Monday, February 20, 2012

The Agony of the First Chapter

A new review at Smashwords by Reviews of Unusual Size gives TAINTED SOULS an overall rating of four stars out of five, calling it "genuinely engaging" and a "quick, fun read" while miffing that the first chapter is "over-written" with too many "$20 words." (Update: same review posted at Amazon.)

Those of you who followed my earlier rantings at The Big Litowski, where this is being simulposted, already know that the first chapter and I have a bit of a history, particularly in reference to the first five pages, which agents and editors so often view as the key to a book's desirability. If the first five pages don't rocket you right into the story, the theory supposedly goes, no one's going to buy your book.

Anyone read The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo? You may have heard of it. I read it. I liked it. But I'd say that book doesn't actually start going anywhere until about page 200.

Of course, we all have different opinions of what it means to draw you into a book quickly. I've had plenty of readers, including a few agents, say TAINTED SOULS captured them from the get-go (even if, for one reason or another, the agents passed on the manuscript). On the other hand, I once re-wrote the first chapter (with an emphasis on the first several pages) at the specific request of one agent, who said the intro left her cold (she was left unmoved by the revision, too).

One thing I think might be interesting is to write the first chapter last. By that time, you'll have a much better understanding of your characters, a more established voice and sense of the overall gestalt of what you're trying to accomplish.

Though you should try to avoid too many of those $20 words.

What do you think?

3 comments:

Misha Gericke said...

I just rewrote the whole ms and fixed the first chapter then.

I guess it's the same principle as writing it last. Since I knew my characters by the time I rewrote chapter 1.

:-)

Kimberly said...

I like your idea of writing the first chapter last too. Back in the day, when I wrote term papers, I would write something like "blah blah" for the intro and then after I had fleshed out the paper and I went back and made the intro fit. Your idea of writing the first chapter last sounds like would work.

Searching for the Story said...

It's so tough. As an aspiring agent and a current literary agency intern I've turned down a lot of manuscripts on the basis of slow starts.

On the other hand, some of the greatest books of the 20th and 21st centuries took their time getting to the meat of the plot. The first chapter of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," for instance, sort of meanders around.

That's why, generally speaking, I try to read a pretty decent portion of a manuscript before making a decision.