Getting the 1st Chapter Right

The Chapter One contest I’m one of the judges for is finally wrapping up. 125 manuscripts, the majority of which, like a poetry slam, went the maximum 20 pages! The panel wasn’t able to meet in person so the contest coordinator is…um, coordinating our top six choices, trying to come up with a representative final four.

The other two judges had two finalists in common, while neither had any crossover with my list.

Should be interesting.

With so many manuscripts to read, I developed a three-stage weeding process that netted about 15 solid “yes” entries, from which I had to pick a Top 4.

1) First impressions are key. Invest in a cheap presentation cover. Use a word processing program and keep the layout simple and clean. SPELL CHECK!!! Then, spell check MANUALLY!!! Mixing up “your” and “you’re” is a serious pet peeve.

2) Understand the rules of the contest. “First chapters from unpublished novels and works-in-progress…” means the FIRST CHAPTER, not the first 20 pages – Prologue, Chapters 1-3 – of your book! Conversely, if your first chapter is only two pages long, rethink it as a submission as it’s generally not enough to properly judge. Also, “a brief typed synopsis of the entire novel” does not mean a three-page, scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire story. It should be BRIEF and, more importantly, it should include some connection to the first chapter that you’ve submitted. There were times I thought I had mixed something up because the only thing the two had in common was the title.

3) Show, don’t tell. And get to the hook quickly.

Those final two points are what eliminated many of the manuscripts with interesting premises. First, too much tell, not enough show. Reciting history instead of picking a character and showing it through their eyes. Long-winded details of what happened to whom and when. Zzzzz… Second, a first chapter is the bait to hook your reader. Unless your book has come highly recommended, most people are giving it 2-5 pages to reel them in. An interesting character, setting, event…something INTERESTING to make them commit the time to reading the whole thing. Because nobody wants to put a book down halfway through and walk away.

Reading 125 manuscripts – of which I read approx. 110 completely – was both a great learning experience and a nice overview of various genres, subjects and styles. Some were absolutely terrific and I would love to be able to read the entire story someday. Most had a lot of potential and I’d be interested in seeing where they end up. Some were obvious first drafts that I suspect were entered on a lark. Very few were downright terrible, though, which I was both happy and surprised to see. Kudos to all that entered and, win or lose, write on!

Your thoughts?