WHERE DO I BEGIN?

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Being myself, because everyone else is taken.

SouJomphong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The best place to begin your self-editing journey is at the beginning—the first chapter. The first chapter sets the mood of the entire book and must contain certain elements of the story.  As always, these are merely guidelines, not unbreakable rules. Beginning writers will benefit most from following these guidelines, as published writers have established followers who will read any book written by their favorite authors.

Although the back cover will reveal the basics about the book, the first chapter must be written as if there would be no cover.

  1. The book must open with a ‘hook’ that literally hooks the reader and keeps them reading the next sentence, and the next, and the next. If the first page of the book is boring, the editor may not even read any further. A good rule of thumb is to find the first exciting scene with lots of action and plunk the reader right down in the middle of it.
  2. What genre is this? Is it a mystery, suspense, romance, comedy, etc.?
  3. In what time period is the story taking place: western, contemporary, regency, medieval, early Roman, etc.? This can be revealed by the way the character is dressed, or their speech, or perhaps through the setting. In fact, most of these will be used by the end of the first chapter.
  4. Is this light reading or deep and thought provoking?
  5. The main character(s) must be introduced in the first chapter. The first time each character is mentioned, their entire name must be revealed. It is best if the reader gets a physical description of the characters and their age. The reader must be able to picture the main characters in their minds as early as possible. That way, as the story unfolds, the reader can ‘see’ them going through each event. However, keep in mind not to give a whole paragraph at a time of descriptions. Rather, drop tidbits into the story as it progresses. We’ll talk about characterization in a later lesson.
  6. The reader should know by the end of the first chapter what main conflicts the character(s) are facing, or a foreshadowing of what they are going to face. What is the main characters’ primary desire in life and what is keeping them from attaining it?
  7. What is the faith element? Is the main character(s) Christian? Are they a practicing, faithful, believing, trusting Christian, or are they having doubts? Had something happened along the way to zap their faith from them, and now they are struggling? Again, you can’t have it all in a single paragraph of description, but rather drop in little tidbits organically through the way the character reacts to various stimuli in their lives.
  8. Setting is another important key to the first chapter. The reader must have a sense of where the characters are at all times. Descriptions of rooms, sense of space and flow are important, but don’t take up two paragraphs in a row to describe a room and its contents. Make sure the readers understand the “blueprints” to the house.
  9. Just as the opening line must hook the reader, the end of the chapter must also grab hold of them and force them to want to keep going, even if they really don’t have the time. The writer must leave them with a cliffhanger.

Note: Due to the nature of story-telling, it is possible for an author to leave out one or two of these elements and still have a great first chapter. That’s okay. It is important to leave the reader with unanswered questions at the end of the chapter, but you don’t want them to have to ask who the main character is or where this story is taking place.

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