I expect you know that the first chapter of your novel is the most important you'll write. It's the part on which an agent, an editor, a reader will judge whether your book is worth their time and attention – and money. Many people have written about what your first chapter has to do. This article, compiled from my own experience as a reader of unpublished manuscripts on a plethora of writers' websites, is intended to point out some issues for you to consider.
1. Background info dump
Authors often seem to be so sure that readers will not understand their story unless they have at least a basic understanding of the setting, so they devote their opening chapter, or a prologue, to a detailed explanation of where the action is going to take place. This is most common in fantasy and science fiction where the reader can't just say 'oh yes, London in 2001' or something. One good example is the prologue in The Lord of the Rings. I didn't read the prologue the first time I read the book and I didn't need the information it contained to enjoy (love) the story. As a rule, readers don't like ploughing through a pile of background before anything happens. You're generally far better off salting background information through your MS, at places where the reader needs to know.
2. Out of context excitement
This is usually done through a prologue where the book opens with an exciting scene (say, a murder which actually happens later in the story) to attract a reader. We bite our fingernails through the action as the stalker breaks into Mary's bedroom... Then we get to Chapter One, where Mary is sitting at her desk for the day job. You might be lucky that your reader wants to know how Mary got into this fix – but you might also found your reader is seriously let down. Sure, it has worked for some authors but it's a very common ploy, bordering on the cliché. I don't know how many MS's I have read which open with a chase through (usually) a dark forest. The person(s) being chased is/are carrying a child or a sword/jewel/casket/name your own object. They manage to hide said item just before the baddies turn up and kill them. Now read on. This device is most common in fantasy.
3. Not naming your main character
How's this for an opening? “The time had come. He swallowed, suddenly nervous. Could he do this? Of course he could; it was why he was here. He lifted up the vial and noticed the purple contents shimmering in time with the tremor in his hand.” The author is trying to build foreboding, excitement. The reader should be wondering who 'he' is, where 'he' is. Nope. The reader doesn't know who the person is and has had no time to care about what he's about to do. Even a name helps that process. Read the piece again, substituting 'Paul swallowed' for 'he swallowed'. The reader will assume that Paul is important to the story simply because he has a name.
4. Killing off your POV character in the first chapter
This is another far too common way of providing background information and a bit of excitement in the first chapter. Let's look at an example. The story starts with a kid, a young prince who, though underage, has been allowed to tag along on a hunt for a creature menacing the local village. The troops gather and they ride out, our prince bubbling with adrenalin at his first real fight. And in the last words of the chapter, he dies.
Say what?? The reader can't believe it. She's just spent a few pages getting to know this kid and... She turns the page, flicking through to find out if it was a dream or something. No. This prince isn't the main character, it's his twin brother. This was all just backstory.
Another example. Two lads enter an enchanted forest despite the warnings. One, the point of view character, is gung ho, the other hesitant. But there's a sorcery (the villain of the story) at the centre of the wood ready for some young essence to fill his tired old body. He devours the lads, who play no further part in the book. They've just provided essence for a tired old body, which is now youthful and invigorated.
In both these cases, the author has wasted the reader's time. They've expended some energy in trying to relate to the characters and now they have to start all over again. There's nothing wrong with starting with the villain, but if you're starting with the villain, write from his point of view.
5. Speaking of dreams...
The author provides backstory/excitement/prophecy in the form of a dream. Yawn. This isn't real action, it's not a connection with the character. There's nothing wrong with dream sequences in the right context, but using one as an opening for a book tends to miss the point. At some stage the person wakes up and that's where the story starts.
6. Presenting shoddy workmanship
Just as a builder uses bricks and mortar to construct a house, a writer uses words and grammar to write a story. A badly-built house doesn't attract admiration, regardless of the cleverness of the design. Offer me incorrect spelling, bad grammar, sentences that don't make sense and I'll move on to the next book. You might have the best story in the world but if you're not professional enough to at least learn the basic building blocks of your profession – well, you'll have trouble convincing an agent, an editor or a reader you're worth their time. Don't present a first draft; it will be full of mistakes. Have your work critiqued, take advice from beta-readers, get independent editorial input if you can afford it. And that is true whether you try for traditional publishing, indie presses or self-publication. It's a matter of pride.
This isn't an exhaustive list. I expect most of you will realise that books about boy wizards or sexy vampires attending high school may be hard to sell in the current climate. If you're widely read in the genre you write in, you should be aware of the most overused plots. And yet, having said all this, there's no reason why YOUR book shouldn't be the one that breaks all the 'rules' and makes a killing. To do that, all you have to do is capture the public's reading imagination, like the da Vinci code, Harry Potter, Twilight, Fifty shades of grey...
Greta van der Rol usually writes fast-paced science fiction with a dollop of romance. 'Morgan's Choice' has been in the top 100 best-sellers in space-opera on Amazon for several months and has been number 1 in science fiction romance. Her latest book, 'Black Tiger', is a fast-paced, contemporary paranormal romance. All profits from 'Black Tiger' will go to the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation to help tiger conservation.
He haunts the jungle – and her dreams
When Dr. Sally Carter travels to India to regroup from a broken heart the last thing she wants is to fall in love. But Raja Asoka (Ash) Bhosle is entirely too attractive to ignore, even though she knows it can only end in tears. Hers.
Ash guards his forest and the precious creatures within it, protecting the rare tigers from mindless slaughter, and a secret that lives in legend. From the moment he sets eyes on the Australian doctor, he wants her, even over the objections of his mother and the unsuitability of her cultural heritage.
While Ash fights tiger poachers, Sally struggles against cultural prejudice. Can the Legend of the Black Tiger be the bond that brings them closer together, or will it be an impossible belief that rips them apart. The closer Sally comes to understanding what the legend means, the more frequent the nightmares become. Is she losing her sanity, or is there more to Sally than she herself knows? The answers lie buried in her past.
When the Black Tiger breaks free to stalk the night, only one thing will control the beast.
You can buy Black Tiger at Amazon and major on-line bookstores. It's also available in print
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*