Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chapter One Check-List: How to Begin Your Novel

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Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity to read several fiction proposals during my internship with Hartline Literary Agency. Some proposals have captured my attention immediately. Others? Not so much. 

Agents and editors receive numerous submissions per week; it's nearly impossible for them to read every word of every proposal that slides across their desk. Because of this, us writers have very little time to make an impression. So how can we write a first chapter that will entice an agent, editor, and/or reading into continuing our story?

Below is a check-list I've created based on common issues I've discovered. When you write your first chapter, ask yourself these questions...

    1. How can I give a hint of the theme or Story Question?

When we pick up a book, we are usually introduced to the story's theme on the back cover and within the first chapter--even if it's subtle.

Think about it. What's the first line of Pride and Predjuice by Jane Austen?:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Right away, the reader understands that one of the themes in this book is love and marriage. 

Consider the following opening line in Susan May Warren's The Shadow of Your Smile

"Noelle longed for the redemption that came with a fresh snow."

The author accomplished two things in the above first line: One, she covered the character's inner goal, which is a fresh start. (We'll discuss goals in the next point.) Two, she gave a hint of the book's theme, which is, as you may have guessed, redemption.

     2. What is my main character's goal? 

As a character-driven writer, I struggled with crafting a tangible goal for Selena in Purple Moon, one
that would set the plot into motion. In fact, I wrote the entire first draft without giving her a clear inner and outer goal in the first chapter and throughout the novel. Big mistake! Thankfully, an award-winning novelist--whom I highly respect--read over the early version and suggested I give Selena a goal.

At first, I struggled with this concept. What kind of goal? Why can't it just be about Selena staying with her aunt and uncle over the summer while her mom is in rehab?

Here's why: If the story isn't centered around your protagonist reaching toward something, the book can turn passive very quickly. This means the events in your book will happen to your protagonist as she walks through her every day life. Instead, the scenes should result from his/her attempt to reach the goal.

The reader needs to have a reason to root for the main character. Otherwise, they won't have the motivation to continue reading. 

Simply put: Without a goal, there's no story. 

    3. How can the first chapter end in a way that will prompt readers to continue reading?

Does the first chapter end with a cliff-hanger? Do you include the story's Doorway of No Return, or perhaps even the Inciting Incident? Does it leave the reader with a promise of a journey, of an adventure they can't resist? Does it end in trouble/conflict, or the hint of conflict to come?

    4. Does the scene open in action and conflict? Are the scenes active instead of passive?

Many beginning writers start their first chapter with the main character living her day-to-day life: She hits the "off" button on the alarm. Gets out of bed. Makes breakfast. Takes a shower. Brushes her teeth. Goes to school. 

While the first chapter should begin with the main character in his/her Home World (the character's daily life), readers don't need to know about her every detail. The reason they picked up your book to begin with is because they wanted an escape from their own uninteresting life, and they hope to find adventure through the exciting journey of your character. And how do we create these irresistible, hard-to-put-down stories? By weaving in action and conflict.

In Purple Moon, the book opens with Selena arriving at her aunt and uncle's home, which is where she has to stay for the summer while her mom is in rehab. It doesn't begin with her sitting around, reflecting her life, easing the reader into her journey; instead, the reader is dropped into the story in the midst of action. Conflict soon arises from Selena's longing to return home to Brooklyn rather than being forced to stay at her snobby cousin's for the summer, waiting for her mom to return from rehab.

    5. Does it include an interruption to the character's daily life?

The beginning of every book should include an interruption to the protagonist's Home World within
the first chapter. This is also known as the Doorway of No Return, or a major problem that arises in your protagonist's daily life. 

The Inciting Incident is the event that results from this Doorway--the one that sparks the story into motion. The character is either forced into taking this journey, or she makes the decision in an effort to reach her goal. Either way, the Inciting Incident is typically the "adventure" your protagonist will take throughout the course of the novel in an effort to reach his/her goal. This is what will result in character change.

In the Wizard of Oz, for instance, the Doorway of No Return was the tornado--a huge interruption to Dorothy's Home World. The Inciting Incident occurred when she arrived in the land of Oz. The story, then, follows the course of her striving to return home. 


When your proposal meets the desk of an agent or an editor, you have very little time to make a good impression. Craft your first chapter in a way that not only sets the tone of your story, but does so in a way that lures readers into flipping to the next page. This can be accomplished through weaving in the following: action, conflict, hints of the theme, active scenes, a proactive main character, a disturbance, and the promise of a journey.

Chapter One Check-List: How to Begin Your Novel via @tessaemilyhall #writingtips #amwriting

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Does your first chapter include all of the above? Which one is the hardest for you to incorporate into your first chapter?

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Monday's Minute Challenge: Writing Prompt Challenge For Teens & Up!

A quick writing prompt challenge (and contest) for teens to get their creative juices flowing for the new week. A new prompt is posted, and winners are announced, every other Monday.

