Wednesday, August 10, 2011

First Chapter Hooks

Hi there! Today I've got the uber sweet and charming Sheri A. Larson here today with a special post on those wretched gloriously fun first chapters! First chapters have been the bane of my existence since I started writing novels. How do you hook'em and reel'em in so they don't put the book down?? It's so important to get it just right.

Well, Sheri's here to share some great info with us on what she learned with literary agent Natalie Fischer on how to make those first chapters really sparkle.

Thanks so much for being here, Sheri! Take it away ....

Thank you so much, PK! I attended a webinar where I received a critique from Natalie Fischer, and by using myself as a guinea pig, I'm hoping to give you some insight into your personal troubled areas in opening up a story.

My opening chapter began with subtle action, encapsulated by a car accident. Although opening with an accident can sometimes be cliché, as she read she saw that I'd used it in a different way.

The scene was character driven with little focus on the accident itself and more about the innards of my lead female with a hint of what might be in store for her. I knew using an accident would trigger the fear and pain buried inside this girl--which remains hidden throughout most of the story--and would also afford me the opportunity to give the reader a glimpse into a special talent this girl possess but ignores. AND yes, a little of her past, but just enough to make the reader go

However, there was one point in the chapter where she went
 Whoa and question my reasons for not starting the chapter there.

I found it so interesting when she asked me that. Let me set it up for you: girl wakes up in backseat with unconscious friend + sees strangers just outside vehicle. At the end of the scene, the lead female (who's vision is blurred) senses someone near...too near. She hears his voice and exhales what she believes to be her last. Her world then fades to black. But the reader is privy to the fact that something is being done to her and it's not death taking her.

Originally, I hadn't included her waking, seeing someone outside the van, etc... It was simply her feeling someone near, not knowing who or what it was. This was the place Natalie felt the chapter reeled her in. I told her that I'd lengthened it because I was afraid someone would interpret the shortness of the chapter (which was only two pages double-spaced) for a prologue, which I didn't want. She assured me that it didn't read like a prologue as long as the story moved forward in chapter 2, which it does.

So here, I needed to either cut the beginning out entirely or take out some extraneous phrases and descriptions of the scene to speed up the intensity, tighten my prose, and completely hook the reader. Note: my Oasis Ladies
 had read the chapter prior and each of them had the same assessment as Natalie. Smart chickies. 

Natalie's advice was universal to all five writers who met with her.

The Breakdown
~Opening Chapter~
  1. 1. A chapter is a chapter despite the length. YOU may chose to keep it short - as I had originally - for impact. That doesn't necessarily make it a prologue. 
  2. 2. If you're going to start with a bang - start with a bang and keep it rolling.
  3. 3. Use shorter sentences to create tension and suspense.
  4. 4. Step inside the scene. Tell what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Use it all.
  5. 5. The reader only knows what the writer tells them. Think carefully about what you want to reveal or keep hidden. That, right there, could be the hook which makes your story irresistible. 
  6. 6. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, especially in the opening scene. 
  7. 7. In any story, but especially young adult or middle grade literature, speed is a necessity. Keep your scenes and chapters moving quickly. In today's world, most readers between the ages of 11 and 19 could find an abundance of other activities to do other than finishing your book.
  8. 8. Shorter chapters work well for keeping suspense and attention spans. 
  9. 9. While editing after your first draft, be sensitive to tightening your prose by discarding extra details or repetitive details. (Yeah, we hate to chuck a beautiful sentence. But if it's not moving the character, scene, or story forward ditch it. But do create a folder for unused material. You never know when it could come in handy.)
  10. 10. This is my personal deduction: trust your instincts. I knew where I wanted to start the chapter and what I truly wanted to communicate, but was afraid to push the envelope, step out of the normal box, or take a risk. Ultimately, Be True To Yourself and someone will believe in you and your work. 
Overall and much to my delight, she was intrigued and wanted to read more. Yeah, that was way cool to hear. One day, I will share with you how I applied her advice and rewrote my opener. That will have to come after I submit it to our way-so-cool Query Kick-Around onYAlitchat. If you write kid lit and haven't checked out this amazing writing community, please do. You won't be sorry. *grins and bats lashes then chokes on her coffee*  Grace...yup, that would be me.

Please feel free to add to my list. I'd love to hear some of your experiences with first chapters.

Bio: Sheri Larsen is a freelance writer, and author of Young Adult and Middle Grade literature, and Picture Books. She’s the creator of the GRAFFITI WALL, promoting the work of authors and illustrators.  

Awesome info, Sheri! Thank you so much for sharing it! I for one can vouch for the amazing helpfulness and support of YALitChat . And, of course, Sheri runs an outstanding blog over at Writer's Ally. Be sure to check them out!
Also, my friend Donna is interviewing me on her blog here. Stop by and say hi! 
Thanks so much for stopping by! How do you feel about first chapters, either reading or writing them? Please share ... 


welcome to my world of poetry said...

