Killer first chapters

There’s a secret to writing killer first chapters, but you probably won’t like it.

The secret is that you have to have something worth writing about.

There, I’ve said it.

You can write thousands of words, buy the latest plotting software, do a hundred drafts and join a dozen writing groups, but unless you care about what you’re writing, you might as well put lipstick on a pig (which, while cute, is really pretty pointless).

This doesn’t mean your characters have to try to end global warming or eliminate child poverty, although they are great ideas. What it does mean is that your central idea, the thing that gets you excited about writing, has to do just that – excite you. That’s because writing is about communication. How you communicate, the ‘mechanics’ of it, are less important.

So, a killer first chapter starts when you find something that gets your creative energies flowing. This could be a great story idea, a challenging issue, a terrific character who won’t leave you alone until you tell her story, or something that just makes you laugh. When you know what it is that you want to say, crafting the first chapter becomes easier. You can cut out things that sound pretty but don’t add to the story. You can also add things that enhance the mood you’re trying to create. Knowing what you’re writing about will tell you how to write it.

My speciality is in writing humorous short stories and picture books. In these short works, each paragraph is like a chapter, and you have to make the first line irresistible. In a novel, you have a little more room to move, but the principle is the same. Grab the reader in the first line and don’t let them go until you’re good and ready. You might want to leave them hanging, wondering what’s going to happen next, laughing, or just reading on because they can’t put the book down.

And this is where the first chapter comes in. It makes it clear to the reader what the book is going to be about.

Here’s an example:

Zelda had a plan. She was going to be the first chook in space.

This is the first line of my latest title, Zelda’s Big Adventure, a picture book illustrated by Shane McG and published by Allen & Unwin. The first sentence sets up a question –Who is Zelda and what’s her plan?  The second sentence is really a joke, but it tells you that not only is Zelda a chook, she’s a very special one who wants to be an astronaut. So, this is a case where humour hooks the reader, and if they like the joke, they’ll keep reading.

Not every story can start with a joke or weird concept like a chookonaut, but every story has to have a central idea or character that makes it worth telling.

Here’s another example:

In the holidays before the dreaded term at my school’s outdoor
education campus two things out of the ordinary happened.

A picture of me was plastered all over a twenty-metre billboard at
St Kilda junction.

And I kissed Ben Capaldi.

This is the opening of Fiona Wood’s outstanding YA novel, Wildlife. Anyone reading this opening will instantly know several things – the protagonist is a young person who is in an unusual situation (the billboard), is about to be taken out of her comfort zone (the ‘dreaded’ term at an outdoor campus) and is of an age where sexuality is going to be confusing, important and ever-present. If that’s the sort of story the reader thinks they’ll enjoy, they’ll keep reading and, unless Wood disappoints them (she doesn’t), they will do so until the end.

So your first chapter is also ‘selling’ the rest of the story to the reader.

If your novel were an old fashioned dress shop (stay with me here) your first chapter is the window display. If you like the black, off-the-shoulder number in the window, you might push the door open and see if they have it in your size. If the shop is full of gorgeous gowns, you’re going to make sure you look at everything; but if the only items for sale are jeans and T-shirts, not only are you not going to buy the dress, you’ll probably want to get out of there pretty quickly and never come back. That’s because the payoff – the jeans and T-shirts – didn’t fulfil the promise the little black dress made.

Don’t do that to your readers. Once you know what kind of story you’re going to deliver, tell them what your intention is. And then tell that story.

Take, for example, the first two paragraphs from one of my short stories:

A chicken walked into the room.

Anna looked up from her Annotated Lewis Carroll Omnibus, and gaped. Yes, it really was a chicken, a curvaceous Issa Brown if she wasn’t mistaken, but what was it doing striding through her front door? And why did it appear to be shushing her as it slipped behind the coats on the hatstand?

What this extract tells you (apart from the fact that I really like chooks) is that this story is going to be a bit oddball. On the first page we know that Anna has found a chicken walking into her apartment, and even though that’s strange enough, this chook is confident – it ‘strides’ – and seems to be telling her to keep quiet. So, we know something out of the ordinary is going to happen. The reader, if they like that kind of story, will read on to find out if Anna is hallucinating (she isn’t), or there’s something very different about this chook (there is).

