Friday, January 27, 2012

First Impressions, by Joylene Butler

copyright 2012, Joylene Butler

Remember your first date, the one that changed your life forever? Good things fell into place because you took past lessons learned and turned the evening into a wonderful experience.

Submitting your opening chapter to an agent or publisher is like a first date. First impressions mean everything. You submit a clean copy, write an entertaining story, but most importantly present them with a first chapter they can’t put down. You begin with a hook, (generally the story question), end with a hook, and in between show a consistent POV, and introduce an engaging character with a clear goal.

I know all this, you’re probably thinking. So why do you need me to tell you what you already know? Maybe you’ve even had a book published. You’re a pro. You can deal with the rejections. It’s not your story that’s the problem; it’s the publishers.

All that may be true, but it won’t help you get your book in print.

Too often beautifully written stories fall short by not including a poignant and exciting first chapter. When criticized for not doing so, the authors justify their actions by saying the chapter needs to set up the story and all that other stuff will follow. What’s sad is although they’re highly gifted writers, they may have just forfeited their chance at obtaining a contract.

By the end of chapter one, a checklist of components needs to be included to ensure that the publisher reads on. They need to know you have what it takes to sell books. What’s the promise you made in the first line of chapter one? That you’ve written a drama that will end softly, without a hook to entice the reader to turn to chapter two? It’s not enough to write well and hope they hang in there long enough for the suspense to eventually knock their socks off.

Many excellent articles exist online that will aid you in determining if your opening has the elements of a good first chapter. If you don’t already own Donald Maass’ handbook WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, check it out. If you’re not a follower of Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, join. Alex also teaches a workshop on the Three-Act Structure that is a must for all writers. Dissect your favourite authors’ first chapters. If you can understand why you like theirs, you should be able to apply those elements to your own.

Never underestimate the importance of a first impression. Can you imagine what would have happened if you’d shown up wearing dirty stained clothes? Maybe hadn’t shaved or showered, or bothered brushing your teeth. You talked with your mouth full or completely dominated the conversation. Chances are you’d still be that same awesome, wonderful person today, but single.

Your first chapter needs to start in the middle of the action and end with a hook. It needs to have a three-dimensional protagonist experiencing change. And of course, it also needs to include goal, setting, conflict, and disaster. Who’s your narrator? What does your protagonist want? Where are they? What’s stopping them from getting what they want? What terrible thing ends the chapter?

Strong, solid, concise writing is an essential quality of any first chapter. But if you don’t give the reader a reason to turn the page, they won’t. Life is full of too many distractions.

--happy editing

Author of Dead WitnessBroken But Not Dead , and the e-book version of Dead Witness

"Man's heart away from nature becomes hard." Standing Bear

cluculzwriter at yahoo dot ca




Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thanks so much for letting me hang out with you guys today, Aaron. It's such a pleasure.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Good points on creating a great first chapter!


Keith Pyeatt, author of paranormal thrillers said...

Great post with great points, Joylene.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Joylene, it's our pleasure to host you today! Loved your piece - and it's all SO true.

First impressions are so important. Even when you think you will throw up if you read your first chapter (or complete manuscript) "one more time," it's well worth another look!

And don't forget to have beta readers or a few fellow critique partners take a look at it. You can never have too many eyes on an opening chapter or ms to search for errors.

(Just be careful not to listen to ALL the "advice" you might get. LOL. If you feel good about your chapter, you don't want to go crazy trying to please everybody. Just please yourself!)

Kittie Howard said...

Great points. Sometimes I think everyone sees my smile and not the torn jeans, so to speak.

Jen said...

Excellent post! I'll be bookmarking this one :D


Carol Garvin said...

Excellent advice, Joylene. I know these things, but knowing and doing can be miles apart. I'm still working on the 'doing'. :)

Marta Stephens said...

Even after getting a few books under my belt, I still struggle writing the first chapter of any new novel. I enjoyed your post and found myself nodding more than once!

Thanks so much for your contribution to MB4. :)

Karen Lange said...

Good stuff, Joylene! Pondering the WIP and appreciate the input. Thanks so much!

Carrie Butler said...

Well said, Joylene! These are points we can all take to heart. Thank you! :)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

@Sia, thanks!

@Thanks, Keith.

@Aaron, it was my pleasure. Yes, good point. You have to know when to ignore how others see your story.

@Kittie, excellent way of putting it. Thanks.

@Jen, thank you. Thank is so kind.

@Carol. you under estimate yourself.

@Marta, I know exactly what you mean. Me, too.

@Karen, thank you. And you're welcome!

@Carrie, good point. Think "job interview" instead. Although there are plenty of similarities. Hee.

J.Q. Rose said...

Sharing this post at my creative writing workshop. Thanks!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

That's awsome, Janet. Thanks so much. Have a great weekend.

Janet Johnson said...

Great advice Joylene! I've definitely stopped reading because of a poorly written 1st chapter.

Kim Smith said...

Sorry I am late to the party, Joylene. You are such a gifted writer, and this post is very timely. I am using Donald's book and workbook as I slog through a new tome. Thanks for this!

C. Zampa said...

Joylene, you were one of the very first persons to share these tips with me, and they're always been guidelines for me. And they work.

Good to see you, my friend, and thank you for reminding me of these crucial elements.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Janet, Kim and Carol. The best part of belong to our community of writers is one never has to feel alone. I know you've all encouraged me during some rough spots. I thank you. Happy writing.