Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Step Away From The Paw-Print Bottoms!

I went to the bank a few months ago and stood in line behind a woman who was a low income couch potato whose social life revolved around her fifty cats.

How do I know that?

I don't.

What I do know is that the woman in front of me was overweight, her hair was yanked up in a sloppy ponytail, her accent was what most southerners instantly recognize as "redneck", and she wore cheap gray sweat pants with GIANT cat paw prints embroidered aross her generous backside.

Now, it's very likely that this is a warm and wonderful woman who was simply having one of those days. Maybe she has six children, another two she's taken in from a sick relative, and she's lucky to have made it out the door. Maybe the only clean garment she had at the time was the awful pair of kitty-paw-print sweats her great Aunt Mildred gave her for Arbor Day. Probably she was on the way to serve soup to the homeless.

Most people would never get past her initial appearance to figure that out because first impressions are tough to overcome.

Chapter One is your novel's first impression - your one chance to hook your reader into your story. Don't ruin it by choosing what requires the least effort from you.

Your first chapter should:

1. Introduce your main character: "Introduce" is not a euphemism here for "give the reader every last detail". "Introduce" is code for "seduce the reader into rooting for your m/c".

2. Plunge your reader straight into the action: "Action" here is not a euphemism for "conversation whose main goal is to establish background or give story details". "Action" is code for "action". As Miss Snark always used to say, give me a flaming corpse on page one and you've got me.

3. Set up the conflict: You don't have to deliver the whole ball of wax in chapter one. You do, however, need to give me a sense of the stakes and a reason to keep reading.

4. Ground the reader in setting: I've devoted an earlier post to this so I won't rehash in detail. Suffice it to say that you can ground your reader in setting with a few well chosen sentences sprinkled throughout the chapter.

5. Enchant the reader with your Voice: From paragraph one, your reader should be drawn in by your unique Voice. If your chapter reads "flat", start re-writing until you nail it.

Avoiding the Paw-Print Bottoms:

Don't open your novel with anything that screams cliche. You can read through Agent X, Kristin Nelson, or the Query Shark to find a more comprehensive list of the types of openings to avoid but here are a few to get you started:

Don't begin with:

*someone's dream
*a long inner monologue involving mundane daily details
*someone driving to work/school/church thinking about their day
*conversations between two characters that don't instantly generate conflict
*long descriptions of the weather (unless, of course, the weather is your villain)
*a group of characters doing nothing important

Check yourself:

*Do you spend too much time on painting the scene and not enough time making your reader care about who's in the scene?

*Are you aware that your novel has a slow start but are hoping that since it picks up by chapter five, your slow beginning won't matter? (Agents aren't going to read to chapter five if you can't hook them on chapter one!)

*Does your m/c stand out in chapter one as unique, interesting, different...something to make me want to turn the page and see what happens to her?

*Is your conflict either a)unique from other books on the shelves or b) a fresh take on an old idea?

Your first chapter is what will grab an agent's attention, bring in the requests for more, and later, what will seduce a reader into buying your book. Pull out all the stops. Re-write, re-write, re-write until your first chapter is a tightly written, fast-paced showcase of your Voice.

Your readers don't need every detail in chapter one. They just need a compelling reason to keep reading.


  1. Once again, you've delivered a very helpful post on writing. My first chapter completely sucks. I know this. I just didn't know how to fix it.

    Now I'm going to throw it out and start over with more action, less scenery, and a better feel for the hero.

  2. What if it's a dream about a flaming corpse?


    Awesome post. I've been guilty of a few of those things. Thankfully I think I've broken myself of the habit of needing to introduce every character in the book and their histories in the first five pages. *grins*

    Mayberry -

    Sometimes chucking it and starting over is the very best thing. *nods* I axed over 100 pages from one of my novels. *hangs head in shame* Because the action really didn't start until then. Thankfully I may have salvaged the book because of it.


  3. Great post, CJ. Ok, so what if you're in a plane crash on this weird island and there's this scary monster out there (that we never really see) and your characters and plot points are riveting but none completes the story circle in a way that gives one any hope of ever figuring out what the heck is going on. Yes, I'm lost in LOST.

  4. "3. Set up the conflict: You don't have to deliver the whole ball of wax in chapter one. You do, however, need to give me a sense of the stakes and a reason to keep reading."

    I'm not sure if I have that set up well for my main WIP, I'm near the end [I write the whole novel and then go back and rewrite until it's perfect, makes it easier for me to avoid getting stuck and I can use the original as a detailed outline] and now that I'm going back to the beginning I thought I had set up the conflict but I'm not positive since the basis of the story is she gets thrown back in the supernatural world via a series of coincidences.

    Great post as always, and really good points.

  5. As a pantser, I'm finding it hard... repeat that hard! to plot out chapter by chapter what's going to happen, but as part of a Year of the Novel course I'm doing with the Queensland Writers Centre I have to... homework? Me a teacher having homework? yeuch.
    But anyway I'm still thinking that my black moment is going to be X, but as I'm writing I'm finding that its probably going to come earlier than that at about T.... shessh. So how do you go forward, are you a plotter or pantser?

  6. Natalie -

    I'm a pantser too. *grins* One thing I've found that helps though is to do a rough (really really rough) outline that just hits the high points of the novel but leaves me a lot of room to play around in as I got.

    And it gets changed on the fly a lot. *laughs* Which is okay.


  7. Mayberry - sometimes tossing out all but what you absolutely need and starting over is exactly what you need. I did that five times on DTR before I got it right, 3 times on SF.

    Katy - only if the dream comes true. Lol.

    Beth- Yay! Lost! Circular writing, yes, but it certainly kept me watching!

    Jage - You don't need to let us know she's going to be pulled back into the supernatural world. Maybe just let us know she's got some experience with it and doesn't want to go back and then give us a piece of foreshadowing so we suspect she's got trouble coming.

    Btw, this sounds like something I'd love to read!

    Natalie - Long live the Pantsers! I've actually learned to be a combination of both (Katy is a much better pantser than me). I start with a vague overall idea that becomes more detailed and more complicated as I write. I can "plot" out the next 3 to 4 chapters at a time but even then, my "plotting" is just a quick list of what details need to come out, and what needs to happen to advance the overall conflict, individual conflict, or relational conflict. Then I just start writing and see how it all plays out.


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