I enjoyed the read very much, it had me captivated and will certainly buy the book if the beginning is anything to go by.


Old Kitty said...

Thanks for wonderful help and really useful info on starting that all important first chapter!! Gosh so much to learn!!

Good luck Sheri and thanks PK! Take care

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Awesome advice, Sheri. Opening chapters drive me nuts too, PK. Why do they have to be the most difficult thing to write???

Robyn Campbell said...

Excellent post! When I started the first draft of my middle grade novel I spent so much time on that first chapter, first page, first sentence I realized the rest of the book was never going to be written. And since the book was written and revised 5000 times, that first chapter has been revised at least 2000 more times. I do this with my picture book openings too. EGAD, man!

I especially love number five, Sheri. Thanks for this wonderful post ladies. :-)

Melissa Hurst said...

First chapters can be tough to write and you've included some great advice to get the job done:)

Kathryn said...

As you said, they will either make me read the book or put it down. I have a hard time writing first chapters too. I try to follow the rule of starting the chapter where the action begins, but that also got me to thinking: what if all books were like that? Wouldn't we get bored of that expectation? Hmm... Just a thought! :)

Hart Johnson said...

Congrats that she wanted to read more! I think this is great advice. I know I need to be more deliberate about what to share and what not (my TMI policy is resistent to chopping) but I think it's great to keep in mind. That instinct thing, too, is important. I know I've added because early readers asked questions, but the RIGHT response is to answer LATER--to let those questions hang and propel them forward--not to satisfy all of them right off the bat.

Jess said...

That's awesome! When I wrote my first chapter to my story, I actually had NO CLUE what the rest of the story was really going to be about. (Don't worry I've fixed that now).
I like to let the reader know VERY LITTLE about what's actually going on in the first scene. My book starts of with my main character running outside because of a disturbing dream. Only later on do you find out more about the world that she's living in and that sort of thing.
I think the book sounds really good and really want to read it!

Cally Jackson said...

Great post. I've been polishing my first few chapters for an agent submission competition, and I've read them so many times now, I can't tell if I love them or hate them. I think I've followed most of Natalie's advice except about the short chapters. My first few are around 3K each.

Tonight's job is the synopsis - double groan! At least I already have an old one from the first version of this MS so won't be starting completely from scratch.

Angie Cothran said...

Awesome post! I learned tons!

Susan Kane said...

You got some really great advice! Particularly: tightening the prose. I am a wordy person, who runs on with endless commas. I need to print that out and hang it by my desk!

Liz Fichera said...

This is wonderful advice--thank you so much for sharing!

It's been my experience, particularly with YA, that even the first sentence of the first chapter is critical.

Angela Felsted said...

Wonderful advice. Especially the part about how a chapter is a chapter, even if it's short.

fOIS In The City said...

Thanks PK for the introduction and much thanks to Sheri for a great post.

Opening chapters, firt sentences and the impact they have on the reader is something I try to keep in mind. Having made EVERY mistake known to writerly folks ... beginning when she wakes from a dream... beginning with a scene from nature ... and a few more ...

info dump in the first chapter Boooo ... Yes we can learn to do better once we believe in the MC and what they are really trying to say that we are preventing with our snapping prose and long-winded desc. Love this and the advice is always good to hear again and again :)

Talli Roland said...

Wow, what helpful tips! First chapters aren't my issue so much - its usually saggy middle syndrome that gets me!

LTM said...

Yay, Sheri!!! these are all helpful tips, and I think that idea of opening inside the aftermath, the fear and confusion, sounds like a great way to start w/a bang and keep it rolling... :D

And who knew crashes were so common in opening scenes? ;p <3

Laila Knight said...

This was excellent. I can't tell you how often I've trashed my first chapter and started over. I think I've finally reached the point where I'm happy with it, or I could be wrong. That's why I'm having critique partners look at it. Keep the great advice coming. What are your views on starting with a brief war? :)

Marissa Farrar said...

Lately I've been scrapping the whole of my first chapters and weaving whatever info I've wanted to put across into the second chapter instead. I have a tendency toward too much character detail at the start of the book and not enough action! I think I'm learning though.
Thanks so much for the informative post!

J.L. Campbell said...

Very good tips. Thanks. I'm one of those lazy writers who hates to start over, but sometimes it's just what's needed to get that first chapter rolling right along.

Madeleine said...

Starting with a bang certainly has a more powerful effect. I've read some great novels that start slowly, but realise the ones that have action at the start hook me in all that much faster. Great post :O)

Leslie Rose said...

Talk about serendipity. I was catching up on your posts on the same day I am doing a tear down and rebuild of a first chapter. This post is gold for me. Thanks a mil.