I met up with the inspiring London Writers’ Cafe group again last week, at our usual haunt at a local pub near Liverpool Street station. This time the topic was “First Chapter Feedback”.
We had all submitted our first chapters and went along excitedly to hear what literary agent, Ella Diamond Kahn, thought about our work.
Ella was one of those lovely, chatty agents who freely offered heaps of advice to budding authors. She began by giving us some very useful tips on how to write an eye-catching first chapter. I’ve summarised the key points below:
- Engage the reader from the first word.
- The first sentence is the most important. Use it effectively. Short, punchy or catchy works best, but longer sentences can be effective too.
- Root the reader in the main character by bringing out their personality, their quirks, their uniqueness. Avoid anonymity by introducing the main character immediately.
- Create a sense of place and atmosphere in your first chapter. This helps to anchor the reader and let them know where the story is set. Without this, readers can get confused.
- Focus on what is happening in your first scene, rather than overloading the reader with information. The info you can filter in throughout the chapter, or later on in the book. You have 70,000 to 90,000 words in which to dish out information. Don’t dump it all in the first chapter. Leaving the reader with things to find out also creates the will to read on.
- Resist over-elaborate descriptions. While some description is vital, using too much flowery language can be off-putting and confusing for the reader. If you’re submitting to an agent, let them “get it” without having to work too hard. BTW. This was a very common mistake, and one that was pointed out repeatedly, later in the meeting, during the personal critiques.
- Don’t start with a lot of dialogue. It’s important to ground the reader and dialogue can be a bit confusing before the characters are introduced, or before the reader has a feeling for who is talking. Also, don’t use dialogue as a device to info dump. For example: He pointed upwards. “The Eiffel Tower is an iron lattice tower located on the Champ de Mars in Paris, France. It was named after the engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower.” This doesn’t ring true, unless your speaker is a tour guide.
- Land your reader in the middle of the action.
- Be consistent with your tense and narration. Don’t switch from first to third person, or stick in bits of omniscient narrative. Head-hopping is confusing for the reader. Ground the reader in the first chapter by keeping your narrative and tense steady.
- Try to create a sense of anticipation in the first chapter, that gives the reader an idea of your plan for the rest of the story. This makes the reader feel like they’re in good hands, that the journey you’re going to take them on is well planned, and will be satisfying.
- Raising questions in the first chapter is a great device, especially if the protagonist doesn’t know what is going on. This gives direction to the novel.
- Little clues planted in the first chapter are always a good idea, especially if you’re trying to show that this is an alternative world, or a different time.
After keeping us scribbling manically for half an hour, Ella, who had kindly pre-read all of our first chapters (where does she find the time?), went through them one by one, offering constructive criticism along the way.
I’m not going to divulge the short-comings of my own personal offering, but I am going to summarise the most common errors that she found. This will highlight what to concentrate on when writing/re-writing/editing your own first chapter.
- Many first paragraphs fell into heavy descriptions which detracted from the story.
- Switching from first person to omniscient disorientates the reader.
- Be careful of disembodied body parts (a personal hate of Ella’s). E.g. gaze swimming, eyes darting, arm reaching out…
- Always, always proof read your manuscript for typos before submitting to an agent. Even though we all know this, it was amazing how many typos there were in those submissions.
- It might be better to hint at a place, rather than spell it out. For example, the thick, tropical trees… the dust… the funicular (all means they’re in a mine, rather than just saying, “In the mine…”)
- Avoid stereotypical dialogue. Inject more personality into your speakers.
- Orientate the reader before launching into dialogue. Many writers began with dialogue, without letting the reader know who was speaking, or why. And if the dialogue doesn’t inform the reader, they will be confused.
- Avoid information dumps.
I was amazed to find that out of a diverse group of about 20 writers of different genres, all of the mistakes/comments were variations of the above. This type of feedback, I think, is invaluable to authors, whether they’re starting out or established. It pays to go over that first chapter to hone out the common mistakes, tighten the prose, engage the reader, leave clues, inject personality and basically raise the overall quality of your writing.
Have you got any tips or advice regarding first chapters that you would like to share? If so, we’d love to hear what you have to say. Please leave your comment below.
Ella Diamond Kahn is co-founder of Diamond Kahn & Woods Literary Agency. She represents upmarket commercial adult fiction across all genres, with a particular interest in historical fiction, science fiction, and crime, and some non-fiction. She also represents a wide range of children’s fiction for the 9-12 and YA age groups.