Your First Chapter

Wisdom from a favorite blog, the notebook doodles.

This one is for writers.

Please read this fantastic post about first chapters by Valerie Kemp at agent Nathan Bransford's blog. Really, REALLY sage advice in there. Valerie says everything I've been thinking about lately in regards to this subject . . . but in a much clearer and more articulate manner! Her post is appropriate for writers both new and seasoned.

Seriously. Read it.

A related follow-up, also about first chapters—"What DON'T You Want To See?"—appropriate for any writer close to querying, can be found at my own agent's blog. Yes, yes, yes. Read her list. Follow her advice. Even if you think your novel is the exception to one of those rules (and it might be!), you do NOT want to risk a cliché sneaking in to your first chapter. Not at this early of a stage in your career.

[Don't feel bad if you find something from your first chapter on her list! All writers do it in the beginning. And then, inevitably, a teacher or critique partner will say, "Hey, um, that's a cliché." And we go, "OH. You're right." And that's how we learn.]

Your first chapter is the most important chapter of your novel. If your reader grows bored and sets your book down, they aren't coming back. Which means they'll never see the cool stuff you have planned for them later!

Make your first chapter reflect everything that's special about the rest of your novel. Make it so your reader HAS to read the second.


Edited to add: This doesn't have anything to do with first chapters, but it is writer-related, and it made me fall even deeper in love with Sarah Dessen. From her blog today:

"I think I should be learning something from this. Like to never talk about writing with anyone, ever. Or maybe to take longer between books so I'm rested and ready. But the truth is, I realized a long time ago that I have absolutely NO control over my writing, how it goes any given day, or week, or in any given book. I can follow the same schedule, sit at the same computer, eat the same two chocolates, every single day, with wildly varying results. And that, my friends, makes me NUTS. It's why I spend so much of the rest of my day organizing drawers, separating my daughter's toys into neatly ordered bins, and obsessively updating my calendar. I need to feel like I'm doing something right, when such a big part of what I do and love is always the big question mark."

The whole post
is so yes! that my heart is exploding with gratitude. If Sarah (freaking!) Dessen feels this way, too, there's hope for me yet . . .


  1. Yay! I'm so honored you would mention my post when I've learned so much from your awesome writing posts! Thanks! Great post by your agent too!

  2. Ah, the first chapter. How I hate them!

    I just started editing my contemp MS and the first thing I did was delete chapter 1 and replace it with chapter 2.

    Thanks for all the great linkage.

  3. I was feeling so smug about my first chapter until I read these and now *headdesk* Why must this be so difficult? Why can I not download the image I have in my head of my book onto the page?

    Thanks for the links.

  4. I found it extremely helpful too! It's hard, the ends and the beginnings are so nerve racking to write. So I hate that that's the first thing you give to an agent! Ah! :)

    (Can't wait to read Anna and the French Kiss!)

  5. Thanks for this post.

    Am sooo dealing with this now. this book is not happening as it should.

    I was gonna email you for some advice, but you must have sensed it 'cause you've already pointed me in some helpful directions.

    Maybe it's just good to know that I'm not alone.

  6. Oh yes, I adored that post by Sarah Dessen even more than usual. I just kind of think her books flow out it's nice to know everyone struggles, even NYT bestsellers :)

  7. Thanks so much for these links. I love Sarah Dessen's work. It's so comforting to know that even she struggles sometimes.

  8. Anonymous1:37 AM GMT-5

    Great post - and thanks for including the excellent links.
    BAck to re-write that 1st chap !!

  9. Oh, how I dreaded following those two links! But I gritted my teeth and whew! I think I just might be in the clear with regards to these specific lists.

    And Sarah Dessen absolutely got it right. That's how I feel. Except my house is disorganized too.

  10. Thanks for sharing all the advice! My first chapter has been giving me the most trouble lately :)

  11. I recently re-wrote my first chapter! I used to think my first chapter was the strongest...how wrong I was. That post by Valerie was spot-on. It really is a place for notes in that first draft. It took me several tries to get something I feel is solid. Although I'm sure when I look at it again...that will change!

  12. I hadn't seen Sarah's post yet, Steph. Thanks for bringing my attention to it.

  13. Read both posts. Thanks for the links, Stephanie :)

  14. This is so true! I actually don't like starting with the first chapter, because I know whatever I write at the beginning will be thrown out for something better. I write what I think of as a "placeholder" chapter, then I ignore it for a while, then I go back and fix it. :-)

    Great links today, and great thoughts. Thanks!

  15. Eeee! Just read my first Sarah Dessen novel and was back in the library the same week to check out another. Her books are so ahhhhh.

  16. Ooh, I just found your blog - glad I did!
    I've found that the "real" first chapter seems to be almost the last part I write. I don't really know which bits are vital until I've sent my characters on their journey, and know the outcome.
    (I can't write with too much outline, or it seems forced and inauthentic)