By David E. Sharp
Originally posted February 27, 2020
The annual NCW conference looms on the horizon. Many of us are sprucing up those manuscripts to impress professionals of the literary world, not least of which are agents you hope to woo.
You’ve got 50,000 words to show off, but you’ll only have a page or two to make a solid impression. Story elements are in place. Taking steps to make sure it is as strong as it can be. One of the keys to good writing is strong external critique. The good news is many common shortcomings are avoidable.
It doesn’t serve to waste professional feedback on something you could have spotted and repaired on your own.
A quick chapter one checklist is a mighty tool.
I have a strong opening line.
Opening stories with Once upon a time was only acceptable once upon a time. It would help if you had an enticing lead to summarize the essence of your piece in a concise way that will frame the final act. The opening statement may or may not double as the hook.
My hook is in place, and it is enticing.
The hook should happen immediately. Don’t give readers an excuse to put your book down. This the initial statement in which you invite your reader’s curiosity enough to draw them into the story.
I build to my inciting incident and execute it with a flourish.
The inciting incident is the early episode that launches the character into the story. It is the critical moment when your protagonist, willing or not, embarks upon the journey of your novel. It need not occur as early as the hook but don’t keep readers waiting for long. Their bags are packed, and they’re ready for this ship to launch!
I have avoided the clichés.
Don’t fall into the common pitfalls. Learn to recognize them, and you may save yourself a lot of time and effort. No dark and stormy nights, please! The trick here, however, is knowing the clichés and recognizing them. Here is a fantastic resource from Nelson Literary Agency’s Pub Rants blog to help you out.
I have streamlined my prose until it hurt. Then I simplified it some more!
Be concise. Don’t load your readers up on backstory, inner dialogue, or flowery prose. Your first pages are premium real estate, and every word should pull its weight. James Scott Bell, in his book Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, asks writers to consider whether chapter two could open your book. If it can, perhaps it should.
It’s perfectly okay if you haven’t checked off all of the boxes. The thing to remember is if your writing is strong, your voice compelling, and your work polished it won’t kill you to have crafted one of these scenes. The better question is does chapter one serve the story and the reader. If so, you may be ready for your literary rendezvous. If not, it’s never too late to polish things up.
Either way, an excellent first chapter will set your book up for success, so take your time to make it great!