Saturday, November 1, 2008

Critique Group, Attack! or What Should A First Chapter Contain

I don't know how many of you have ever been to a writing critique group but it's a fun experience. I love seeing people rip apart what I've written and excited to discuss my motivation and clarify if I really have a plot point or simply like this scene so much I'm misleading and boring my audience (which I do far too often.)

In response and perhaps because of this fact, I attack my fellow group members with the same gusto and in the end we find what is best in what we have written. Invariably I have left feeling that my work is better and hope I've helped those writer's around me. It's great!

So last Tuesday we had a new friend come to critique group. She is in her early twenties, just out of college and was a little hesitant to read. We did our pieces first and then she began. Jackie's work was wonderful! It is about a family of elves whose mother dies of a strange disease. Elves hardly ever get sick and the calamity forces these elves to go to the land of humans to find a cure. Great premise!

The only issue was that the conflict wasn't introduced until twenty pages into the story and you weren't sure who the main character was, his weakness or his obstacle. Maybe I'm going through the growing pains of a new writer but the more I read and write, the more formulaic I'm becoming, believe it or not. I hope Jackie comes back because we sort of drowned her in suggestions like simply dropping the first chapter and starting with the second but I hope she does because she is a great writer.

BUT I also wanted to clarify what a first chapter should contain:

1. Grab the Reader- Everyone agrees that the most important thing the first sentences of you book must do is to grab the reader. In the first 13 lines there should be enough action, unanswered questions or pathos with your main character to suck the reader in.

2. Introduce the Main Character- Books are about being given the privilege of living on someone else's shoulder for a while and vicariously experiencing their most challenging, thrilling or scary moment and watching how they overcome it through change. If I don't like the main character, sorry, I don't want to go for the ride. And if I don't know who the main character is, I'm done.

3. Introduce the Main Conflict or Hint at it- In romance the main conflict is will these two people fall in love despite some great flaw. Almost without exception the hero/love interest is either introduced or mentioned by one of the main character's friends ("Did you hear about the new CIO? He used to be a male model.) In other types of fiction where the conflict may be the destruction of a world or simply overcoming shyness, the conflict either needs to be thrown in the readers face through the first humilating scene or hinted at subtly as your character participates in something truly attention grabbing. By the end of the first chapter I've got to have an idea what the book will be about.

4. Plan on It Changing- I doubt that many writers ever keep their first chapter close to the same by the time a book goes to print and most first time writers' books don't really begin until the third chapter. That's okay but expect that your first chapter is going to be chopped up, revved up and slimmed down. It's the first chapter that sells your book and it should go through the most stringent editting. Have lots of people read it. Change it. Try new first scenes. Make it shine.

5. Don't Make it Too Long- I hadn't thought of this but it's true. That first chapter should suck people in. When they end it, it is the first feeling of satisfaction the book gives them and you want them to feel that as soon as possible. If there is information you can put into back story, take it out of that first chapter. Start in the middle, I'm not reading a diary of this person's whole life so you don't have to tell me everything up front. Give me the action, introduce your main character and conflict and leave me with a cliffhanger.

6. Yup, End with a Cliffhanger- NOT at the end of the book but definitely at the end of the first chapter. Does the last sentence leave me starving to read the next paragraph. What vital question have you left unanswered? Leave me wanting more.

Lastly, I have to admit that I think I did none of these for my first book. In my second I did a better job but I can see why this is important and as I reviewed my favorite authors I found that most did this perfectly. Wow.


Anonymous said...

I hope she comes back too - hopefully we weren't too scary :-D Great comments and so, so true.

Liz Adair said...

what a great post! I'm going to print it and frame it and use it at our next ANWA meeting.

BTW, just finished The Crayon Messages and will reviw soon on my blog. I've got one other to do first. I'll let you knoow.

Monique said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you Christine. I don't have a printer but I am going to find a way to print so I never lose this. You are amazing with your timing!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post--I need to print it out and stick it in my writing binder.