Write a standout chapter 1

This post is part of Freshly Squeezed’s new competition, C1Blitz. Submit your chapter 1 for critiquing, by industry professionals (like me) and teenagers. See the website for details; entries close 3 March 2015.

Most of us are pretty time-poor these days. We spend so much time running around doing what we have to do that when we do get some precious relaxation time, we don’t want to waste it on a book that doesn’t grab us. While teenagers might not have the same time pressures that adults do, they have the same limited patience when it comes to reading. There’s so much else competing for a teenager’s attention that if you want them to stick with your book, you need to make your first chapter jump out at them.

A previous post on this blog, ‘What makes a good first page of your novel?’, covers similar ground, but when it comes to a whole chapter, you have more chances to get it wrong and lose the reader. For this post, I’ve chosen to base my tips on a first chapter that I think works well.

I recently finished reading A Simple Madness by Dianne Touchell (Allen & Unwin), and it held my attention from the very beginning; the first chapter was compelling, and introduced a story that delivered on the promise made in that first chapter. (If you haven’t yet read it, you should – it’s a brilliant cautionary tale for teenagers and parents alike, and a great example of a contemporary novel.) Below, I take you through the first chapter and outline what I believe it did right – what made me want to keep reading the book.

Write a strong first page

Touchell drops us into the middle of a pretty major milestone in Rose’s life.

He’d eaten an orange. His fingers were sticky with it and smelled strongly of that pith-muck that collects under your fingernails after peeling the rind off. She didn’t care – they were in love …’

The paragraph goes on to give the reader a little more detail, in such a straightforward, real way that I was immediately intrigued. The lesson: make your first page count. Surprise the reader. (See the blog post mentioned above for more on this.)

Begin in the right place

This milestone in Rose’s life is the beginning of the slippery slope of what is to come for Rose and her boyfriend Michael, and makes the perfect jumping-off point.

You don’t have to start at the beginning; sometimes starting near the end of the story can work well, too. Just make sure you begin in a place that gives the reader some insight into what is to come, without giving too much away.

Let the reader get to know your main character

Touchell gives us some details about Rose’s life, her relationship with Michael, and her best friend, Liv. She doesn’t go overboard, though; we are given just enough to let us begin to make a connection with Rose and to get a window into her life.

This is an important point. You must give the reader a reason to care about your main character. Why would you keep reading a book if you didn’t care what happened to the character?

Introduce a conflict

This was the clincher for me in A Small Madness; on the last page of the chapter we get an inkling of the trouble that might be on the way for Rose and Michael. We haven’t been plonked in the middle of a disaster, but we can see what might happen, and it’s a great teaser.

This is another important piece of the puzzle when you’re writing your chapter 1. You might give a taste of what’s to come, as Touchell did, or you might begin in the middle of a conflict or action related to that conflict (but make sure you put the action in context, so as not to confuse the reader). Whatever your approach, give an indication of a problem that the character is going to have to deal with.

Finish strong

The end of your chapter 1 is the jumping-off point for the rest of the book. Touchell deals with it by introducing a hint of a conflict, which works beautifully. You don’t have to do this, but the end of your chapter should be a satisfying conclusion (the chapter is almost a mini book in itself, if you think about it), and you must give the reader a reason to read on, to find out what happens next.

 

How are you going with your first chapter? Did any of these tips help you? Take your time and keep redrafting until you think you’ve written the most compelling chapter 1 that you’re capable of. Good luck!

 

What makes a good first page of your novel?

You’ve probably read a million times that the first line or page of a book is the most important and most difficult part of the book to write. It is true that the first page of a book can make or break it for the reader; it can mean the difference between them turning the page or putting the book back on the shelf.

I’m always hesitant about saying there are rules you should follow when it comes to writing your novel. Having said that, you do need to take the time to get the first page right. You might do this after you’ve written the whole of the first draft and are ready to go back to the beginning and redraft. On the other hand, you may find it helps to plan your first scene before you start writing. Whichever way you do it, there are certain things to keep in mind that can help you write a gripping first page; these are some of the things I look for when I’m assessing a YA manuscript.

A strong start

I want to be drawn in from the first line – I want to feel like I have to read on to find out what happens next. Make it original, too; give the reader something they won’t be expecting. I also like to be able to see a distinctive voice that’s apparent from that first page.

Making your first line dialogue can be difficult to pull off. It can slow the pace of the beginning, and the reader doesn’t yet know anything about the character speaking, so they have no context for what has been said. However, don’t let your narrative go on for too long without introducing some dialogue, as that can get boring. And I’d rather not see too much background information or backstory on the first page – it’s not gripping enough.

