Chapter One: we know it’ll eventually contain the words that make or break our book. That puts a lot of pressure on a writer. We want to begin in just the right place, pick the perfect point of view, and somehow prepare the reader for the rest of the book without giving anything away. If we get it wrong, the first chapter might be the only chapter of our book anyone reads.
Don’t fret. Your first chapter, like any part of your book, won’t come out perfect on the first try. In fact, you may change which chapter comes first several times before arriving at your final draft. The real secret to writing a killer first chapter is taking the pressure off. Write the first several chapters — before you can think your way into a bad case of writer’s block — then get feedback from a trusted source.
Just keep writing.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: a lot of writers end up reordering their first few chapters during revisions. One of the most common pieces of feedback my critique group gives on novel drafts is to move a different chapter to the front of the line — or even cut Chapter One completely (I got that one last month). If you labor too much over your first chapter right away, you might resist making necessary edits later on because you don’t want to waste all that hard work.
Write until you have your first several chapters. Focus on giving your readers a solid idea of your story’s characters and stakes right away. Hint at future struggles without giving too much away: what kind of journey are we beginning? Why should we keep reading? Once you’ve done your best with those first few chapters, you’re ready to think about the next step.
Don’t judge your own first chapter.
Have you ever introduced a new date to your family or best friends and asked them afterward, “So, what did you think?” Most of us appreciate receiving approval from the people we love, but there’s more to it than that. Our intuition tells us that others’ first impressions can show us things we wouldn’t (or couldn’t) see otherwise.
When we read the first chapter of a book, we walk in cold. Maybe we’ve read the jacket copy, but the first pages of prose are what really introduce us to the story world. This presents a serious issue when we try to evaluate our own first chapters. There’s no way to replicate that first-impression experience. We already know our story and characters inside and out. That makes it impossible for us to know how our story’s introduction will land with real-life readers.
Find a critique group or beta readers you can trust.
Because we make such poor judges of our own first chapters, we need quality feedback from others. You don’t need another writer for this, though it can be nice to exchange chapters with a critique partner. Look for someone who’s a strong, thoughtful reader and appreciates books in your genre. You need someone who will know what to look for and how to articulate what may need to change.
Feedback can come from a number of sources:
- Beta reader: an avid reader, preferably in your genre, who will read your work and provide constructive criticism.
- Critique partner: a fellow writer with whom you exchange chapters for feedback.
- Critique group: a group of writers who get together on a regular basis to discuss members’ writing.
You can find these people online through websites like Meetup.com or on Twitter. The #cpmatch hashtag on Twitter sometimes has matchmaking events, or you can make friends with other writers online and ask them for connections. Real-life writer friends or local writers’ associations can provide leads as well. As you evaluate potential beta readers and critique partners, remember to keep the best interests of your story at heart — and expect others to do the same.
One place you should almost never look for feedback on your writing: your friends and family. You care what these people think of you, and they (hopefully!) care about your feelings. That doesn’t make for a very honest or productive critique. For example, I don’t show my husband my draft writing. I know criticism will feel different coming from him than it will from my writing group. His job is to support me and be my cheerleader. My critique group’s job is to tear my writing apart. For the vast majority of us, those two roles are best kept separate.
Don’t stress over the first chapter (yet).
Whatever you do, don’t let first chapter paralysis get the best of you. Your initial drafts of that all-important chapter might be as bad as you feared, but that’s okay. Right now, your only job is to get your first few chapters written. After that, feedback from trusted sources will help point you in the right direction. Happy writing (and revising)!