The other reason a first chapter has to kick backside is that as a writer you owe it to your readers to write a really good story. That’s your job as a writer. Your readers, be they publishers or the general public, are busy people with lots of other things that can distract or entertain them. They don’t want to waste time reading stories that don’t get them excited. If they hate your work, they’ll just ignore it. However, if your reader loves it, given we’re all so connected to social media, chances are they’ll tell their network about it. With a bit of luck, you might even end up with a strong following of readers who inhale everything you write.

So, if you want to engage your readers, and make sure they read all the brilliant stories you’re writing, write about things you are passionate about. Then write a first chapter that sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Oh, and include a chicken if you can.

After the first draft

A great way to improve your writing and to gauge if it’s meeting your expectations is to surround yourself with people who are as immersed in writing as you are and who will read your work and give you constructive feedback.

I call these amazing people ‘critical readers’.  They’re called that for two reasons: firstly, because they offer constructive criticism of your work and secondly, because they are a critical part of improving your craft.

Critical readers are not your mum, your partner or your best friend. They are fellow writers or subject matter experts who will read your work and critique it in detail.

Your family and friends might say unhelpful things such as: ‘It was okay’ or ‘I didn’t understand it’, but critical readers will say really useful things like: ‘You have a tendency to use dangling modifiers’ or ‘I found the dialogue credible’ or ‘I didn’t believe that your 14th century protagonist would know about nuclear fission’.

Critical readers are the writer’s best friend (after a good dictionary, a cup of coffee and lots of great books). They tell you when something works or doesn’t, and why it does or doesn’t.

Finding critical readers can be hard, but they are out there. You just need to know where to look, and that’s in places where writers gather.

So where to start?

Libraries often host writing groups and run writing courses. Their community engagement person would be a great person to talk to.

Or you could try writers’ centres – they often have lists of who convenes writing groups in your area.

In Australia, there are writers’ centres in each state, as well as national professional associations. The following links will take you to the state writers centres:

These links will take you to some of the best professional organisations for writers and illustrators:

If you go to conferences, classes and seminars run by these organisations, you will meet other like-minded writers. Join in the conversations and meet new people. You may just form a writing group and find your very own critical readers.

Blogs and newsletters are also great sources of information, and are far too numerous to list here.

Reach out to other writers, commit to being a critical reader for them, and pretty soon you’ll have the beginnings of a great professional relationship.

Oh, and your writing might just improve.

Commas don’t bite

As someone who has always loved the sound of words, the shape of them, their meanings and origins, I am regularly surprised when people baulk at the idea of learning how to put them together properly.

The perception is that we either learnt Grammar and Punctuation at school (note the capital letters) or we didn’t. And there’s no going back.

Well I’m here to tell you that that perception is wrong.

I was one of the lucky (and very ancient, obviously) few who were taught some grammar and punctuation at primary school, and I loved it so much I kept the text book! That old battered blue book is wildly prescriptive – there are whole pages devoted to which nouns best describe groups of people or animals and which verbs should be used to express motion and sound. For example, you can have a ‘group’ or ‘bevy’ of women (I told you the book is outdated). Similarly, apes ‘gibber’ when they make a noise, ‘swing’ when they move and are generally ‘ungainly’.

I think the book was created to give new speakers to English a taste of what the Empire considered proper. But it also gave me explanations as to why certain expressions sound right and how words work.

I was also lucky enough to learn other languages at school, and so learnt a little more about how English works by default. When you learn that the ‘imperfect’ is ‘a continuous action in the past’ or that to create a past tense you may need to use a past participle, you can extrapolate that to English and thereby come to some greater understanding of our language. That’s what I did, at least.

So, at an early age I was given a glimpse into how English comes together in a way that connected with me, and I was able to reinforce some of that with my language studies. Sadly, I know many others who were taught by teachers who made them feel stupid, or they missed out completely.

But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. You CAN go back to learn that stuff as an adult. It doesn’t have to remain a mystery forever.

As it happens I teach grammar and punctuation at RMIT several times a year and we’ve got a course coming up in a couple of weeks. This isn’t a covert (or even an overt) ad for RMIT. I truly believe it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

If you’ve ever wanted to finally get a handle on how this crazy English language of ours works, and want to learn in a fun environment where no-one is made to feel small, please consider coming to one of my courses. I’d love to help you through the maze of grammar and punctuation and come out with a greater understanding. It’s a hard slog and your mind will explode with information, but I promise that you’ll have fun too.

Details about the RMIT course can be found here:

And the book I so loved as a child is STILL IN PRINT, has been updated and now includes answers to all the exercises. It can be found here:

Go on, check out the course. And remember, commas don’t bite.

Happy writing!