A Publisher hated my first chapter…and told me how to fix it. Now I share what I’ve learned with you.
The first chapter is your first impression, your moment of truth, your novel’s chance to sink or swim.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to land an agent, get an editor’s attention, or simply sell your book. Whoever picks it up will make snap judgments in the first paragraph they read. If they like it, then they’ll get through the first chapter. If they haven’t been sucked in by then, it’ll be too late.
I recently got a revise and resubmit request from a publisher. The only reason is because they loved my second chapter. But my prologue and my chapter 1 was riddled with issues. The only reason they read that far is because I won a Twitter Pitch contest where it was promised any favorited tweets would be a request for the first three chapters, and they would receive a full review. I was far more excited about the chance at feedback than actually garnering the publisher’s interest, and I learned more than I even hoped. Getting a revise and resubmit request based solely on the third chapter they read only proved to me what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong.
So now I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you for what to do and what not to do in your first chapter.
1. Do: Be crystal clear without info-dumps
My main problem with this is that I thought I was being very clear. But actually, I was trying to shove in far too much world-lore at once. Even if I was able to introduce world-lore through action, it was still too much information. All I managed to do was make it a creative info-dump.
I had a prologue: INFO DUMP. It was a well written prologue, and interesting, but if you need a prologue at all then just assume it’s going to be looked at as an info-dump.
I had the character read a stolen letter as the beginning of the chapter: INFO DUMP
The character reflected over her life while brushing her hair and looking into a mirror: INFO DUMP
What really threw me is that I knew these were borderline info-dump scenes, but I accepted it because I didn’t know how else to ease the reader into the world I had created. But that’s just not good enough. I don’t care how complicated a world is, you will run into the same wall as I did if you make the mistake of trying to explain too much too fast.
2. Don’t: be afraid to completely rewrite
I’ve been through three chapter ones. Sometimes, third try’s the charm… If you find that something isn’t working, and especially if you can’t figure out what it is, try to start the book somewhere completely new. It’ll be refreshing to cast off the old piece you’ve revised twenty times and trotted all over, and have something fresh and new to work with. You can just be yourself again. Don’t try too hard, let it come out naturally. Then, when you feel you have something emotionally engaging, polish it up to make sure it’s crystal clear for Who, What, When, Where and How. If you have some pieces to choose from, have a critique partner take a look and give you some feedback on which one works best.
3. Do: Include an Inciting Event
There needs to be something to kickoff the novel. Even if there’s a situation your character is in and needs to get out of, that doesn’t mean you can just lead with that. That’s the conflict, not an inciting event. There needs to be something immediate and tangible the reader can hold onto. The big picture is not important to them yet. They want a zoomed-in piece of an antagonist or pressing issue they can understand. A car crash…a fight…a history exam… This will propel your story into motion and the reader along with it.
4. Don’t: Try to shove too much into your first chapter
This is something I struggled with a lot, and part of my reason for forced info-dumps. Particularly for fantasy. I felt like I needed to give the reader an encyclopedia of this new world and worried they wouldn’t understand something. So every time something came up that I knew would cause the reader to ask a question, I made sure to try and answer it.
What I should have done is made sure the reader didn’t ask the question in the first place. There should be one, maybe two major questions that the reader will ask in the first chapter, and they better have an answer. If there are more than that, then you need to start cutting any clue that would cause the reader to ask those extra questions. Save it for later.
If the reader is asking too many questions, they will get confused. If you therefore try to answer all of the questions you’ve created by the story, then the reader will feel like they’re getting an info-dump. It’s a vicious tightrope. The best thing you can do is to cut out any superfluous information or objects that would even bring the reader in on world-lore they’re not supposed to know yet. That was my key mistake and also why I had so much trouble getting around it. I realized that the reader actually didn’t need to know everything yet, and it was perfectly acceptable to leave them in the dark until they would be ready to learn more.
I think this is the hardest part about world-building. As the writer, we’re passionate about the world we’ve created and we want to share everything right away. It’s kind of like a toddler who finds a new treasure and goes, “Look Mommy Look!” But think about it, does Mom really care? She may find it cute, but that’s the extent of it. Do you want to be a cute writer? Or do you want to impress?
I hope this has helped you find the flaws in your first chapter. Sometimes it’s not the query letter or the pitch, it’s just how the novel is presented. Nothing is more important than the first chapter when making your impression with someone new. Without it, a polished premise and masterful story will be put down. Don’t let it hold your story back!
I have used some resources to improve my first chapter. I hope it can help you too!
My highest recommendation is the Emotion Thesaurus. I love this, it allows me to click on an emotion, for example “determination”, and I immediately get taken to pages of gestures and suggestions on how to describe a character looking determined. It’s refreshing for when I find myself using the same gestures or descriptions over and over again, giving my writing a stronger sense of variety. So for this reason I suggest the 5$ kindle version so you can easily click on the emotion you’re looking to describe.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression Kindle Edition
by Angela Ackerman (Author), Becca Puglisi (Author)
The first draft is not the end. I needed some help on how to self-edit before I let others take a look at my work. This helped me immensely. (Free on Kindle Unlimited)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
by Renni Browne (Author), Dave King (Author)
And finally, this guide that honed my craft on make my story really pop and connect with readers. (Also Free on Kindle Unlimited)
Writing With Emotion, Tension, and Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel Paperback
I know that writing can be daunting, and once you’ve finished your first draft, or even your third or fourth revision, you start to wonder “Is it Me?” But don’t give up. There are good ways, and then there are better ways, to filter your passion onto paper in a way the reader can understand, connect and relate. That is the ultimate goal, to help others see your characters and your world as you do. As I love to say, there are no experts, only beginners who never gave up.