Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Yes, Virginia, the Beginning Does Matter

This morning I got an email from a writer that I found very disheartening. It went something like this:

Dear Paula,
I have written a great novel that I’d like to send to you in the hope of obtaining representation. Now I know that the first chapter doesn’t really work, but the rest of it is very good, and I know that you’ll love it if you read the entire manuscript. Does that really matter? Should I send it to you now or wait until I figure out how to fix the first chapter?
Aspiring Writer

At the risk of repeating myself: Yes, your story opening DOES matter. Because if the beginning doesn’t work, the rest doesn’t matter. The truth is that few readers—and even fewer agents and editors—will read past a poorly executed first chapter.  That’s why I do so many First Ten Pages Boot Camps and that’s why I’m writing a new book about story openings called BEGINNINGS:  How to Craft Story Openings That Impress Agents, Engage Editors, and Captivate Readers that Writers Digest Books will publish in the fall. Because I know how much the beginning matters—and I want to help as many writers get past that first hurdle in the novel-writing process as I can.

The First Page Sells the Book…
That’s what they say in publishing. So take the time to craft a first page, a first scene, a first chapter that engages readers—and keeps them reading.  Here’s a checklist designed to help you ensure that your first chapter:
          What actually happens?
Too often the answer to this is, “not much.” Make something compelling happen!
          Why will the reader care about/relate to the characters?
Readers want to fall in love with the protagonist at first sight.
          How do you want the reader to feel? What have you done to evoke that feeling?
Art is meant to be an emotional experience, not simply an intellectual one. Make your readers feel something.
          Have you used all the elements of fiction at your disposal—setting, plot, character, theme, etc.?
So many first pages fail to weave in all these elements—and you need them all to write fully realized scenes.
          Have you chosen the right voice?
When the voice is right on, readers read on.
          Does the dialogue ring true?
Bad dialogue kills the reading experience faster than most anything.
          Are the story questions strong enough to keep the reader turning the pages?
Without story questions, there’s no story—just writing.
          Is it clear what kind of story you’re telling?
Readers play favorites with genre; they want to know what kind of story they’re reading right away.
          What makes this story different from others of its ilk?
You need to set your story apart from the brand-name competition in your genre—and the sooner the better.
          Have you gotten the point of view right?
The misuse of point of view is one of the big reasons I pass on stories, even when everything else works.
          Is the scene well-written and well-edited?
Professionalism counts.

If your story opening passes this checklist test, then you may be ready to shop your work.  Good luck—and happy querying!

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At June 10, 2016 at 11:19 AM , Blogger Crimezine said...

Confidence and self belief can be a problem for some writers, either too much, or not enough. Lots of writing and reading will help, the more the better.

At June 17, 2016 at 4:55 AM , Blogger Julia Ash said...

I am excited for your book release in the fall, Paula. Your checklist is very helpful and I appreciate your efforts to help cultivate the next generation of authors :)

At July 15, 2016 at 6:24 PM , Blogger Karen P. Foster said...

Suddenly, I feel better about laboring over chapter one to get it right. If the first chapter isn't sorted, I can't write the rest of the book, even if I know exactly what i want to write and where the story is going. Thank you!

At July 16, 2016 at 9:03 AM , Blogger Paula Munier said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At July 16, 2016 at 9:04 AM , Blogger Paula Munier said...

Thanks for all your swell comments. Like all writing, getting the beginning right is an iterative process. Keep at it--as will I!


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