Friday, October 31, 2014

Seven Deadly Sins (If You're a First Chapter)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The one benefit to first chapters being the most-read of all chapters (even if we decide we don't like the book we at least read the beginning), is that there's a lot of data on what works and what doesn't out there. If we get stuck or we know something is off and don't know what, there's bound to be multiple articles written to help up solve the puzzle and get back on track.

One such article is about seven reasons agents stop reading your first chapter,  sent to me by a friend several years ago. It's a great breakdown of common problems, so let's look at those reasons and explore ways to fix them. 

Generic or Slow Beginnings

I'm going to combine these two, because they can each be solved in the same basic ways.

Your manuscript starts with mundane, boring things happening or plain vanilla description--the daily life of your protagonist. While it's usually good to show the protagonist's life "as it was" before the big story problem hits them, you have to be careful about what pieces you show. Look at your protagonist's life again and find something that shows conflict as well as shows what their life is like. Even the most average day can have a moment where the protagonist wanted something and someone was keeping them from it, even if it's just the last doughnut in the pack.

Look for (or create) moments where:
  • Your protagonist is trying to get or accomplish something important to them.
  • Your protagonist is displaying a trait that will be important or necessary later in the story.
  • The problem at hand is interesting and makes the reader curious about what's happening.
  • Note: "What is going on?" is not a legitimate story question. If the reader is lost, they won't get hooked. You want to find questions that have specific details. "Why is that girl stealing chickens?" "What are they doing on that space station?" "Why is that hobbit so obsessed with  jewelry?"
(Here's more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

Trying Too Hard

Your manuscript is full of "fancy writing" that's trying to show you know how to write. But great writing is almost always invisible. Readers get caught up in the story and only the truly wonderful lines jump out and become things they remember. Think of it like great lines from a movie, the catchphrases that stay with you long after the movie has faded from your mind.

To help fix this, don't focus so much on being descriptive. Not everything has to look like something or be metaphoric. Great writing has a rhythm and a elegance to it that's more than using a lot of fancy words. Read the pages out loud to hear their flow. Read the pages of your favorite book out loud next and hear the difference. Study those favorite pages and really examine how the author put those words together and what they're doing on multiple levels. It's not just about the words, but the story and characters and the emotion underneath.

(Here's more on The Overwritten Novel: Identify & Fix Purple Prose in Your Novel)

Too Much Information (the TMI kind, not the backstory kind)

There are some thing folks just don't want to know about. If your manuscript is being overly descriptive about something gross or personal (do we really need a bathroom scene?), cut it. Look at your manuscript and ask yourself why you choose that as your opening scene. What were you trying to show? To do? What emotion or thought did you want the reader to come away with? Now think about what other scenes you can write that get all that in there without describing things best left unsaid.


This is probably an easier one to fix.
If the cliches are part of the text, kill the cliches. But if the cliche is the actual opening, well, that takes a bit more work. How do you know if your opening is cliched? Some of the more common ones are:

  • Someone waking up in the morning.
  • Someone looking in the mirror and describing themselves.
  • Someone getting a "message," be it a phone call, letter, or arrival of a mystical person with information.
  • Someone leaving on a trip.
  • Someone writing in a journal to "tell you about what happened."
  • Someone in the middle of dire straights with no context for what's going on. 
Quite often, these types of openings are just literary throat clearing, and if you read on a few more pages you'll find the real beginning of your story. Try reading until you get to a point where something happens that changes the path your protagonist was on. Odds are, that's where you can start instead. It might need a little smoothing out to reintroduce the character, but often you can start there and cut the rest. 

(Here's more on What's So Wrong With Clich├ęs in Our Fiction? This.)

Loss of Focus

Your manuscript wanders and readers are left wondering what's the point. This one can take a bit of shuffling to get into shape, depending on what the underlying problem is. Most common culprits are:

You don't know what the
protagonist's goal is: If you're not sure what the protagonist is trying to accomplish in the scene, it can ramble on and seem pointless (because it actually is pointless from a structure standpoint). Take a step back and think about what your protagonist is after. Then tweak the text so that goal is clear, and the action your protagonist takes is to achieve that goal in some way.

