Let’s make one thing clear: first chapters SUCK. Even the first chapters of the best novels in the world suck – at some point in the process.
Most first chapters 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 titans amongst the tiddlers.
The Real First Chapter
First chapters are 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.
Excited Author 1: Oooh! There’s the bit where we decided Tristan would have post-traumatic stress following some vague incident involving a garden rake! [sighs fondly]
Enthusiastic Author 2: Awww! That was when it became clear to me that the car’s brakes would fail on exactly the same hill where the horse threw his six-times-great-grandfather. [gently smoothes hair back from story’s forehead]
Earnest Author 3: [sob] That was the pivotal sentence which revealed the inevitability of Aloysius’ death. Lovable, loyal, shaggy-haired Aloysius. 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 we are absolutely positive lie beneath.
Except they don’t. 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.
Listen To The Greats
At the Crime Fiction Festival in Harrogate last year, Val McDermid told a lovely story which has stuck with me ever since.
She said that the opening first 6 chapters she once wrote contained some of the best writing she’d ever done.
She laboured over them, crafted them, interweaving clever motif with fine language. When she submitted them to her editor, she felt more proud of them than anything she’d written in a long time.
She subsequently got a call from her editor.
“Val,” her editor said. “The first 6 chapters of this novel are some of the finest writing you’ve ever done. They interweave clever motif with some truly fine language. You must be very proud of them.”
“I am,” said Val, delighted that her editor had noticed.
“There’s just one thing,” said her editor. “Your story doesn’t actually start until Chapter 7. So I’ve cut them out. In their entirety. Sorry.”
If It Happened To Val, It Can Happen To You
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.
Look. I could say that I’ve 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. And unfortunately, I’ve seen it, several more 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; or that they can’t afford an editor anyway.
This is all, as they say in this fair country, a load of complete and utter balls. Everyone needs an editor, and every first chapter needs a chainsaw.
The unfortunate fact about writing is that authors are the last people to see their own failings. But your first chapter is the first thing that anyone sees of you.
Don’t let it be the last.