  1. The entry must be between 150 - 300 words. (In order to see how many words your entry is, write it in Microsoft Word, or you can copy and paste it here.)
  2. The deadline for the contest will be the Thursday after next. 
  3. The winners will receive a badge for their blog.
  4. The winner will be chosen based on the judges's preferences, as well as the following questions: Does this entry capture my attention immediately? Does it make me want to continue reading? Is the writing clear? They will also take into consideration the writer's voice and style--not necessarily technical issues, such as grammar, punctuation, etc. 
  5. This is only for fun and to stretch your writing muscles--not necessarily to be taken too seriously. =)


The judge panel chooses these winners based on a point system. Keep in mind that the judges are not aware of which entry belongs to which participant until after the judging is complete.

“I told you I’d be back.” 
Snow whirls around me, and I can’t see the person holding me at dagger point. But I recognize the grating voice. Marzuk. 
The dagger presses harder. “No more escape, little witch … now you die.” 
I scream, terrified as the dagger draws blood. Then, all of a sudden, I hear loud footsteps and the dagger disappears. I stumble backwards and squint through the snow, trying to see who rescued me. 
Then I spot him, fighting the man with the grating voice, who has drawn his sword. 
I want to run, but I can’t. My feet are rooted to the ground, and I’m shaking too hard even to walk. Then a voice speaks, a voice just of the opposite of Marzuk’s. It's a mocking voice, teasing even. 
“Killing children now, are you?” Sword hits sword. “You know I can’t let you get away with that.” 
Marzuk gives a feral growl, but the sound is cut short. I hear a loud thump, and he topples to the ground. 
Impossible. “Is he dead?” I whisper. 
The man still standing walks closer to me. I realize he is quite tall. 
“No, he is not,” the man replies, his tone a dangerous purr. “Merely unconscious. I don’t kill unless it suits my purposes.” 
I squint harder, but can’t make out his face. “Who are you?” 
“Who am I? I, m’lady, am the great Cerulean Kane,” he dips into an elegant bow. “Now, I would highly advise you to do as I say … otherwise you could end up with an enemy worse than Marzuk. I’m far more cunning than him, I must say.” 
I blink. Apparently my rescuer isn’t really rescuing me. Then the snow slows, and I can see him clearly. 
All of a sudden, I’m scared.
Congratulations, Savannah PClick here for your badge, and don't forget to claim your points here. =)

 The wind blew fierce, as it brushed over the rolling waves. She finally gathered her                                                            strength, and tried her hardest to get to her feet. The heavens spewed out blinding rain. She tried to keep her balance on the shifting deck of the ship, keeping her elbow raised, so as to protect her eyes. The lightning struck all around the stormy deep. Suddenly, a bolt of lightening hit the mast of the ship, knocking Rose down. She opened her eyes slowly, but could only make out the shape of one standing above her, staring down at her. The figure gathered Rose up in his arms, and carried her over to a covered area.   “Lottie?” Said Rose, in a breathy voice. He did not reply. He only worked hard to keep the young girl safe. The rain slowed only for a moment. Lottie gathered Rose up again, and tried to take her to the seller in the bottom of the boat. Rose’s lips were pale blue, her cheeks had become pale, too. Her blond hair was disguised in rain, and her bright blue eyes were full of fear. “If only you had listened.” He said, continuing whatever he was doing, quite calm for the situation. Rose sensed he was scared, even though he often pretended to be brave. “How could I?” She stuttered. “I love you, Lottie.”
“Is a promise not enough?” He said, working his hands through knotted rope.
“If I had listened,” she stuttered again, “the last time I would have seen your face would have been when you left port!”
“Rather that be the last, and make you suffer only a day, if not less, of sorrow, than you follow me to the ends of the earth.”
“What is love, if not this?”

“I told you I’d be back.” He turned around and kissed her. A moment later, a wave swallowed the ship. If you could see, beneath the wind, rain, waves and ship, two gold rings, sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Congratulations, Allie! Click here for your badge, and don't forget to claim your points here. =)

    Thanks so much to everyone who participated!

    • Submit your response in the comments below, or post it on your blog via InLink (below).
    • Your response should range between 150 - 300 words. 
    • The deadline for the contest will be the Thursday after next. 
    • If you'd rather not submit your post in the comments or on your blog, you may email it to me instead.

    Choose at least one:

    Note: You can always combine the prompts into one entry.

    (Optional) Write a passage continuing your entry from last week week (or whichever week you'd prefer). If you can, try to continue it using one of the following prompts.
    • Write a passage using these items: stone, pen, ink (submitted by Savannah)
    • Write a passage based on this picture (submitted by Shelby)
    • Write a passage either incorporating this phrase OR based on this phrase:  

      "I had never seen anyone look so lost in there own home before."    (submitted by Shelby)

    Post your entry on your blog!:

    If you're posting your entry on your blog, please add your link below:

    Submit your prompt idea!:

    The prompts that are used for Monday's Minute Challenge are submitted by the participants. 

    Here's how this works:
    • You will be able to submit 3 prompts each week in the same format as above: three objects, one picture, and a piece of dialogue or phrase.
    • On Mondays, I will choose 3 prompts that have been submitted by 3 different people.
    • If your prompt is selected, you will receive 2 points!
    • You may submit in the comments below.

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