Thursday, 1 November 2012

Why First Chapters?

This post is more a question than the usual rambling on about the craft of writing I usually inflict on you.

The question is this: When you send out stuff to agents, why do they insist on getting the opening chapters?

Is there something especially telling in those chapters? And if so, what?

I think it’s pretty obvious the first chapter in particular is one of the hardest to get right.  I think that’s normal.

Chances are when the book gets published the chapter you had as your opener in your submitted draft won’t be the one at the start of the published version. I think that’s probably true of most authors—apart from the ones too big to pay attention to editors.

That’s not always going to be the case, some writers know exactly where to start their book, and it was like that from draft number one. But by and large, knowing where to bring the reader into the story is one of the trickier things to figure out.

Too soon and the reader feels lost, too late and the reader’s bored. It’s not so much about good writing, but more a technical thing. And it’s hard to judge because as the writer you can’t see it the way a reader will, or a good editor will.

So, why is it agents want to see one of the weakest parts of an unedited draft, rather than one of the strongest? After all, once you see what a writer is capable of then getting the rest of the book as good as that would seem a much more exciting prospect.
But then maybe that isn’t an agent’s job.

Thinking about it, I came up with the following possible reasons for judging a writer by the first few chapters:

1.  Good writers always get the beginnings right.
2. Seeing how writers handle the difficult bits gives the agent a clear idea of what they’re dealing with.
3. It means a lot less work for them, and that’s what they like (couldn’t be this one).
4. They’re looking for an excuse to say no, and this is where it’s easiest to find.
5. They want to see how the writer draws the reader into the story, this being the sign of a true storyteller.

Of course this is all speculation. My view that asking a writer to send what he or she considers the best chapters in the book gives you their best to read, and also tells you something about the writer’s mindset, could be because I’m so terrible at opening chapters.

Not that I think you should send chapters six, thirteen and twenty-seven. That would be weird. But do chapters 16-18 tell you less than chapters 1-3? Maybe they do, it’s hard to tell from this side of the desk. Still, I do wonder why every single agent seems to want those opening chapters and nothing else. Any thoughts?
Having had some feedback on this subject in the comments, I'm going to add this to clarify (hopefully) what I mean

If I wanted you to watch a movie but you weren't too sure and I decided to show you a scene from the movie in order to convince you to watch the whole thing, would you expect the clip to be the opening of the movie?

Would you be confused about what was going on if I showed you something from the middle? If it's a cool scene designed to get you interested, do you need all the set up you'd want if you were watching it properly?

24 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Since the first chapter is what makes or breaks a book, it makes sense they want to see it first. If it doesn't hook them, it won't hook readers.
My publisher requested a short prologue for the first book, but I managed to nail the first chapter for the second one. Live and learn.

mooderino said...

@Alex-I don't deny the importance of a good first chapter, just not convinced a writer should be judged on that alone.

Diane Carlisle said...

I don't think the idea is to judge the writer, but to judge the writer's perception of "polished" work. I think when an editor/agent wants to read the first chapter, they are looking to find out if they are wasting their time reading the rest.

The assumption is: if there are gross grammatical errors, tense issues, POV issues, etc, it will save them a nightmare reading through the rest of the manuscript.

mooderino said...

@Diane-I don't see why reading some other chapters wouldn't tell you all those things. Why specifically do they need to see the first?

Patchi said...

Wouldn't the first chapter be the easiest to follow? Characters need to be introduced and setting described. The is assuming the reader knows nothing at that point. If I sent you chapter 19 of my novel, my favorite, you would have no idea who my characters are, where they are, how they feel about each other despite what they are saying, or why they are arguing. But the first chapter is self-explanatory. Or at least it should be.

Patchi said...

**The [author] is assuming**

Sarah Anne said...

I feel as though if your story hasn't really "begun" in the first few chapters, you probably should rethink where it starts. Pacing is always important; you don't want to rush the reader but you also don't want to bore them. I certainly feel like my first chapters will need some work, but at the same time, I couldn't imagine starting at a different point in time in the story. But perhaps a reader or publisher would have a different view, who knows?

Angel King said...

I think it has a lot more to do with logic than with agents wanting to find an excuse to toss a book. I mean, every person who picks up your book (with the exception of my dad, who always reads the last chapter of any book first - yeah, he's nuts) is going to start at the beginning. I have picked up plenty of books where the blurb sounded interesting, and then the first chapter or two was so boring/badly written/completely different from the blurb [you fill in the blank] that I quit reading. And, let's face it, the agent or publisher's job is to sell books, right? It does them no good to have a book with a fabulous sixth, thirteenth and twenty-seventh chapter. Or even phenomenal sixteenth through eighteenth chapters. Because no one walking into a bookstore (or opening that Kindle book) is gonna flip to chapter sixteen and begin reading. And, nobody is gonna wait till chapter sixteen for the book to get good before giving up. (Okay, you're right - there are a few folks out there who WILL wait till chapter sixteen. But, not many.) It does an agent no good to have a book that won't sell. Just like book sales are (or we can hope they would be) the writer's livelihood, those same sales are your agent's livelihood, too.

