Monday, October 11, 2010

First Chapters

Nathan Bransford had a great post about first chapters.

My problem: in what I'm reading, I'm not seeing this phenomenal first chapters. I'm seeing so-so chapters that give me an intro, but nothing standout dynamic.

Yes, I know, we're all supposed to be writing these phenomenal first chapters. It's one of those rules.

Well, if we're all supposed to be doing this, then why am I reading more and more first chapters that aren't phenomenal. Oh, they're good, some are bad, but . . . I keep reading.

Agent A might discard a potential book based on a so-so first chapter. Agent B might snap up the book. The thing is . . . it's all subjective.

None of us are psychic. If we were, we'd know which agent to query so we become the next hot author.

None of us can know whether we've written a phenomenal first chapter or a so-so first chapter. We might think we know, but, in the end, it comes down to the subjectivity of an intern and/or agent and whether they think we've written a phenomenal first chapter or a so-so first chapter.

So, in the end, we have to write the best first chapter, and subsequent chapters, that we can write and understand that, to some, those first chapters might not be phenomenal. To others, those first chapters might be literary gold.



Ariel Swan said...

I agree. Lately, I've been finding that I have to get nearly fifty pages in to any new book before I either give up or it grabs me. I guess it is the books I am choosing. Although I will say - Hunger Games got me in the first chapter. I don't usually read YA - and this is the only recent book that grabbed me right away.

New follower to you btw. I was looking for more "Writing journey" blogs and came across yours. I haven't explored the blog much yet - but I am curious about your WIP. Mine is about a real town - and yes I use real place names and real newspapers and real radio stations - no real people though. I am wondering if this is going to pose a probelm if I ever get it published. What was the book about Salem?

Lydia Kang said...

I read that post too. Good thing I was planning on rewriting my first chapter anyway!
But I agree with you. In the end, it's so subjective, isn't it?

Tess said...

I'm really struggling w/ the first chapter right now so I really get this. But, the thing is, I think it does matter. UNLESS the premise of the novel is so intriguing that it covers the sin of a so so first chapter.

but then again, what do I know...

VR Barkowski said...

I agree! I am so weary of these broad generalizations and rules that are no more than current literary trends. I don't agree with Bransford. He is, without saying it outright, suggesting that every first chapter must be an action open. I don't believe it, and I don't want to read it. True, a first chapter shouldn't be all exposition or backstory, but I prefer character driven fiction. I WANT to know who the protagonist is. He gives The Hunger Games as an example, a book I enjoyed but felt would have been vastly improved with a little character development early on. As you say, it's all subjective.

Scott said...

Ariel – there are books that grab me in the first chapter, and others that take a chapter or four before I’m hooked. The book about Salem is Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich. It was really neat reading the book and recognizing things. I really think that when using a real locale – Salem, New York, Nashville – that real newspapers, television stations, landmarks, etc. should be used. I don’t think there’s an issue with mentioning such things. Then again, I could be wrong. Ha. Thanks for stopping by and following my blog.

Lydia – everything is subjective, and I think first chapters more so than anything. I really think you could pick up ten books, read the first chapter, and probably only found one that is a WOW chapter, and the rest so-so. I also think there is such a big drive for aspiring writers to over-achieve in the first chapter department that, well, it’s more daunting than encouraging. In the end, we can really only write the best first chapter we are capable of writing.

Tess – I don’t think any of it matters because it is all subjective. If you write the best first chapter you’re capable of writing . . . then that’s enough. It has to be enough, or we are just hamsters on a wheel, running, running, running . . . and getting nowhere. I think what really struck me is reading the first chapters of a bunch of books, trying to pick out one to buy, and realizing that none of them were WOW chapters. In fact, the book I bought ended up having a very so-so chapter . . . but the premise of the book sold me. The first chapter did nothing for me. So, how did a book with a so-so chapter get past the query stage of an agent? Well, because of subjectivity. So, said agent – a very well known agent, btw – saw something, perhaps in the writing, perhaps in the query, and perhaps in the first chapter that spoke to her. Perhaps, to her, it was a WOW chapter, where to me it was a so-so chapter. I think we do a disservice to ourselves if we constantly change our first chapters to suit the very subjective opinion of . . . whoever.

V.R. – I’m right there with you. I’ve pulled back from reading all these blogs with this great advice. It’s too much. My brain can’t absorb much more. In fact, the more I read of blogs, the more I realize that, while helpful, the blogs are detrimental (to a small extent) in that the information is often contradictory. In fact, a few agents have posted about having, unintentionally, scared aspiring writers with too many rules: do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, pay attention . . . arrrrgghhh!! I think, as with anything, we have to use what we can use, and discard the rest. We also have to read, read, read. Go to a bookstore, pick out ten books published in 2010, read the first chapters, and set aside the books with the WOW chapters . . . in your opinion. Then, see which stack is bigger: the WOW stack or the so-so stack. I’m guessing the so-so stack.

Also, the book I referenced above, didn’t have an action first chapter. Yeah, great idea, but it doesn’t work for every book in every situation. So, always remember and never forget . . . subjectivity!

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