Writing First Chapters That Win

A version of this article first appeared in the November 1997, LONE STAR GALLEY, the chapter newsletter of the Northwest Houston RWA. 

Entering chapter contests can be valuable for both new and experienced writers. At the very least, you will receive several unbiased opinions on your writing. Your feedback will generally be from published writers, along with editors or agents if you reach the finals in some competitions. The scores and comments you receive will be largely based on your first chapter, the very same first chapter that will make an editor decide she’d like to see more of your manuscript. Before submitting an entry, ask yourself if your novel’s opening has what it takes to win.

Naturally, you’ll have to check your entry carefully for mechanical errors that can distract from your story. But once you’re past that stage, the most important factor is to begin with a bang and then escalate the tension.

Novels of yesteryear built slowly, with lovingly crafted description and elegant passages designed to evoke mood. Today’s reader, and especially today’s editor, won’t sit still for that. Begin with conflict, preferably in an intriguing manner that makes the reader have to know what happens next. Many writers call this “the hook”.

Here’s a wonderful example from the beginning of Houston suspense writer, Lynn Bradley’s, Stand-in for Murder:

“Cole January knew he should have stayed in bed the minute he swung his legs over the side and dropped his warm feet on her breasts. They were icy cold.”

The real trick is to continue building tension after an opening like that! Set up as many conflicts as possible between characters. Give them dark secrets, burning desires, and huge problems to sort out by the end of the book. Don’t detail all of your characters’ troubles; instead allude to them to make your reader curious.

Also, don’t feel like your opening’s hook has to be immediately clear. The trick is to intrigue the reader enough to make her keep reading for the explanation. Another example is the opening paragraph from my debut novel, Touched by Fire:

“The hardest part was stealing the fresh blood. True, the shabby boarding house where Hannah Shelton now resided was just around the corner from the butcher’s, and often the smell of death loomed large. Truer still, the old meat dealer was a drunkard, but even so he normally locked the slaughterhouse.”

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Try using dramatic opening lines to spice up your next contest entry. Winning a chapter contest doesn’t ensure a magic carpet ride to publication, but it’s a lot more fun than opening a rejection letter. Besides, a victory can help bolster your self-confidence and possibly even gain the attention of authors, editors, and agents who can assist you in your career.

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