The second chapter of A Perfect Blood popped up on Harper Voyager’s blog yesterday! Yay! If you’ve not seen it, and are in the mood for a little more teasing, go check it out! It is in a much more accessible format if you were having trouble with the first. Click for chapter two
Last night I spent some time working on shifting the website over to A Perfect Blood’s colors, and I’m still not quite happy with it. I wanted to pull on the red from the cover for the link colors, but it was too garish, so I aimed for Rachel’s hair. Something still isn’t quite right, but it’s getting there. I like the monochrome look I’ve got going, but it’s missing something. Shadows, maybe. . .
Anyway, chapter three is open on my desk this morning, and I might be able to even get four at least started before I push back. I played with chapter one again yesterday, cementing things since it was THE FIRST CHAPTER, and I’ve decided I like it. I like it a lot. Especially the first line, which has three clues as to what the story is going to be about, all of them not easily seen unless you are looking for it. (I love words . . .)
First chapters are tricky beasts. They have definite needs, especially in genre fiction where there are expectations and conventions, something you need to pay attention to if you are making up magic, rules, and worlds. Expectations help the reader can find their feet faster and their reading experience more enjoyable and allow the uniqueness of your story to stand out. I have a few things I like to work in to help make my first chapter more successful. (This is for genre fiction.)
I once heard it said that most bestselling books start with dialog within the first three paragraphs. I don’t know if it’s true, but I try to follow that rule, even if it’s just the main character talking to themselves.
Use action to introduce the main characters, not reflection. My personal rule is to not introduce more than two people in any given chapter. First chapters are best lean on the characters. Show only what will carry through to the end, whether it be a person, emotion, or idea. I have someone dying in the first chapter, so clearly he isn’t going to carry through to the end, but the emotions that stem from it do.
First chapters need to touch on the issue that the main character is going to be dealing with. For example, if someone close to the main character is going to die and the book is about her dealing with it, she needs to see someone die, or a funeral, or a car accident, or an obituary, or a dead flower. Something! There needs to be a hint so the reader is primed for it and the clues you will be dropping. You don’t necessarily have to be blatantly obvious about it, especially if discovery is involved, but it should be there. Readers are savvy. They will be looking for this whether they know it or not. Give it to them, and they will follow you to the next page.
The inner strength that will get your main character to the end needs to be shown. The personal drawback that will hinder them needs to be there, too. Not the bad guy, the personal quirk that keeps the main character stumbling, but if you can get the bad guy in there too, all the better. Just don’t add the entire cast at once. One line goes a long way in a first chapter. This is part of character development, and your reader must be able to identify with your character immediately, or the page won’t be turned.
The magic needs to be shown, or at least mentioned with some emotion attached so the reader knows how to feel about it. We must know from the first chapter if the magic is open and talked about, or hidden and creating a danger just by being able to do it.
These are the biggies, and if you ask a different writer, you’ll probably get a different answer, and that’s the beauty of it. To get all the above in less than 20 pages is a tall order, but this is what a publisher or agent is looking for when they ask for your first three chapters. Most editors and agents will know from three pages if they want your work. Much of what they are looking for is “voice”, but I’ve always felt this is what they are unconsciously looking for as well. Can you immerse the reader immediately? Can you tell us what the story is going to be about without smacking us in the face with it? Can you make us identify with the character and care? Can you mash all that in and still make us want to find out more?
It isn’t easy. It takes time. And rewrites. Lots of rewrites. I seldom wind up using my original first chapter, so don’t beat yourself up trying to make it perfect on the first run through. Take your time. It’s often not until the end that we know how to start.