Writing on, and about, an island

Writing a Book? Please, Delete Your First Chapter…

In Books, Crime & Mystery Writer, Writing on February 15, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Yes, you heard me…

If there’s some advice I’d pass on from my time in publishing –­ especially my time as an editor in book publishing – it’d be for everyone who’s writing a novel to delete, if not their entire first chapter, then at the very least the first paragraph, or the first page.

Why?

It’s an odd fact that most writers ignore the fundamental desires of publishers, or editors, or readers…

And that’s to be in the story from the word go.

Right from your first sentence, the reader should be projected directly into mid-conversation, into mid-scene, into mid-whatever – just don’t dilly dally around.

Too many writers – and I’ve been the editor for some of them – spend pages and pages setting up passive scenes, introducing characters, and explaining the back-story. By the time the reader gets to the action, they’ve lost interest.

Publishers, editors and readers like books that open with an immediate hook – a gripping first sentence that grabs them by the throat. You must make it impossible for us not to read on. To do this may mean you slash your entire first chapter – or three. If that’s what it takes, do it. Be ruthless. You can’t be sentimental with your writing if you want to be noticed.

An opening line I’ve never forgotten (from one of my favourite crime books, Minette Walters’ The Ice House):

“Fred Phillips is running.” Anne Cattrell’s remark burst upon the silence of that August afternoon like a fart at a vicar’s tea-party.

According to the experts, every first sentence – whether crime novel or no – should hint at trouble and raise a question. (Actually, your whole book should pretty much do that – raise questions in the reader’s mind.)

In Minette’s subtly menacing, yet amusing, first sentence… why is Fred Phillips running? What is he running from? Clearly, Fred is not usually to be seen running, especially on a summer’s afternoon… otherwise Anne wouldn’t mention it. And who the hell is Fred Phillips anyway?

The first sentence from my soon-to-be-published crime novel is:

She was six metres down when instinct told her something was wrong.

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