JWAM reader request no. 17: The dread first chapter

Lesley says:

My problem is the revised first chapter. I’ve written two novels and am about to submit my second novel to agents. I have edited the entire manuscript and think it is ready for submission, but the opening lines, first chapter, etc. are holding me back. I read agent blogs, and so many of them discuss the importance of a great first line, paragraph, etc. Many say they only look at the first two pages, and this terrifies me. I spend so much time trying to perfect these first few pages that I end up hacking it to death to the point that it’s terrible! Any suggestions on editing/revision for the first chapter of the novel?

Maybe you should stop reading agents’ blogs?

I’m kidding. Reading agents’ blogs is an excellent way to learn about the business and what some of the typical agent bugbears are. It also lets you know that not all agents are the same. Something which is very reassuring when you’re sending out and being rejected. They’re not all looking for the same thing. If one of them isn’t in to you it does not mean that all of them won’t be.

Has anyone other than you looked at your book? Someone who’s a good critiquer and has enough emotional distance from you so they can tell you the truth? Preferably more than one such someone. If not, send the first chapter of your novel to a bunch of different people and have them tell you whether they’d keep reading or not. And if they wouldn’t, why wouldn’t they? Fix accordingly and then send out.

If you’ve already had your entire novel, critiqued, and you’re the only one who’s freaked out about the first chapter, then it’s time to down tools and send it out.

What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?

You’ll get rejected. Most often it will be a form letter rejection so you’ll have no idea if it was the first chapter that put them off. Could be they already bought a zombie koala novel. Or maybe they hate zombie novels of any kind.

Rejection is a big part of, not only getting published, but staying published.

To take your mind off your novel being out there being perused by agents—why not start your next novel?

Good luck!1

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. I realise I keep saying that but, truly, luck is one of the most important ingredients for a successful writer. []


  1. writergirl on #

    I think all the chapters are hard. not that ive wrritten anything super long. im posting to much I think. woopsy!

  2. Justine on #

    Yup, it’s important that all the chapters be good. But a strong first chapter’s going to keep people reading and not put the book down.

    No worries on commenting a lot. I like to see people being enthusiastic.

  3. Katy Cooper on #

    I used to freak out about that “I know within two pages…” stuff, too, until I started judging writing contest entries. That’s when I came to an understanding of that statement that works for me.

    Basically, if something’s not strong, it’s going to show almost immediately. If someone’s writing chops aren’t yet up to a publishable level, it’s going to show immediately. That, to me, is what the “I know in two pages” thing means.

    Beyond that, I think it becomes a matter of key and lock. The key (your writing) isn’t going to work in every lock (for every agent/editor). It doesn’t mean your key is a bad key; it just hasn’t found its proper lock.

  4. Lesley on #

    Thanks so much for your response about my question regarding the first chapter. I laughed at your comment about not reading agent blogs. I actually decided to stop doing that for a bit and focus on reading mostly writer blogs instead. I’m finding that to be much more helpful in learning about the process/craft as well as editing, and really, just the life of a writer. Plus, it’s fun, and it isn’t half as stressful!

    You had asked if anyone else has read my book, and the answer is yes. I’m pretty lucky in that I’m a high school English teacher and am surrounded by very well-read, intelligent teachers with Master’s degrees, and I trust their opinions very much. That said, I’m a rule follower, so while reading the agent blogs, I try to learn about what they are looking for, and like I said in the other post, the initial pages are extremely important.

    I’ve queried a novel before and had good success getting partial and full requests, but in the end, they all resulted in rejections. I’m prepared for rejections this time as well but definitely want to send out the best first chapter possible. I think reading the agent blogs at this stage in the process for me may not be the best thing because I keep changing things to please everyone. I’ll just focus on the best beginning possible.

    Thanks again for your answer to my question and the others as well. It’s very beneficial for all of us.


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