There are too many things your protagonist wants:
Trying to shove all the story goals and subplots into one chapter will usually just overload the reader, and make the manuscript feel scattered and unfocused. Pick one goal that has the best hook, and go for it. The rest can unfold as the story does. Readers want to eat the dessert a spoonful at a time, not shove the entire sundae down their throats at once. (ooo brain freeze)

You're trying to show what everyone wants: Your
protagonist has a clear goal, but so does the secondary hero, the bad guy and the three supporting characters. Everyone has a story arc and all those arcs are being thrown at the reader at the same time. While having arcs for everyone is good, seeing them all at once makes it hard for the reader to know who the main character is and who they should be rooting for. Show the protagonist's goal, and let the other goals come out once the reader is hooked. 

(Here's more on And Pretty Words All in a Row: Tightening Your Narrative Focus)

Unrealistic Internal Narrative

This one is usually a point of view (POV) issue. What's going on in the
protagonist's head doesn't match what's going on in the story. When you're running for your life, you won't notice what color the drapes are unless you're thinking about using them to escape.

To fix this, look at your POV and what's going on in the scene. What would someone in that situation think? Internalization isn't a free pass to describe what's around them. It's a tool to let the reader know who your POV is and how they think. If you want to show the drapes, then write it in a way that feels believable to the scene. Let the POV look at the drapes and think about how to use them to shimmy out the window. Show the antique wood carvings as how they provide hand holds to climb up on top of the furniture. Insert those details in ways that are relevant to the POV's state of mind, and the scene at hand.

(Here's more on Room With a (Point of) View: Understanding POV)

If a reader doesn't like the beginning, the odds of them getting to the middle are slim. If an agent doesn't like your beginning, well, the odds of getting a full request are even slimmer. Make sure yours is the best it can be.

How do you feel about beginnings? Love them? Hate them?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
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  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
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Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Janice, thanks for this. My first chapter is the one giving me fits right now. :)

  2. Great Post! I've always found the beginning is one of the hardest things to do & one of the things I am hardest on myself about.

  3. Thank you so much, Janice, for including fixes. It seems I often read long lists of don't without the slant being how to actually fix the problems. I'm definitely bookmarking this!

  4. Great Post!
    I was musing about your whole shifting of pain idea, and I'm curious; Can you shift pain to animals? So if you run out of pynvium(I hope that's spelled right) you can just kill your neighbor's cat with pain and dispose of it? Or does it only work for humans?

  5. Most welcome! Sandra, that's exactly why I try to show examples and suggest revision techniques. You can hear the same advice over and over and it doesn't sink in, but see it done, and everything clicks.

    Story Weaver, I think you can shift pain into animals, but I never went there because I couldn't bear the thought of doing that! I'm such a softy when it comes to animals. I could never forgive Nya if she hurt an animal like that.

  6. I really love this post, it's so appropriate for me since I've just finished writing my first two chapters. I was really struggling with chapter one until I did some of the things on this list and then suddenly it flowed really well.

  7. Perhaps not Nya, but could other, evil forces do it?

  8. This was actually really helpful. I've just started rewrites, and I'm happy to have come across this post so I can avoid these sins! I've been known to commit a few of these mistakes in my first drafts. *cringes* Mistake learned.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. It's like you were reading my mind and wrote today's post just for me!
    Great blog, I'll be back (after I finish rewriting Chapter One).
    Christi Corbett

  10. Story Weaver, Nya's the only shifter :)But if I had her find another, having them shift into animals would be a great way to show they were evil.

  11. Fantastic list. I'm probably guilty of having committed all of these during drafting - my first chapter usually ends up in pieces all over the floor and being rewritten many times.

  12. Thanks for all this great advice. I LOVE this: "But truth is, great writing is almost always invisible." Oh, my. That is going to haunt my writing dreams tonight! Thanks for the food for thought!

  13. Great points! Thanks so much for offering them up. This post also helped me confirm that the opening to my novel (the one I'm working on right now) is actually pretty decent. It doesn't do any of the things you mention here, which I'm assuming is a good thing.

  14. Beginnings are so hard! Great suggestions. :)

  15. Absolutely brilliant. So well said!! One to print out....

  16. Helpful advise, I just wrote a first chapter and I'm proud to say that it went well, I didnt notice these sins in it... but it did give me some ideas to make it a little bit better.

    (Sorry for my english, not my first language)

  17. Thank you so much for your post!! You hit the mark on all points. Thank you again! Cheers!

    P.S. I tweeted your post becuase sharing is caring! ;D

  18. Great list! I wish I'd had this for my first two novel attempts :)

  19. This one's a keeper, Janice. Thanks! Hope your own NaNo adventure is going well :)

    1. Thanks, so far so good. Are you doing it?

  20. glad I saved this post to read when I had time. chock full of good stuff!

    1. Thanks, me too! An oldie, but still a goodie.