Your main protagonist

I want to be introduced to your main character in some way, so I can start getting to know them straight away. Readers should learn something important about the character as early as possible, something about their personality or identity, something about what’s important to them. What is motivating them?

You can also show the reader the world of the character. Place your character or characters somewhere: where they are, what season, what time, and so on. Don’t go into too much detail, however, as going overboard on the setting on the first page will slow down the narrative. Beginning the first page with the setting could slow down the pace too, so be careful about introducing it too soon.

The plot

I’d like a hint about the main point of the plot, or the premise of the story. Give the reader some idea of what the book is going to be about. This doesn’t mean spelling everything out for them – there would be no reason for them to read on, and obviously there’s no room to do that on the first page anyway – so be subtle.

Conflict

There should be some kind of tension or hint of a problem. You could start with something important that is just about to happen, or some problem that the main character needs to resolve, as a way of creating that tension. The character could go through some sort of change, or a situation may change on the first page. Whatever happens, the reader must care about how the character is going to deal with this situation.

You can start with putting the reader into the middle of the action that’s already happening, but if you do, give the reader an emotional connection to what’s happening; make them care about what’s happening. The reader needs to have some context for whatever action is taking place, or the action won’t grab them, as they won’t understand what is going on.

Examples of first pages done well

Look at the first pages of books that you love and study what the author did. What did he or she do to pull you in? At what point in the story did they start? In the three following examples, you can see how the author introduces the main character, the premise of the story and a conflict.

On the first page of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell (my favourite YA of the year), we learn of Park’s longing for Eleanor, we know she’s gone, and we know Park has given up on getting her back. We recognise that a lot has happened to bring Park to this circumstance, and we want to know what could have happened for them to find themselves in this situation.

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn drops us into an action scene, with a stranger holding a gun to the main protagonist’s head – we immediately wonder what’s going on, but the author provides context for what’s happening. The character thinks of his mother and his brother while the gun is to his head, which makes us care about the main character.

In David Levithan’s Every Day, we find the protagonist waking up in a strange body; we learn that this happens every day, and that he must find out whose body he is in. This is an original, intriguing premise.

Make a start

All of this may seem daunting, and you may be wondering how on earth you can possibly fit all of this on the first page. But it’s certainly doable – the three examples above show it can be done. Take your time and choose your words carefully. It’s worth getting that first page right, to entice the reader to give your novel a chance.

The difference between editing and proofreading

This is the source of some confusion among many people outside the book publishing industry who contract the services of an editor. What does an editor do as opposed to a proofreader? How is structural editing different from copyediting? Can I just use a proofreader to pick up all of the errors in my content?

Read on to understand a little more about the differences.

Structural editing

This is generally the first level of editing that is performed on a manuscript, or any other content for publication. Also called substantive or developmental editing, this is the ‘big picture’ editing stage.

When performing a structural edit on non-fiction text, the editor will look at the overall structure of the text, making sure the information is in the right order, checking that the information is clear and logical, and identifying any important information that may be missing. In a fiction manuscript, the editor will look at things like the plot, characters and pace.

The editor also makes changes to the language and tone where necessary to ensure that it suits the target audience, and to remove any inappropriate text.

Copyediting

Once the structural work is done, it’s time for copyediting. The copyeditor corrects errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, looks at the flow of the text, identifies any incorrect or missing information, and makes sure the language is appropriate for the audience.

The editor may also attach MS Word styles to the manuscript, which helps ensure a smooth typesetting or ebook creation process.

Proofreading

After the text has been typeset, a PDF or hard copy is presented to a proofreader for a final read-through before publication. If the text is to be published as an ebook, the proofreader is given the text in the relevant format (ePub, mobi, etc.), and content to be published online may be read on-screen.

The proofreader reads the text closely to catch any errors that have slipped through the editing process (this does happen!), ensures that spelling and word style decisions have been applied consistently, and checks that any illustrations or photos appear the way they are supposed to. They ensure that headings are shown correctly, and that paragraphs are indented or justified as required. They also check the small details such as page numbers and running heads or footers.

Proofreaders cross-check page numbers in the Contents page to ensure they point to the correct page number in the text. They also look out for awkward line endings, paragraph spacing that is too loose or too tight, and widows and orphans (short lines at the top of a page, single lines at the top or bottom of a page, or lines of only a few characters at the end of a paragraph).


Structural editing, copyediting and proofreading have distinct differences, and specific roles in the production process. All have their place, and in an ideal world, none of the three stages should be skipped. Your editor may perform both a structural edit and a copyedit, but a different person should always proofread the text, as a pair of fresh eyes will pick up errors that an editor who has been working closely with the text may overlook.

Do you have any other questions about editing or proofreading? If so, get in touch.

