Our Masterpieces...Err, Our Novels

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Finger Lickin' Chapter One

Writing Song of the Day: "Eat It" by Weird Al Yankovic

The latest issue of Writer's Digest rocks, to put it simply. It's all about writing your novel in 2011--whether it's completing the first draft or revising it to something that's actually readable.

But one of that articles that really stuck out to me was "8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One" by Elizabeth Sims. In it, she likens the first chapter to an appetizer. And since I love anything that deals with food (insert a Homer Simpson drool here), I decided to take my own spin on making your first chapter just right.

Not Enough
During the one and only time Quita and I went to Outback Steakhouse, we split an order of Grilled Shrimp on the Barbie before our entrees arrived. Boy, was it GOOD. The shrimp was tender and the seasoning was perfect. But once we finished it, we just sat there and blinked at each other. We both had the same question:

That's it?

You see, while the shrimp was a good preview, it didn't truly satisfy us. We were starving so by the time our meals came, we inhaled them and felt a little sick afterwards.

When writing your first chapter, try not to be too vague. Sure, it's good to have an air of mystery to encourage your readers to keep, well, reading--but don't be coy. If you give us a small sample of the conflict and the characters, we're not going to care enough to keep moving forward. And if we actually to decide to give the rest of the book a try, we may be so overwhelmed with the details later on that we may get a little disgusted with the book. Where was all this beautiful writing before? Why didn't you give us a better hint of the hook in the first few pages? Don't spoon-feed us in chapter one, but throw us some kind of bone!

Too Much!
Pretty much everyone I know who's ever gone to Red Lobster raves about their Cheddar Bay Biscuits--and can you blame them? They're warm and buttery and garlic-y and cheesy and...okay, my inner Homer escaped once again.

The point is, they're damn good. And you can't eat just one. You want another then another then another. So by the time your actual entree arrives, you're stuffed.

Please don't bloat your first chapter. By bloating, I mean attacking your readers with back story. Yes, attacking may sound harsh, but let the readers care about your characters before you tell us where and when they were born and why they hate their parents and what kind of toothpaste they use.

Scratch that, we probably won't ever care about their toothpaste--so don't overload your first chapter with mundane tasks such as waking up or preparing to go to work or school. And be careful with those adverbs! If you dump a bunch of them in your first few chapters, we may question your talents as a writer. And yes, we may mock you. Quietly, of course.

Just Right
So T.G.I. Friday's is a pretty cool restaurant--they offer everything from burgers to ribs to anything else that makes it difficult to button my jeans at times. Both Quita and I absolutely love to share an order of their Pan-Seared Pot Stickers. The dough is nice and soft and the pork on the inside is cooked to perfection. Not to mention we could probably drink a cup of the Szechwan dipping sauce.

Okay, that's a little gross. But the sampling size is enough that we still have room in our bellies for our actual meals. In fact, with how great the pot stickers are, we actually always look forward to tasting the rest of the menu.

And that's exactly how your first chapters should be. Just the right amount of "scrumptiousness" to make readers eager to see more. And what does just right actually mean?

  • Introduce a character with enough layers to make us care about them.
  • Start at the right spot, which is usually right when your protagonists world is about to be rocked.
  • Step away from the setting. Sure, world-building is an integral part of the writing process, but readers aren't going to care about how green the trees are or what the weather is like until we know why we should read your story.

  • And one pulled right from Writer's Digest: Give it a mini plot. When I'm writing, it helps me to think that each chapter is a short story. I try to give each one it's own arc--something that would urge readers to turn to the next page and see how things will be resolved.

So that's my homage to two of my favorite things: writing and eating. What say you all? What do you think makes a first chapter eatable--whoops, I mean readable?


Holly Dodson said...

Great post! I love the idea of thinking of your first chapter as the appetizer! Clever. Very clever.

Jamie - I'm a guy, btw! said...

Excellent post, Pam! I love when people compare writing to other things in our lives so we can clearly see what we need to do. And comparing it to food? Genius!

Alicia Gregoire said...

This is a great post and now I'm hungry again.

Abby Stevens said...

I love this metaphor. And I *always* get overstuffed on Red Lobster cheddar bay biscuits! I think my record is 9! :-0

Racquel Henry said...

I got that issue too because I need the help! (And I'm obsessed with Writer's Digest!) LOL. I think this is a great concept. By the way, I love the biscuits from Red Lobster! :)

Jessica Strawser said...

Thanks so much for your kind words about our latest issue (so glad it's been helpful to your writing!)--and for sharing such a thoughtful post.

And with that said, I'm suddenly ravenous! Off for a snack. :)

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer's Digest

Meredith said...

Great post! The analogies are so spot on.

Krista V. said...

Pam, Pam, Pam! I saw Sarah LaPolla's tweet, and I thought, "Is that the Pam Harris I know?" :) Congratulations on landing an awesome agent!

Pam Harris said...

Aww, thanks so much, Krista. :) I'm definitely going to be blogging about it next week! And thanks for all the feedback, ladies! Just writing about this made me so hungry!

Emma Michaels said...

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Emma Michaels