Tuesday, October 28, 2014

First Chapter Fizzlers

Jennifer's struggling with her first chapter...

My WIP has a horrible first chapter. Actually, I’m hoping to improve it so that it’s only horrible. Because then maybe at that point, I can fix it so that it’s actually readable.

You know the phrase, “too many cooks in the kitchen”? Well, I think that might apply to having too many people look at it and give me feedback. Now, before you think I’m trashing anyone but me, believe me, I’m not. In order for it to get to it’s beyond-horrible status, I had to write a pretty bad first chapter.

Actually, I love where I started the story originally. Unfortunately, no one else, including a panel of editors and agents who read it anonymously at a conference and then gave their feedback to the crowd, did. So I changed it. My two critique partners liked it better, and gave their feedback and I changed it again. Then I joined a critique group and the three writers tore it apart. So I listened to them too.

And I ended up with mush.

First chapters are notoriously difficult to write because it’s where you start writing your book, but it’s not necessarily where you should actually start your story. Usually, first chapters require a lot of rewriting and reworking, quite often after you’ve written the rest of the book.

So I’m going to rewrite it.

This past weekend when I was at my writer’s conference, I was very excited to attend a workshop on improving your first chapter. Donna MacMeans gave lots of great ideas, but one of the things I liked the most was her insistence on a “rooting interest.”

Rooting interests are traits that get the reader to “root” for the characters. She analyzed a large number of romances and all the best sellers included rooting interests on every page in the first chapter and then throughout the rest of the book. She broke down rooting interests into three categories: empathy, admiration and humanistic traits.

Her theory is that we care about characters we feel sorry for, we like characters with humanistic traits and we like to admire our characters as well. With a variety of these three types of rooting interests, you can draw readers into your book and make them not want to put it down until the end.

There are many other things a first chapter needs, and I’m going to have to work on all of them. But it’s a start. And once I have it written down, I’ll send it around to all of my critique partners, because, honestly, I really value their opinions. But hopefully, not only will what I write be good, but I’ll be a little better at figuring out what to listen to and what to ignore.


  1. Finding that sweet spot--where to start page 1--takes a lot of time and effort, IMO.
    Thanks for sharing the conference speaker's wisdom. These three points sound right on.

    1. You're welcome, Ana. Hopefully it will help!

  2. Love the idea of the 3 rooting interests but not sure about 'feeling sorry for' - as empathy can be much wider than that. But agree readers need to be able to relate to (and root for!) our main characters very quickly in the story - hence the need to get that first chapter right. Good luck with yours.

    1. I had to simplify for this blog post, Paula. It's more than just feeling sorry for...

    2. Agree! I prefer to think of empathy as the readers sharing the emotions (whatever they might be) of the character(s). Without that, they probably won't care what happens to them.

  3. It's hard to have so many different opinions thrown at you, and then trying to figure out what is good advice and what doesn't work for your story can be a nightmare.

    In the end, only you know your story and what you're trying to do with your characters.

    First chapters really are interesting in that we do most often write them before we really fully know our characters. It does tend to involve a lot of going back and tweaking and adjusting once we've made it through more of the mss.

    On my recent edits for my current project, my editor made a comment about not really having a feel for the heroine yet. In this case it was a fairly simple fix of going back and adding some internal thoughts to her dialogue. I knew her. I just had to let the reader in on who she was at this point of the story.

    1. Debra, I went to a special workshop with Roxanne St. Claire. She writes the first 100 pages, then goes back and edits. Then she writes to about page 260 and goes back and edits. Finally, she writes the last chapter. She writes this way because until she gets further along in her book, she doesn't know her characters well enough, but she can't move forward until she does. I thought that was an interesting way of doing it (not sure I could though).