Friday, December 2, 2011

First 3 Chapters: From Blah to Bang!

Early last month I wrote the first three chapters of my latest manuscript. I knew the characters, had the plot nailed down, and felt great about my scene list. Yet when I reviewed what I'd written, an uneasy feeling settled over me.

The chapters didn't wow me.

Now, first drafts are first drafts--we all know it. I certainly don't write the perfect first draft--far from it--but the draft itself wasn't the problem.

The first three chapters were blah. They could have been in any current book of my genre. Technically, they were solid, but something was missing.

Rather than forge ahead and keep writing (sorry, that's one writing "rule" I don't follow), I took an hour to think about the problem. I had full confidence in the plot and knew if I tinkered with it, it could become outlandish. The scenes were fleshed out reasonably well for a draft, and the setting and pace were appropriate. The area I kept coming back to?

My heroine.

Sure, she was likable. She had clear goals, motivations, and conflicts. But she could have been any heroine in any other inspirational contemporary romance.

I spent more time brainstorming what would make her stand out. It only took thirty seconds for me to slap my forehead. I'd squandered her individuality. By sprinkling thoughts filtered through her unique mind in the first three chapters, I would give the reader something to be excited about.

Once I fixed the problem, the rest of the chapters have been much easier to write.

By the way, this wouldn't have been apparent to me if I did not read many different authors in my genre. Only by knowing what is out there could I figure out why my book wasn't as good as it could be.

If you open your first three chapters and aren't "wowed," try brainstorming for an hour. Write down any areas that might be weak, then evaluate them. Trust your instincts. The solution will come to you.

Have you ever started reading a book and wondered if you'd read it before? I've picked up books I've already read! That's sad!

Enjoy your weekend!


  1. Sometimes, it's important to have a good start. As long as it doesn't keep happening for months, I see nothing wrong in fixing earlier chapters.

  2. Those opening pages are so important. As I prepared my novel for its Spring publication, I made certain the story opens with a pivotal situation. The characters' choices in how to handle it reveal much about who they really are.

  3. I typically have the same problem, and it's usually not enough internal dialogue from the heroine. Why is it always the woman? LOL

  4. Good for you!! I can't wait to read it:) I'm doing that now with my current WIP--going back through the first chapters and trying to really make it stand out more.

  5. The opening does introduce us to the main character and excites us about the plot. Does the main character need more conflict within herself?

  6. A few months ago, I bought a book that was hugely popular - it was made into a movie and everything - on my Kindle. As I started reading it, I realized I'd gotten it from the library when it when it first came out, and put it down without finishing it because those first few chapters hadn't grabbed me.

  7. I don't follow that rule either, Jill. I did once, and the book was such a disaster and very unfixable. If I know something is really, really wrong, I stop and brainstorm how to fix it. It's hard to lose a day of hitting word counts, but the word counts come so much more easily to me when I know I'm writing in the right direction. It's worth it TO ME to fix the big problems as I go.

  8. Oh my, I know that feeling SO well. Just experienced it recently, in fact! Glad you fixed the problem, Jill!

  9. It's a relief to know that many writers have shared in this same dilemma, Jill. The wonderful thing? You thought about it, fixed it, and moved on! :)

  10. I learning that now, not to rush through the edits and really be patient with it.

  11. I've picked up books I've read before and not realized it until a few chapters in. Eeek!

    Great tips!

  12. Good morning!

    Laura: I agree. I'm not the most patient person, so I never get bogged down indefinitely!

    Joanne: Isn't that the truth? The choices they make do reveal their characters. I love that thought!

    K. Victoria: Ha! It is always the woman, isn't it? Too funny! :)

    Terri: I hear you! Those first chapters can be fabulous...or not. I work hard to get them right!

    Storygal: My MC has plenty of conflict, but she also has a very different way of seeing the world--I hadn't shown the scenes through this unique lens, and it hurt the book.

    Ayda: Oh, I'm so glad I'm not the only one!

    Heather: I don't like missing out on word count either, but I agree--sometimes it's necessary. I can't keep writing when I know something is majorly off. :)

    Katie: Thanks! Every book seems to have its own challenge!

    Cynthia: We do all struggle to get our books the best they can be, don't we? And I'm with you--edits take time. I do mine in phases so I don't get overwhelmed.

    Jessica P: Same here! I'll think, this sounds familiar, and then a few chapters in I'll know why. Duh!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  13. I'm glad you figured out what wasn't working, Jill, and were able to add the zing you were after. I'm sure your heroine is happy about that, too. =)

  14. I'm like you. If I don't like what I'm writing, I stop. It makes doing the end much easier! But great advice about sprinkling in that individuality. :)

  15. What awesome advice. I rewrote the first three chapters NUMEROUS times until I was happy with them. As others said, they are vital. And I'm happy to hear from others breaking that writing rule. Sometimes I forge on, but it's very hard for me not to fix something glaring.

    Great post!

  16. Great post, thank you! Like others here, I had the same problem just last week, where I realized my opening couple of chapters built the setting and introduced my protag in a situation of peril (and no I don't always start my books with action :)), EXCEPT there was no risk or tension in the piece at all. It fell totally flat.

    You're so right. A bit of brainstorming, and much better now!

  17. I recently spent two weeks working on just the first three chapters. Like you, it was mostly on my heroin.

  18. I can SO relate to this! First chapters are always hard for me. Even when I write one that I like, I'll go back later, analyze it, and still realize I missed the mark. THIS is one of the biggest reasons (among many others) why I love critique partners and people willing to take a look at the first couple chapters of my work. Always a help!

  19. Yes, I have read books that I have previously finished. Mostly this happens with mysteries. I can't believe that I don't remember the firs parts of these books. You are smart to make those first 3 chapters so memorable.

  20. Our recent talk on this topic really helped me fall back in love with my MC. But first I had to identify the gaping holes in her character. I appreciate your guidance. You are solid gold, lady! Can't wait to see you soon!!!
    ~ Wendy

  21. Love hearing from all of you! Thanks for sharing your experience with those pesky first 3 chapters!!

    And thanks for stopping by!

  22. I've started TONS of movies only to realize I've seen them before... :) Great post, Jill. Glad you were able to un-blah your chapters!

  23. Am battling that right now. I know the storyline and where it's going, but am having trouble "getting to know" the characters enough to make them come alive.


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