Sunday, March 22, 2015

But wait! There’s more! More first chapter tips

We had a wonderful time as judges for the Freshly Squeezed #C1blitz. Before the contest we posted a blog with some tips, however, we were surprised by some other issues that came up quite a few times and thought we’d post about some of them, in case it helps. 

Issue 1: The first few paragraphs are slow.

Fix:  It’s important to grab us from the very first sentence. Think about how you can surprise the reader and really draw us in. For instance, one of our favorite openings is from Feed by M.T. Anderson.  The line is: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” Why does the moon suck? As a reader, you need to know. It’s impossible to not keep reading that paragraph. 

Issue 2: The story starts in the wrong place. 

Fix: A lot of early drafts start at the wrong moment in a story. The reader wants to be thrust into an inciting incident. Making your opening scene more important sets you up for better pacing. Get into the action as soon as you can, or show us something about the main character that makes us what to root for him or her. 

Issue 3: You’re telling us rather than showing us.

Fix: The best way to get a reader involved with a story is to make us experience what the character is experiencing and feel what they’re feeling. Don’t just tell us school sucks. Show us, first hand, what’s sucky about it. Make us smell the gym socks and taste the cold mystery meat.  Put us in the story by focusing on the surroundings and sensory details.

Issue 4: There’s too much backstory in the first chapter.

Fix: Sprinkle in the backstory – don’t give it to us all at once. Think of the opening chapter as going on a first date. What you don’t tell is sometimes more important than what you do tell. Leave the reader wanting more. Otherwise it feels like an info dump and slows the action down. If you’re writing YA, you have at least 50,000 more words. There’s no need to tell us everything in the first 2,000. Reveal secrets and history in drips and drabs through dialogue, letters, and ways other than straight narrative.

Issue 5: Nothing much happens in the first chapter.

Fix: First of all, make sure you’re book is starting at the right place in the story (see above.) But also, the first chapter should include conflict and tension. It doesn’t have to be the biggest plot point, but it needs to set up a problem that the main character is forced to deal with. Think of it as an inciting incident. For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, it’s the tornado that brings Dorothy to Oz.

Issue 6: Starting with an ordinary day.

Fix: We understand the inclination to start with the first day of school, or something equally normal, but in general, we would recommend not starting with an everyday activity like walking to school, unless it involves magic powers or something else surprising (like a tornado that whisks the main character off to Oz.) The first chapter in your story should jolt the main character and the reader out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Again, think of the inciting incident. What happens to the main character that propels the story? Our guess is that it’s not riding on the school bus or cleaning their room.

Issue 7: One thing writers hear a lot is that the reader is not connecting to the voice.

Fix: This came up a lot in the contest, mostly when something was written in third person.  Writing in third person is great, especially in fantasy, but it can be more difficult to convey the main character’s distinctive voice because of the narrative distance. Our suggestion is to read some books that do it really well (like Harry Potter or Graceling for instance) and pay attention to how the narrative reveals the character’s feelings, motivations, and unique personality, without being in his head.  

When you’re really stuck, sometimes it helps to take a paragraph and re-write it in first person, just to see how your main character is really feeling and how they would express themselves through their gestures, thoughts, and actions. Then rewrite it in third person. We guarantee you’ll learn something.