I used to buy into the assertion that picture book writers have to be much more selective in their word choices than novelists. In fact, I still believe that in general. But if I went back to see how much time I spent working on the the new chapter one, I’m sure the number would horrify me. But it was still worth it because things are working!
What has to happen in a first chapter? In some ways, it’s all about making readers want to turn pages. One editor put it in these terms.:
“I’ll read the first sentence. If I like it, I’ll keep reading. If I like the first paragraph, I’ll go onto the second. But then, here’s the real test: you have to make me turn the page. If you can do that, I’ll usually read at least until the end of the first chapter. ”
Ouch. That sounds awfully harsh. But are we any different as readers? If we pull a book off the shelf without any kind of personal recommendation, we usually begin with the title and the cover art. From there, we move onto the flap copy to see if the story has an interesting premise? Often the title, cover art and flap copy are products of the marketing department even if they’re inspired by the writer. So we’ll turn to the first line. If we don’t want to turn the page, we’ll probably set the book back on the shelf.
That’s essentially what I did with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Because my eighth grade English teacher recommended the book, I think that I finished the two chapters before putting it back. I really didn’t want to spend any more time with Mrs. Bennett. She was a very silly woman. Miss Elizabeth Bennett didn’t begin to demonstrate her charms until the beginning of Chapter 4.
But first chapters are hard for other reasons. It’s necessary to establish the world of the book whether it’s high fantasy or high school. And all of this information has to come across through the thoughts of the main character. Or at least that’s how I have to do it. Some writers can open with several pages of the main character telling the reader things.
Usually, it’s best not to obssess too much about first chapters in first drafts. Get something on paper and move on. No matter how well you think you know your main character, you’re going to learn some things along the way if you leave yourself open for inspiration. One writer–it might have been Richard Peck–said that the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise. Since this is a revision, I have a pretty good idea of where this book is going.
Pardon the celebratory babble. I’m excited!
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