You probably didn't want to hear that. And sometimes, agents are wrong. I honestly believe it's often a matter of luck. But, I can say with complete sincerity that I have read some of your stuff and I don't think you're terrible at opening chapters. They do take a lot of work (perhaps extra work for you, if you are to be believed ;-). But, don't give up! You can do it!

mooderino said...

@Patchi-that could be it, but you don't really read a sample to get the whole story or know the characters. If you like it you'll ask for a full and read the whole thing anyway. I think a good sequence of chapters can come anywhere in a book and should make perfect sense. There's plenty you don't know when you read the first few chapters too.

mooderino said...

@Sarah Anne - yes, but it's one of those things that can be worked on. As a writer you have the least reader like experience of the story since you know stuff the reader wouldn't so it's hard to gauge what info is necessary. That's natural and easily fixed, whereas a dull middle is a much bigger deal, I would think.

mooderino said...

@Angel - People who pick up a book in a store I'm fine with. By that time the book will be edited and the start should draw them in etc. But most manuscripts won't be the same as final article and nobody expects it to be. But the agent isn't a typical reader, he's a industry expert and should be looking for the best book, not the best opening. I don't think the two are the same at the submitting stage.

Diane Carlisle said...

@mooderino In the first chapter, it is also suggested there is some polishing of work when there is relative action on the first page. Something happens on the first page, whether it's movement, a call for action, something.

At Gotham Writer's Workshop, the first thing one instructor suggested was for each student to read from the start of their manuscript and keep reading until they run into the first bit of something unusual, action packed, etc., whether they discover this on the 4th page or the 10th page, that mark is where the story should start.

Interestingly enough, I tried it and it works! :)

R. Mac Wheeler said...

I say it's logic.

If I go to buy a car...I don't go to Walmart and look at the stereos I know I'll find in the cars.

I want the image of the car in the lot first.

Eventually, I'll check out the amenities, look under the hood, but does it have curb appeal?

mooderino said...

@Diane-I think that's reasonable advice, but not all books start at the same point (energy-wise). Even the point of action could be the wrong place to start after you work with an editor. That idea the opening will grab you just isn't true of lots of great books. It's all very confusing.

mooderino said...

@Mac-but you aren't buying a car, you're building it. The agent should be able to analyse the blueprint with greater insight then a regular punter (I have no idea where this analogy is going).

If you were submitting a completely polished product then I would say yes, but I don't think that's what agents expect (or do they?)

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I tend to think that the reason they ask for the first chapter is because you would lack perspective in later chapters and not know what's going on. The first chapter sets everything up. I mean seriously...who likes to come into a movie ten minutes late? You have no idea what's going on.

mooderino said...

@Michael-we're talking about agents, not regular readers. My point is I've read lots of WIPs where the start was a bit weak but once it got going things were fine. The question is if you're going to read a sample in order to decide if you want to read the rest do you need the sample to be the beginning? Do movie trailers show you the first five minutes?

Sarah Allen said...

I think you're thoughts are right on. I think most agents get so swamped that the best way forward for them is to get the weakest right from the start and so they can say quickly whether it will work for them or no. Not the easiest option for those of us submitting, but there you have it.

Sarah Allen
From Sarah, With Joy

mooderino said...

@Sarah-I do suspect it's just a matter of convenience for them. Which is their prerogative, I guess.

Maria said...

I think we have all grown used to being 'hooked' by a first chapter, and sometimes within the first few pages. Readers expect it!

As a writer this issue has been giving me grief, as my latest WIP does not start with too much happening.

But actually it does. But the reader does not realise that until the last page.

Its been bothering me a lot, and I expect I'll be asked to change it, should an agent want to take it on...

No one ever said writing was easy!

Rachna Chhabria said...

When I started querying, the first chapter of my MG novel sucked. I have learnt from that mistake. Nowadays, I pay more attention to the opening chapters.

mooderino said...

@Maria-I don't expect the first chapter to hook me, and I read a lot (find me on Goodreads!). I sometimes think agents push this idea because airport thrillers sell the best.

@Rachna-I certainly htink the first chpater should be good, I just don't see why it should be so important to agents (readers, I get).

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I was going to write something else, but your reply, Mooderino, to Maria made me realize something. Even when buying an ebook, I rarely read the first chapter. Usually, I'm in love with the concept if I'm considering the book or I've heard from my friends that it's a great book. Plus, for self published book, the first chapter doesn't always indicate the quality of the rest of the book. The first chapter is usually the result of feedback from workshops and contests.

mooderino said...

@Stina - this is a difficult subject for me to blog about because I don't have any answers and can't really come up my usual specific points, but I do feel like first chapters aren't the be all and end all the way they're portrayed.

The number of times I've read a book with a slow start, or someone said It gets good after the first hundred pages, is huge. Just as, like you, fantastic openings have led me to tired middles and inane endings.

Not that bad beginnings should be excused, but that's not what I'm saying. Just that what makes a story worth reading isn't always the same thing in all books.

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