Adam was an Undiscovered Voices finalist in 2020. In this guest blog he takes a deep dive into the first chapter of his debut novel, The Girl Who Broke The Sea, to see how well (or otherwise) he did at applying the great tips others have shared about writing first chapters.
You know that feeling, when a piece of writing zings off the page, when reading it gives you shivers. That’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
It’s what the judges at Undiscovered Voices are looking for as well.
But how do you make it happen?
By now you probably have a good sense of the idea behind writing a great first chapter. Maybe you made it to the Standout First Chapter Masterclass, and you should certainly check out Patti’s post with some amazing tips about writing strong openings.
But putting all these pieces together is a different matter, and knowing whether or not you’ve got it right is even harder when you’ve just re-read your own first chapter for about the fiftieth time!
The Undiscovered Voices team thought it would be fun for me to pick apart the first chapter of my novel, The Girl Who Broke The Sea, and see how well I did at following the rules.
That’s… um, quite daunting to be honest. Because, of course, novels are never finished, and there are plenty of things I’d do differently if I wrote this book again. But there are a few things I’m proud of as well, and it sounds useful, so let’s give it a go.
You can have a quick read over here: The Girl Who Broke The Sea — Chapter 1. It’s short, just 650 words, but I’ll cut and paste as I go, so don’t worry if you don’t have time to read the full thing.
The first sentence of your book is the front door to your world. It should seize your reader’s attention like a well-designed shop front. It should invite them in, but pique their curiosity and force them to ask questions as well. It should establish the tone, the theme.
What makes that first sentence so hard is that it’s the point where the gap between your knowledge and the reader’s knowledge is the greatest. One of the most common pieces of feedback I’ve heard in writing groups (and received myself plenty of times) is to start later. It’s so tempting to feel like there are things about your character that you absolutely must establish before the action can begin.
But, in most cases, it’s not true. You’re better to start in medias res (in the midst of things) and plunge the reader into your world.
Make the reader feel it just as your characters are feeling it — in the moment. And then come back and fill in the gaps later, when you (and the reader) are ready for a breather.
I rewrote my first chapter about thirty-eight times over the two years it took me to write this book (seriously, I have all the drafts), but these opening lines never changed.
I’m not sure how well the written down sound effects work for other people — I was never hugely happy with them. But if you’ve ever been on a ferry, you’ve probably heard the bow thrusters just as you come into dock. That throaty rumble, loud and dirty, almost painful, but weirdly exhilarating as well. That’s what I was going for. The contrast of all that steel and diesel, set against Lily’s quiet anxiety.
We know what Lily wants right from the start: not to go.
And we have a whole bunch of questions in our heads: Where are they going? Why are they going? What’s Lily going to do when they get there?
Introduce your main character
Fundamentally, the thing that makes books work is the fact that the creatures inside them feel real. Humans are social animals, we need that sense that the people we’re reading about (or dragons, zombies, unicorns or bioluminescent deep-sea intelligences for that matter) exist in their own right, and behave according to their own rich, inner worlds, of which the words on the page are just a tiny slice.
The only way to do that is to know your characters really, really well. That way, you can sketch the outline (your shop front) that’ll most easily welcome your reader into their heads.
There’s a saying: You don’t know what you’re made of until you’ve had the stuffing knocked out of you.
That’s what I do when I’m writing. I start with slightly sketchy notions of who my characters are, and then I put them through all kinds of hell and watch what they do.
Only after all that do I feel like I know my characters well enough to trust that their essence will emerge naturally from the action.
After my first draft, my opening chapter was 1200 words. By the time I’d finished draft 5, I knew my characters better, and I was able to cut out all the things that were implied elsewhere or could be more effectively left until later. My finished draft was about half its original size.
This is one of my favourite moments in the opening chapter:
Lily feels small and fragile, she doesn’t really belong there — even the seats aren’t designed for somebody her size! For me, it’s a detail that lets the reader feel what Lily’s feeling far more efficiently than anything she could say or think. But that detail didn’t occur to me until my fifth draft, about a year and a half after I started.
A vivid setting
It’s all intertwined. Your characters won’t feel real unless their world feels real, and the world won’t feel real unless you’re seeing it through their eyes.
One great piece of advice is to use all the senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch. It’s another way of saying that you should have your reader fully experience the things your characters are experiencing. If your character walks into a restaurant, don’t describe the bits of a restaurant I already know about, describe the bits that are unique to this restaurant, describe the bits that your character will notice.
You learn about the setting through your character’s eyes, and you learn about your character through what they see and the meaning they take from it.
Looking back at my first chapter I have sounds, and physical sensations. I don’t have any smells, but I do in chapter 2. It’s cheating, I know, but this line was in chapter 1 in an earlier draft so I’m going to include it, because it makes me smile:
Conflict and foreshadowing
Conflict, and your character’s journey through that conflict, is what drives a story. You won’t have it all in your first chapter, but the reader should get a taste for it. Stories start in the normal world (in my case, just as Lily is leaving her normal world), but even in the Shire we need to be able to see the storm clouds forming on the horizon.
Not only does Lily not want to go, but she’s afraid to go. And she’s not afraid of what’s down there (actually, she should be, but that comes later), she’s afraid of herself. She’s afraid of her past.
That generates a whole bunch of questions in the readers’ minds, and it’s those questions that propel them onto the next chapter.
If you’re about to submit your entry to Undiscovered Voices (eek!) you’re probably desperately re-reading and editing and tweaking, just as I was, wondering if you could change just one word that might hook one of the judges and swing the decision in your favour.
My advice: relax. Hit send and go spend the time walking the dog and having more brilliant ideas instead.
Not only is there a lot of luck in competitions – books are a conversation between the reader and the writer and whether you hook one of the judges or not depends as much on where they are right now as it does on your writing.
But more importantly, you’ve already done the hard work. You’ve written and rewritten your story, you’ve laughed and cried alongside your characters, you’ve made them your friends and your family.
Your story won’t come alive for your reader because of this word or that word, it came alive in all those other drafts, in your close attention to your characters, in your efforts to understand their stories.
If you’re lucky, a few months from now you’ll get a call from one of the lovely Undiscovered Voices team telling you that you’re one of the finalists. If you’re like me, the patch of pavement between St Pancras station and the Francis Crick building (or whatever your version of that is) where you get the call will forever hold a kind of magical glow for you.
And if not… No biggie. You’ll go back and keep writing. Because writers are people who write, we can’t help it, and as Nora Roberts said: The only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.