more, that it didn’t reflect what she knew I had in me from short stories she had seen from me. She then told me where she’d stopped. Second page. I was a bit floored but wiped it and started again. Hated what I did the second time around but everyone tells me it’s much better. That being said I know it’s still not a killer first chapter and it’s going to have to get sorted again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 6, 2015 at 11:42 pm

      Sharp critique stings – I know, I’ve had it – but do you not feel that fades with time? I think you have to be grateful for an honest review. If I were you, I’d go back to that girl again and again and keep asking where she found problems. If you find you violently disagree with her after a bit, go elsewhere, but I’ve had some fairly harsh critique which has without fail reaped rewards, sometimes in the strangest ways, not exactly those intended by the critic, but no less valuable.

      First chapters are bastards. Really they are. But the little feckers can always be written after the book is long finished.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 6, 2015 at 11:52 pm

        Oh, she’ll definitely be hearing from me again- I had to keep telling her it was ok, I can one hundred per cent say I’d rather someone be fully honest, and it did help so much, before that I’d had mainly readers of the ‘I can’t believe you’ve written a book’ variety- no comments to speak of, and I was getting a bit desperate to hear where the holes were.Was just shocked at the time that it was based on the first page only- innocent old me kept thinking- but just read on, it get’s better!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 6, 2015 at 11:54 pm

          Yeah. They don’t tell you that the literary learning curve is actually a game of snakes and ladders. And despite the best efforts of St Patrick (yeah right), there’s an awful lot of bloody snakes on the Irish writing board.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. March 7, 2015 at 10:57 am

    As an editor myself, I couldn’t agree more with you. Even editors need editors, just look at the headlines you get when some nit thinks they can go it alone: Burglars in below empty flat, and police search for invisible man, for example. And that’s what you can do in just a few words. The terrible things you can do, as a writer, in 60,000 words, and not notice, are just too awful to think about.
    My first news editor (now dead, sadly) used to lift our copy out of the basket and, if it didn’t pass muster, would be so enraged and frustrated by our cack-handed ineptness with the English language that he would tear it into little pieces. Brutal but, by God, it was effective. I think of him every time I’m tempted to kiss my first chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 7, 2015 at 6:19 pm

      Yes, brutality works. On this side of the pond, at least. I had a journalistic writing lecturer who once made absolutely mincemeat out of a well-meaning scribe, because in an attempt to look cool, they used an acronym in an article which only 3% of a minority population would understand. With the scalding they got, I’m pretty sure they were put off all acronyms for life. I hope they didn’t end up working for UNICEF or the like.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 7, 2015 at 6:32 pm

        Oh God, never try to look cool on paper. You’re doomed before you get to the end of the first par. How did your day go??

        Like

        • March 7, 2015 at 6:38 pm

          From where I was sitting, it went very well indeed. Nobody cried after the drill march, and there was only one whimper when I took out the chainsaws. Still, I’ll have better luck next time, I’m sure. There was a lot of smiling as people went out the door. It was hard to bear, but I’m a strong person, I can handle it.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. March 7, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    All this talk of editors bothers me, honestly. How do you find one? If you don’t move in writing circles how can you know you’re not throwing your hard-earned money out of the window by hiring a crap one through the internet? Maybe a blog post on this subject would be appropriate?

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 7, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      It does seem daunting, Helen, but I think you have to choose your editor in the very same way you choose your solicitor or carpenter or medical consultant or plumber. You get a referral or recommendation from somebody who has already engaged them (through online groups perhaps), or you look at testimonials and judge how sincere they are (I think you can quite easily spot fake ones). Some of them will be members of professional associations: some of them will not, but be as good as if not better than association members, so I wouldn’t rule them out. But recommendations are key, and it’s not that hard to find them online. You could also look at the acknowledgements from indie publishers whose work you admire, and see who they name-check as their editor, and approach them.

