Check out the end of this blog—there’s a chance to win a free first chapter evaluation!
I belong to a book club that meets monthly. I love it because as a group, we select books which I probably would not have chosen on my own. Like many people, I would otherwise stick to what I know I like. I know I like suspense and the work of a few celebrated authors. Without the book club, I’d probably do less exploring.
Unusually, I did not finish this month’s selection (Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours) in time for the meeting. I didn’t even read the back cover! And although I look forward to each one, workload also prevented me from attending the meeting. I was disappointed that I would return the book unread. So, out of curiosity, I opened the book and started reading. Here are the first two sentences:
“It started with a letter. A letter that had been lost a long time, waiting out half a century in a forgotten postal bag in the dim attic of a nondescript house in Bermondsey.”
After the first two sentences, I WAS IN
I was intrigued right away. I was in. I started asking myself questions like:
- What was in the letter?
- Who was the letter from?
- How would having received the letter when it was sent have changed their lives?
And then when it stated that the letter arrived on a Sunday, in my mind I said, “Aha! Caught you in a lie!” But with the next line, the author had me again; the fact the letter dropped into their home on a Sunday was part of the mystery.
Within the first chapter, the author showed us the strange dynamic between the main character and her mother. For instance, Edit, the main character, is a vegetarian yet each Sunday she helps her mother prepare the Sunday roast beast and bears lectures on proteins when she won’t eat it. She writes about breaking up with her boyfriend but avoids telling her mother because she knew it would create unease between them. She knew that the expectation is that parents soothe their children, but her mother is incapable of that. Edie did not want to create that discomfort, so dealt with her loss on her own.
The Character’s World and Relationship to It
The author built the world: we knew that it was set in modern times, and that Edie’s social awkwardness and this odd distance between her and her mother further isolated her. This made me care for her. We all have an insecurity around SOMETHING and each family is dysfunctional in its own way, so it was so interesting to get this intimate glimpse, within the first few pages, of how this particular family is weird.
What’s your first chapter like? It has so much work to do.
I love first chapters and all the promise they deliver! From that first chapter, I knew I needed to know what was in the long-lost letter and I wanted to see the icky dynamic between the mother and daughter healed. I wanted to know what was in that letter that created the inability in the mother to cross that divide and be close to the daughter she obviously loved. Why had Edie created such a small life for herself?
What questions are you purposely putting in your reader’s mind? How are you developing suspense yet dropping enough clues? Do readers know what to expect in the book? How will you make your readers like your characters enough to risk spending 100+ pages in their world?
Every Detail In The Chapter is Relevant
Edie loves books and this is relevant because it is a book from her childhood (The Mud Man, mentioned in the passage below) that is part of the mystery, we soon find out. Here’s where we learn about Edie’s love of reading and of that book in particular:
…in my hands I held an object whose simple appearance belied its profound power. All true readers have a book, a moment, like the one I describe, and when Mum offered me that much-read library copy, mine was upon me. For although I didn’t know it then, after falling deep inside the world of the Mud Man, real life was never going to be able to complete with fiction again.
I opened the yellowing cover, and from the first chapter… I was hooked. My nerves thrilled, my skin flushed, my fingers quivered with keenness to turn page after page, each thinning on the corner where countless other readers had taken the journey before me; I went to grand and fearsome places, all without leaving the tissue-laden couch in my family’s suburban breakfast room. The book kept me imprisoned for days…
Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours
Don’t you want your book to be THAT book for your readers?
Even in the sentence structure, we get clues about how this story will be told. The sentences aren’t short and sharp and fast-paced like in the thrillers I am used to. The author expects us to revel in this tale. Even here, I feel the kind of Victorian, old-fashioned something in how she writes. I wasn’t surprised in the next chapter to learn that the letter had to do with a Victorian castle and three sisters, one very much (initially) like Mrs Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations.
How Can You Make Sure You Have a Great First Chapter?
There’s so much advice out there, and all of it has the same conclusion: the first chapter must be artfully created to hook the reader, whether your book is fiction, like this one, or non-fiction.
First chapters (fiction) must:
- build momentum based on genre
- introduce the main characters/ideas
- tell us whose point of view the story will be told in (usually, but not always the protagonist)
- tell us where it is all happening, whether on Earth or in an imaginary world, and in what time period
- build mood: what is happening to and around the characters
- make us feel curious about what is to come
- make us love the author’s tone and writing style
- take charge so the reader gets that they are being taken for a ride
If you are writing non-fiction, you have a similar responsibility. You must create questions in the reader’s mind and let them know where you are leading them. Let your reader’s know what kind of transformation you expect them to achieve by the end of the book. In that important first chapter, you must show them who you are through the tone of your book, and you must also build momentum and intrigue.
Do this, and potential readers flipping through the book, or literary agents considering representing you, or editors deciding whether to buy your story, will stay with you until the end.
If you would like a free evaluation of your first chapter, for a limited time, I am offering a free first chapter evaluation to three authors who take up this offer by noon on November 30th, 2021.
To enter this contest, you must:
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- Then send me a DM on Instagram
The winners will be selected randomly and announced at the Book Launch Party I am hosting on the evening of 30th November. The value of this gift is $225.00 per author. If you register and attend the event, you are eligible for many more prizes! Click HERE to register for the event.