First Chapter Fixations: Giving Books a Real Chance

I recently read this post by one Blair Thornburgh about common reasons agents or publishers will stop reading a novel. The article even mentioned one professional who would draw a big red line under the moment they stopped reading. Though page and/or time limits for reading are not mentioned in the post, by the title I inferred that this action referred to a manuscript’s first chapter. Even if the professional in question with the red pen was not referring to the first chapter, I am going to in this post, because I think the writing industry and community have recently become somewhat obsessed with first chapters, and it’s time to reign it in a bit.

Now, I don’t know Blair Thornburgh at all, so I have no problem with her.  Nor do I argue with the overall wisdom of the piece. On the contrary, it is the very applicability of her post to today’s writing industry and community that has me irritated. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the writing advice she gives, but the need for all of it to be present in the first chapter of a manuscript has me a bit edgy. That’s the market’s fault, though, not hers. In the end she just happened to have written the most recent post on this topic right before I finally felt the need to write about it myself.

Follow any agent or publishing blog long enough and you will eventually see some version of “Reasons Agents Quit Reading Your Stuff Right Away” type of post. They, too, are often filled with solid writing advice. But they perpetuate this first chapter fixation to the point that in some cases it becomes a first page or even first paragraph fixation.

Your experience will vary, but the thesis of most such articles can be summed up this way:

Agents/Publishers/Readers have little time or short attention spans, so you need to give them a reason to keep reading your novel beyond page one if you have any hope of success in this cruel writer’s world you’ve foolishly chosen. 

What follows is usually a list of things one must do in order to keep an important person’s interest for more than 20 seconds.  (Or ten seconds, or whatever minuscule amount the mean is today.) I won’t shoot the messenger,but the fact that the literary landscape requires such advice is in some ways pathetic.

Believe me, I realize agents and editors and publishers are busy people. Somebody tweets or blogs that truth within the writer’s community about once every 1.3 seconds. (Between reminders that writing and publishing is a business, of course.) So when you say agents and editors are busy people trying to make money, I do in fact get it. (Boy do I get it, already.) So I grant you that much, publishing industry; you can’t invest in a house with a leaky roof.

Yet within the writing community, this fact has been the genesis of a “hurry up!!!” mentality which reduces our first chapters to hooks, gimmicks and shiny object waving. So much is the need to keep someone reading for more than the first few pages that it may just be morphing into a code to crack as opposed to an encouragement to write strong openings. People are going to start, (and have probably already started) tweaking their first chapters to jump through all these hoops that agents insist upon in order to spend another five seconds on a manuscript. My concern is that such tweaking will be at the expense of quality of the rest of the novel. Big, gimmicky, sparkling first chapters to act as the “open sesame” to an agent or editor’s next precious 15 seconds. Then, even if  the door opens, it’s Al Capone’s vault inside.

That goes for readers as well, by the way. Much of this advice is about “hooking” the reader quickly, because after all in this fast-paced digital world where…and so on and so on…at the speed of light… mention a Kindle in there somewhere. That point has been made a trillion times as well, and it too is part of the problem; everybody is scrambling to make their book worth reading within the first few seconds. The first few sentences. My response to all of this? How about we give books a few minutes to breathe before we jettison them into the slush pile, or hit ‘delete’ on our e-readers? How about we accept that sometimes a great story needs some exposition, back story and description? That may just be the price we pay for choosing that book.

Yes, you are busy, and the industry is busy. But if you need to be convinced a book is worth representing or reading within the first 20 seconds of reading it (or at least before the end of the first chapter), maybe there is a better way for you to make money or save time. Maybe it is that stubborn adherence to instant hooks and attention span dot-connecting that has degraded the quality of our published fiction over the last few decades. No one person is to blame, naturally, but can we expect an society-wide evolution towards better books  when more and more people expect a hook, or a shock, or an unquenchable thirst to read up to page five, all within the first few moments? Can good come from generations of new authors spending more time worried about the “all important” first three paragraphs than about anything else?

I’m not discouraging quality writing. I’m merely suggesting that we aren’t defining quality in a useful, practical manner when we say we have to fall in love with a book so early. Of course a book that rambles on for 200 pages about nothing is not likely to catch fire in today’s market. (Though more and more of them are.) Yes, we can and should establish some semblance of quality control over what we read and what we choose to represent. (Though there is mounting evidence that quality is not the top priority.) But do we really in our collective hearts believe that we can determine the entertainment, literary, or marketing value of something after one half of one page? Two pages? Ten?

All right, perhaps sometimes we can. If you are into chapter 2 and nothing has happened or you’ve already introduced 46 named characters, you need an editor. But why not decide such things more on a case by case basis, instead of instituting a sweeping generalization about novels that take the first few pages to catch their breath? Because people in the book industry are busy? Because readers are busy? Writers are busy too, you know. Busy making something that doesn’t appear as though we threw it together in as little time as most people will give it to prove itself “worthy.”

Maybe we all need to be a bit less busy in the book world, and accept that it wouldn’t kill us and might just help us if we consider the pacing of other fields of quality endeavor. Deciding that a book is not worth representing, publishing, or reading before the end of the first chapter is not equal to passing on a house with a leaky roof.  It’s passing on an entire house  based on the ugly color of the front door. It’s leaving the cinema because we don’t like the font used in the opening credits, or giving up on a five-course meal because we didn’t care for the salad it began with as an appetizer. In short it’s choosing to ignore the fact that there is a certain craftsmanship in creating such complicated things, and that that craftsmanship cannot always be rushed into existence just because we happen to be too busy to consume more of it before passing judgement upon it.

I try to give every book I read at least 40 pages before moving on to something else. I encourage other readers to do the same, or else be potentially deprived of some excellent fiction that opted to set the scene for a bit longer. I accept that agents and publishers can’t do that, but I cannot accept that the best choices are being made by busy people (or their interns) when they give a novel a few pages or a few paragraphs to “wow” them with certain predetermined milestones. The first five pages isn’t the place to be wowed in most cases, but the industry has begun to cater to the types of books that do, I think. Then again, the industry would not, if readers were willing to accept that they need not be breathless by page five of my book as they read it on the morning commuter train.

We can do better than this, can we not? After all, the act of passing on a book itself is not more complicated if done after ten minutes of reading than it is after ten seconds of reading. And in the former case, one might just find a masterpiece that needed a minute to take its coat off and sit down-a masterpiece that did not pass any of the “hook me in the first page/chapter barometers floating around out there. And that would be tragedy worth writing about.




  1. I agree completely.

    Conflict should be apparent in the first chapter, or something that will lead to conflict. Introducing the main conflict of the story doesn’t mean making it gimmicky, though, and perhaps that’s where people are mistaking this advice.

    However, I will say: I can always tell from the first chapter if the rest of the book is going to be good or crap. Writing style, writing errors, boring things, too much action without a reason to care, flat prose…if these things are in the first chapter, they’re going to be in the rest of the book as well. There’s a lot of anxiety about first chapters since they’re like the ambassadors for the rest of the book.

  2. You’re right. There are certainly red flags, and like you said, sloppy writing in the opening is never going to get any better. And I agree there are ways to set the novel up in the beginning without being gimmicky, but may nonetheless require a few more chews. I just wish more writers would make use of them, and more readers would embrace them.

  3. Similar to your 40-page rule, I have a 3 chapter rule. If the story isn’t going in three chapters, something needs to change. The writing at the beginning should be good, but it should also allow the story to develop and the world to unfold.

    • Good method to use as well. Three chapters is more than enough to get on with it, as it were.

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