      There might indeed be a blog post in this, but I’d find it difficult to write, because although I’ve used an editor, and given them a testimonial, I haven’t published yet. There are quite a few editors out there who blog themselves, and many will give honest and non-partisan advice on how to choose an editor, because they simply can’t take on everyone. But to me, it’s no different from finding any other professional: you have to do your homework.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. carolannwrites
    March 8, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Am editing again. Am chain sawing again. But will leave it to those who know my story better than me to put it to bed… Roaring laughing and taking all your wisdom to heart as usual, Tara!

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 8, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      Wisdom? Surely not, Carolann. I must be losing my touch if my bid to strike fear into the hearts of the most level-headed authors is coming across as wisdom. Needs more chainsaw, obviously.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. March 8, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    River run.
    I have missed you so, Miss Tara. How was your Blogtalk?

    Like

    • March 8, 2015 at 8:20 pm

      Me too! Where’ve you been, Naptime? Out terrorising neighbourhoods by night, no doubt. My Blogtalk was great, thanks for asking. Very wordy, truth be told. Words were all over the shop. And lots of them had capital letters, sometimes together.

      Like

      • March 8, 2015 at 8:44 pm

        The whole family had a stomach flu. My 3 year old tried to puke in a bucket while lying down on the couch. It was a bad scene.
        Where are my knock off handbags?

        Like

        • March 8, 2015 at 8:56 pm

          Ah. I’m sorry to hear you were all so ill. I hope you and your upholstery are better soon. But seeing as you hadn’t called me by sundown yesterday as agreed, we had to ship all the knock-offs to China instead. You’ll get a cut, though. The leftover leather will arrive with the brown couriers on Tuesday fortnight.

          Liked by 1 person

          • March 9, 2015 at 1:30 am

            Well, I do have my own child labor, so I suppose that’s alright. A few leftover blog seminar attendees wouldn’t hurt though. Send some of the small ones so they don’t cost so much to ship overseas.

            Liked by 1 person

  14. March 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

    How did the blogging workshop go, Tara? Eagerly awaiting the torture audio.

    Like

    • March 9, 2015 at 11:47 am

      Well, you know the saying – “in (cyber)space, no-one can hear you scream”? Anyway, that’s been de-QED’d. Apart from that, I think it went well, but I couldn’t be certain, because I didn’t listen to a word I said. Probably best if you go to the next one and let me know. Ahahaha.

      Like

  15. March 9, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    I’ve done it with all my stories, the chainsaw thing. You have to be able to read it honestly and say, Boring! if it is. Problem being, if you listen to all of the agent/publisher advice, you can easliy end up littering the first three pages with enough dead bodies to fill a graveyard, starting a war or two, and blowing up a few heads of state, all in the interests of grabbing the reader’s attention. Moderation in all things. There’s boring, but there’s also frenetic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 9, 2015 at 4:36 pm

      Absolutely, Jane, couldn’t agree more. Sometimes more can be said in a single sentence which raises questions, than a big action sequence. Hence the fact that they’re so amazingly easy to write!

      Liked by 2 people

  16. March 9, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I think a first chapter gets you started, but after finishing writing the book and chopping it up a bit, hacking with an axe and tweaking with shears, it’s then you should embark on writing the actual first chapter, as then you know better how to tantalise, engage and draw your reader in – though that is always easier to write than to do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 9, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      Great advice, Dorothy. We have to start somewhere, granted, but for most of us it’s usually in the wrong place.

      Like

  17. March 9, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Your post stands out… Very accurate and well stated… I hope your words are helpful to many writers struggling with the beginnings of their books… Best wishes, Tara. Aquileana 😀

    Like

    • March 9, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Thank you Aquilieana! Now if I could just go and practice what I preach, we’d all be super 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  18. March 24, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    I find that a great exercise can be removing the first chapter you originally wrote and seeing how much of the exposition you can work in later, instead. Anyway, great post! Thanks. 🙂

    Like

    • March 24, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      I agree completely, Alexis. As is often the case with Chapters 11, 17, 18, 25, and 473. 😉

      Like

  19. kgupta21
    March 2, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Excellent point.The first chapter,the first line……I once read an entire book by Nick Carter(….I know!!) because it started with the sentence ” I am the the world’s first pregnant man.” It was hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

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