* This blog post first appeared on the website of KBA’s affiliate company, Spring Agency.

Book review: Actually, I Can

Actually, I Can cover_medTitle: Actually, I Can
Author: Nicky Johnston
ISBN: 9780987092670
RRP: $16.95
Type: picture book
Publisher: Rough Draft
Publication date: 3 August 2013

Amelia is confident and loves going on adventures. Her friend Connor is shy, and worries about everything; he’s a ‘worry bunny’.

Amelia tries to entice Connor to try new things and be adventurous, but he worries about what might happen: what if they get into trouble for playing where they shouldn’t? What if those plums are poisonous?

With his friend’s help, Connor eventually realises that he doesn’t have to worry so much, and that he can have fun.

This is Nicky Johnston’s third book. She self-published her first, Go Away, Mr Worrythoughts!, to try to help her son overcome anxiety; her second, Happythoughts Are Everywhere …, continued with that theme. Both were quite successful, which isn’t surprising considering how many children deal with anxiety and worry. Actually, I Can is published by Rough Draft, and is a great follow-up to Nicky’s first two books.

Nicky manages to capture what goes on inside a child struggling with anxiety: wishing you could be different, a churning tummy, not wanting to eat. She also cleverly deals with Connor’s realisation that he can be adventurous, without being preachy. Her gorgeous illustrations complement the text very well. One or two words within the dialogue jumped out at me as being words a child probably wouldn’t say, but this is a very minor point in what is a lovely book, very accessible to children.

I recommend Actually, I Can for parents whose children are anxious or nervous – but children without this problem would certainly enjoy it too.

Ampersand Project submissions are open!

You may have already heard, but Hardie Grant Egmont has announced that it’s now taking submissions for the Ampersand Project.

Last year the Project accepted YA manuscripts written from a real-life perspective; this year, they’re broadening the scope and are allowing submissions from any genre. That’s great news for new writers, as it gives more of you an opportunity!

See HGE’s website for more information about the Ampersand Project and its submission requirements. Good luck!

Book review: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars, by John GreenTitle: The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
ISBN: 9780143567592
RRP: $19.95
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 11/1/2012

The shelf-talker at Readings in Hawthorn persuaded me to buy this book, and I’m so glad I did. It’s not often that you read a book so satisfying, in which you care so much about the characters. I felt such loss when it ended that I wanted to start reading it all over again.

The book’s protagonist is Hazel, a teenager with terminal cancer, depressed about her situation and with no desire to do anything but read and re-read her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction.

One of her few ventures outside, to a cancer support group, leads her to meet Augustus, who has lost his leg to the disease but is now in remission. The two quickly form a strong bond, Augustus persuading Hazel that life is to be lived, no matter how much time you have left.

Although the subject matter is obviously not cheerful, the amazing dialogue and the realistic, likable characters are uplifting (you’d swear Green must have been a teenaged girl in another life to be able to write a character this accurately), and there are many humorous moments. I became completely invested in the futures of these two characters.

Green manages to create a novel that is not soap-opera sad, but a study of the reality of a teenager with a terminal illness, dealing with questions like, ‘Will I be remembered?’ and ‘How will I leave a mark?’ And the ending … well, to me it was perfect.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’ll definitely be searching out more John Green books – I just have to decide which one to read first!

Ampersand Project submissions open soon

Fantastic children’s publisher Hardie Grant Egmont has announced that its Ampersand Project will begin accepting submissions in November for its 2013 collection.

For those unfamiliar with this, the Ampersand Project looks for YA manuscripts set in the real world, written by unpublished authors. I love their commitment to publishing books based on real life, because they’re not so easy to find these days and that’s a shame.

This is a great opportunity for YA authors, so get cracking on those manuscripts because you’ve only got a couple of months!

For more information, go to the Hardie Grant Egmont website.

Opportunity for picture book authors

One of our clients, a Melbourne-based children’s media company, is looking for an author to write a six-book picture book series aimed at two to six year olds. This series will be based on a concept that they have developed.

The client has big plans for the picture books, wishing to expand the concept to other media platforms if all goes well.

If you are interested in this opportunity, we’d love to hear from you. We’d like to be able to see examples of your writing, so if you have one or more manuscripts to show us, please get in touch, by email in the first instance. Please send us a brief summary of your experience and areas of interest, one manuscript, and any specific questions you may have.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Inky Awards shortlist is released!

The 2012 Inky Awards shortlisted books have been announced on the insideadog website this morning. Two of the books are the best books I’ve read this year: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Both were books I didn’t want to end, with the most amazing characters.

For all the 12–20 year olds out there, get voting! Voting closes at midnight on 14 October. See the insideadog website for more details.