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Bang! Writing a Killer First Chapter (Part One – Preparation)

March 11, 2015

It’s so important that a book starts with a bang. After all, in the world of slush piles, Amazon.com listings swollen by self-published books, and alternative publishing, it’s important that a book stands out. If not, since folks have (many) better things to read, a book might be dead on arrival.

To write a killer first chapter, first focus on writing an entire draft of your manuscript. By doing that, you’ll have a better understanding of your characters, your story, and what that first chapter should say based on what the rest of the book delivers. Then go back and rewrite that first chapter. (Heck, you know you’re going to rewrite it four or five times anyway – might as well just accept it in the beginning).

If you are a writer trying to get an agent, this might benefit you because of spaghetti-ing. I recall this as a term coined in one of my creative writing books in college, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a real thing because I say it is, and I look forward to the day it is added to the Scrabble Dictionary.

Spaghetti-ing is the act of beginning to write a novel, and having everything go smoothly, and then in the middle having it all fall apart because you ultimately don’t know how to execute the plot arc and tie up the loose ends. You “spaghetti.”

The problem is that when agents read your book, they start with the first chapter. You might have a good first few chapters, and lo and behold – you spaghetti in the middle and the agent ultimately passes. Accordingly, when you feel like you’ve nailed the first chapter, take a step back and consider whether the rest of the book lives up to it. Is it as strong? Or is it like a quart of strawberries at the grocery store, where they ones on display at the top are red and juicy and perfect while the ones at the middle and the bottom are squashed and molding?

The middle and the bottom strawberries are your plot arc and conclusion. When you’re ready to send out your first chapter, also think about the rest. What is the central struggle in the novel? Are the stakes high enough for the reader to care about them? Does a character’s mission make sense? When does the climax happen, and does it resolve the main plot sufficiently to give the reader closure? How about the ending? Does it answer every question it should? If there is ambiguity, is it appropriate? (For a wonderfully done ambiguous ending, check out John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back).

While writers will disagree on what makes a killer first chapter, I stand by this advice of finishing the entire book before worrying about the first chapter. This is based on personal experience. An agent called me (my first agent phone call!), incredibly excited about my manuscript which he had half-finished…and then he didn’t even want a revise and resubmit once he was done. Ouch.

Although that experience was unfortunate, I’ve learned from it. When I queried my new book, Lissa Black Presents: Monsterville, I made absolutely certain it was ready before doing so. I secured representation in well less than three months, and this never would have happened if I hadn’t been kicked around first. When I shot off that first chapter of Lissa, the book as a whole was ready, too.

It’s been a colorful journey for me, and I have two additional tidbits of advice on the first chapter to share, which I will present in the next three blogs.

That’s right – this one’s a trilogy! Stay tuned for the next installment…

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2 Comments
  1. Hart permalink

    This is a good article and good advice. I have seen a couple of novels “spaghetti-ing”. I have mixed feelings about first chapters because some writers try so hard to “hook” people they give away too much at once rather then focusing on developing a good story. Another issue I see in my writer’s group is people submit a first chapter and the group tells them it falls flat because something bad happens to characters the reader doesn’t care about yet. I think your right, the solution is to write the whole book and then find out the best place to star is that doesn’t leave the reader confused and fall flat on substance.

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  1. C1Blitz Cheat Sheet: Bang! Writing a killer 1st Chapter Pt III (Voice) by Sarah Schauerte | Freshly Squeezed

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