10 Tips to Nail your First Chapter #writing

First chapters count for a lot. Bookshop browsers may start by reading the blurb, but the chances are they’ll dip into the first chapter to see whether they like the writing style. And with book openers available to read on Amazon, your first chapter really needs to impress. That goes for unagented authors too – the submissions package usually involves sending in the first three chapters, so a stunning opener is vital. Here are 10 ideas to make your first chapter sing.

1. Start in the Right Place

Don’t start too early into your story – we don’t want ten meandering chapters of description. Draw your reader in from the beginning with a powerful tipping incident, some terrible dilemma or temptation. If you have a suspicion your novel isn’t quite working, ask yourself this: are you starting in the right place?

2. Introduce Conflict

Conflict can be exciting, and it’s always engaging. Inject conflict into your first chapter and readers won’t be able to resist your work. Joanna Barnard’s Precocious had than effect on me – a married young woman bumps into the teacher she had an affair with when she was a school girl. The same goes for Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. The mother of a gangster accidentally kills an intruder with a religious ornament. Let me at it!

3. Add Mystery

Throw in some question marks and you’ll get your reader turning the pages to find out what the hell is going on. After all, everyone loves a mystery. Why is your character lying to her husband about where she’s going tonight for instance? What is in that letter marked to be opened only in the event of my death. (The Husband’s Secret) by Liane Moriarty). Mystery rocks however subtle it is.

4. Make the Reader Care about your Characters

Does your character go around killing drug dealers? Does she rescue refugees from overcrowded camps? Is she battling anxiety, but climbs on to stage most nights to do her stand up comedian routine anyway? Make your reader root for your character. Make her quest a major one, invite your reader in for the ride and make her stay for the long haul.

5. Treat it Like a Writing Competition Entry

Edit and then edit some more. Get rid of all your saggy bits. This chapter mustn’t go on for a beat too long, so get busy red-penning. Come back to it at intervals and reread. Kill some more darlings if you have too. Perfect it until you reckon it’s good enough to win a writing competition.

6. Make Your Writing Brilliant

Your writing should pack several punches here. Make it confident, avoid cliche and beautify. Don’t freak out if it’s hitting a few bum notes to start with – go over it, tighten it, change it up.

7. Include Dialogue

Give your characters a voice. Making them speak tells your reader a lot about their personalities, and dialogue is super easy to read. Reams of prose on a page can be off-putting, but put some dialogue in, and the text looks as if it’s going to give you space to breathe.

8. Banish Backstory

Don’t give us 1,000 words on how your character was brought up in the suburbs of London and was bullied at school. Zzzzzzzzz. We want immediacy. Back story comes later in your book.

9. Show your Theme

Your theme should be evident somewhere in this first chapter: grief; a haunting; motherhood; the pursuit of joy. And don’t forget mood either. What do you want your reader to feel – is it a funny book with a huge moral centre? Is it glossy and feel-good? What kind of writer are you? Let your reader know.

10. Write a Killer First Line

For a reader, a killer first line is like an itch; you can’t ignore it. It might be an odd idea, a question or a weird situation.

The first line of Claire Fuller’s forthcoming Swimming Lessons, ‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below,’ makes me want to buy it as soon as it’s published in January 2017. And I just knew I was going to love The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson when I read the opening line, ‘I have no experience of killing anything.’ Sometimes it’s simpler though: a quiet line of beauty which gives such a strong sense of mood, it makes me want to keep reading.

I wrote this post after spending a lot of time re-editing the first chapter of my novel. It had got a bit loose around the edges, so the action took too long to start. I’ve tidied and titivated and slashed out superfluous words. My first chapter has gone under the knife more than any other part of my book. #KeepWriting.

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4 Tips to Create Powerful Voices for your Characters

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, a short or a full-length novel, voice is the lifeblood of your work. You might have all the elements of a great story – a dazzling twist, an arc to rival a rainbow – but if you haven’t got a voice that mesmerises, your story will be drowned out by dull.

I’m reading  Glorious Heresies at the moment – and the riotous voice is fair shaking me up and demanding I listen. It’s pushed me right into the mess that’s Maureen clobbering some bloke over the head with a holy stone and killing him.

A week ago, I polished off Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The voice of the flawed yet deeply loveable Olive is so believable, so sturdy that my race to read was slowed only by me underlining far too many sentences.

Mind you, just thinking about books like these can be really daunting while your characters-in-the-making are as quiet as the tele with the sound turned down.

Voice is hugely important, says writer Joanna Campbell. ‘If the theme is the hinge and the plot is the oil keeping it in smooth motion, it is the “voice” which opens the door.’

When writing, Joanna lets the character call the shots and write the story for her. ‘I never plan ahead anymore or work out a plot. On the occasions I have tried to do so, the story has rarely succeeded.’

But how the heck do you find your character’s voice? Here are four tips to jumpstart your search.

1. Scribble some character details

Get yourself started by writing stream of consciousness details about your character. Is she a good sleeper? How does she take her tea? What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to her? Whose calls does she ignore? What gets on her nerves most? You’re getting closer…. Now off that mute button and have a stab at making her speak.

2. Do some research

That voice is playing silly devils and isn’t arriving on the page? Do some research around your story. So it’s about a woman who finds out she was snatched from her birth mother while still a baby -assemble some comparable real-life stories. Reading them might just coax your character into conversation.

3. Start typing and see what happens

Does the voice sound real and right to you? If not, regroup and try again. Words aren’t wasted, they just bring you closer to the characters waiting in the wings of your mind. Writing’s full of false starts after all. When I wrote my Bristol Prize story Black Lines about a Honduran boy crossing the US/Mexico border, I originally wrote my first page as a gay male teenager. 500 words in, it became apparent to me, the lad needed to be a lot younger. I started writing again and this time he spoke right into my typing fingers.

4. Shift the perspective

I’d been having a love affair with first person for years. Working as a writer for women’s weekly mags, I’d interview people with all manner of stories and write them up in first person. God, how I loved it. What I didn’t love so much was reading it back to the interviewees. The woman who’d answered yes and no to most of my questions read like Homerton’s answer to Barbara blooming Cartland. But still, first person and me, we prevailed. It’s always my first port of call with short stories. And then my novel happened. First person was trapping me in the characters’ heads; I’d ended up using their thoughts to steer the reader instead of showing action and writing dialogue. Rewriting the whole thing in third person has made the novel punchier and more powerful.

I’ve been playing a long game of hide and seek with the voices of the characters in my novel, but at last I’ve found them. And now it’s time to start creating another cast for my new novel; back to step 3 then…..