I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like to lately because it's been a good season for manuscripts. (I wonder if this has anything to do with NaNoWriMo.) As always, there are many submissions, few contracts. The submissions tell me that, despite all the dire prognostications, as well as the pomposities of the self/vanity-published, there are still a good many aspiring writers who understand that a publisher can do many things that the average person can't - and that the publisher will actually pay to have all of this done because it believes in their work! Imagine that - a world in which writers don't have to pay for editors, pay for typesetting, pay for ISBN numbers, pay for cover design, pay for publicists, etc. Oh, right: That's the world I've been working in for decades now.
But I digress. I'm seeing a common problem in recent submissions. It's not that this problem is NEW (in fact, it's always been a problem, for at least as long as I can remember), but since I've just set side about the 20th manuscript that has this problem, I thought I'd talk a little about it here.
In a nutshell: Writers, please make sure something HAPPENS in your first chapter. Not just anything, please, but SOMETHING INTERESTING, WEIRD, PUZZLING, ODD, or MYSTERIOUS. This spark of action is what readers need to get involved in your story. There's that old literary concept of in medias res - of starting a narrative in the middle of something, then going back and filling in details about the past as you move the story forward. It's as relevant to genre fiction as it is to Beowulf, and I can't stress that enough. A protagonist is not a baby just out of the womb: We should not hear the protagonist's life story, in sequence, starting X number of years ago, in the first chapter. We need STORY in the first chapter, with hints about what is to come and strange things about the characters that need explanation.
This is why I suggest the Action- Camera - Lights! approach to writing your first chapter.
ACTION - Have something happen. Your doorbell rings, you answer the door, and a stranger drops dead in front of you. You run to pick up the phone and as you're doing so, you hear someone smashing the back window of your house. You're running through Central Park at night, chased by God knows who, protecting that little package (with CONTENTS UNKNOWN TO THE READER) as if your life depends on it, because it probably does.
CAMERA - Make that first chapter visual. Picture it as the opening sequence of a film, or the trailer that makes you want to plunk down ten bucks to see the movie before it's released on DVD two weeks from now. I'm not saying to describe every last thing or person in detail, but make that opening chapter visceral. Something important has to be at stake, and you can "swing the camera" to other viewpoints (if you're doing a third-person narrative) to increase the mystery of what's going on.
LIGHTS! - In your second chapter, or later, begin to illuminate what has happened in the first chapter. How did your protagonist get to where he or she is? Please note: I'm NOT saying that Chapter 2 is the place to then begin a longwinded backstory about your character's entire life history. I'm saying that in Chapter 2, you can let just a little bit of light onto your scene, dropping a couple of delicious tidbits or hints for your readier. The police have identified that man who dropped dead on your doorstep - It was your wife's lover, whose awareness you'd been blissfully unaware of. You find safety in a little-known hidewaway in Central Park and notice the feet of your attacker running past - he's wearing orange running shoes of the type favored by your boss. When you go to investigate the broken window at the back of your house, you find that your favorite pen has been stolen. But it was a Bic pen that you bought at Walmart for 29 cents. What gives?
You see my point... I don't want to read an autobiography or a biography. I want to read CRIME FICTION. So do the tens of thousands of other devoted mystery fans who are willing to try a new writer who does things right.