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The All-Important First Chapter
When writing my debut novel, Freedom for Me: A Chinese Yankee, I struggled mightily with the opening chapter. I knew I wanted to place my protagonist, Thomas, in the middle of a battle to give the book a dramatic opening and lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. But getting there did not come easy. I couldn’t get the words to pop or sing or sparkle. They fell flat, even after multiple tries, and I was left with a drab description of something that was supposed to be heart-pumping.
Since I couldn’t get what I wanted on my initial tries, I had to do something that is often hard for writers—I had to let it go, leave that first chapter as it was, and move on with the rest of my story. Even after I finished my manuscript (and edited it several times), I still had a lingering feeling that the first chapter wasn’t quite right.
Even so, I ignored the nagging sensation and started preparing my book for submission to publishers. Even with a less-than-stellar opening scene, I felt I had written a strong and decent story they would be interested in. Unfortunately, that was not the case and rejections began to pile up. I believe now that my first chapter was to blame because once I started getting interest, it was from publishers that received virtually the same novel as the others, but with that first chapter written the way it always should have been.
I can’t say that anything “clicked” the final time I sat down to rewrite the first chapter. I did, however, go at it with three specific goals in mind:
1) Adding relevant and engaging backstory for the protagonist that increased the opening tension.
2) Writing better, more vivid descriptions of the action while weeding out unnecessary details.
3) Speeding up the pace of the narrative to keep the reader engaged to the end of the scene.
When I closed the lid of my laptop after that marathon final rewrite, I knew I had done it. The fact was confirmed when I later received this note from a beta reader:
“Let me begin by saying that there is some excellent writing in this chapter. From the very first page, where we discover that Thomas is not your average soldier, the narrative just rips down the page—and you’ve done a great job of feeding the reader backstory without slowing down the story. Your premise provides a powerful dramatic hook for the reader as well….”
Less than a month after I received this note, I received multiple requests for full manuscripts and was offered my first book contract.
My advice to those who are struggling with an opening scene:
1) Listen to the voice in your head that tells you something isn’t as good as it could be. Ignoring it will not make it go away, and as in my case, it may prevent you from achieving your goals. Remember the famous adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
2) Get feedback. Beta readers are incredibly helpful. Ask them specifically for feedback on your opening scenes.
3) Persevere. Inspiration doesn’t always strike like lightning. Edit multiple times for one issue at a time (pace, active versus passive verbs, and others). Once you do, that elusive inspiration may just strike, or you may find you no longer need it.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Stacie Haas