Friday, August 22, 2014

Conference Insights: Your First Chapter

The Writer's Digest Conference East 2014 was a fantastic opportunity to network and learn. I'm happy to pass along some of what I heard from the experts in the industry.

Senior literary agent Larry Kirshbaum with the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency gave tips on how to write a bestseller. One of my favorites was the following, on how to start your novel and structure your first chapter:

"Read a lot of first chapters to see what works."

Doesn't that make sense? It might seem like you run the risk of plagiarizing, but really, the authors whose books you love to read must know what they're doing. Their books got published.

And just because you admire a technique an author uses doesn't mean you're plagiarizing if you put that technique to work in your own manuscript. You'll have your own style, your own voice, your own story. And besides, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (Charles Caleb Colton).

Opening Lines

Study some opening lines first. What is it about them that makes you want to read on? That hooks you into what's to come? Does the opening line establish the voice, tone, and style of the story? What works for you? What doesn't hook you?

Open Moby Dick (Herman Melville): "Call me Ishmael."

What about To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)? "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

Try Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury). "It was a pleasure to burn."

Or Holes (Louis Sachar). "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake."

Or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling): "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

Analyze first lines.

First Chapters

Then study and analyze whole first chapters. How did the author follow up on that first line? Was it the first paragraph that made you want to keep reading? Or the first page? Why? If it was a book you've never read, at what point did you put it down?

Here are some questions to get you started in your analysis of first chapters:

> What characters are introduced?
> What's the setting?
> How are the point-of-view (POV), voice, and style established?
> What's the time period?
> How do you know the genre? (Or do you?)
> What's the setting?
> What draws you into the story? (Or doesn't?)
> What makes you care about the characters?
> What's the inciting incident? Or does it come later?

Food for Thought

Try it out. Pick a dozen books off your shelf (or check the local library). Read the first chapter of each. Study the authors' techniques. What works? what would you do differently? How would your manuscript benefit from what you've learned?

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