I love giving feedback on first chapters of novels, especially in the young adult genre, and especially to young writers.
So from now until April 23 at midnight (Mountain Time) I’ll take the first chapters of 5 Young Adult novels and offer some free critique and feedback. For more extensive details, click here or see below. (***To qualify, you must meet and agree to the guidelines at the bottom). I particularly love apocalyptic and dystopian and paranormal.
Now, the promised tips, gleaned in part from agent panels at writing conferences as well as my own students’ and critique group’s process.
Make sure your character is doing something active right away. It’s too easy to have the character waking up, sitting at a desk daydreaming, or riding a car, bus, train, plane, etc. to somewhere else in the first scene. Readers want to immediately connect to a main character (MC) who is doing something and sharing who they are.
If your first scene does begin this way, don’t despair. You might want to take what works from those first few paragraphs and then work in those details a bit later, once there’s action. For example, if you wrote the best line ever describing a bug crawling across your MC’s ceiling as the MC is lying in bed, get the MC out of bed and doing something, like throwing darts at the bug. Or trying to save the bug, which is limping. Or heck, maybe your MC eats the bug. That’s definitely interesting.
Show agency. What does your main character want and how will they try to get it? Even if they are failing at something (like eating the bug) showing them trying to do something is way more interesting to the reader than a character who is just thinking. Yes, teenagers do lie around running thoughts through their heads — a lot — in fact, I still do that for hours at a time — but try to weave their amazing thoughts into some great internal or external dialogue while they’re interacting with other people or items.
This means that no matter what fun first scene you begin with, you want your reader to glimpse, and root for the MC’s real wishes, desires, or character arc. Sure, there’s a bug crawling across the ceiling that’s the size of an upside-down squirrel. That’s a conflict. But the MC wants to be a dancer. Make the reader know this. Maybe the MC throws a ballet shoe which weighs nothing and accomplishes nothing. Maybe the MC makes some kind of heroic leap toward the ceiling to catch the bug. Maybe they befriend the bug and learn to imitate its movements and invent a new dance craze!
Avoid overwhelming the reader with complicated backstory, epic battles, or lengthy conversations with numerous other characters in the first scene. Make the MC the star. Help us care about them and get to know them before introducing a chaotic scene. No matter how interesting that scene might be, especially if the bug is part of an alien plot to take over the world, we’re not going to care that much unless we have met the MC and become invested in their career as a dancer. Once that happens, as readers, we won’t want to see their goals thwarted by the bug apocalypse.
Lastly, don’t worry if your first chapter breaks any of these guidelines I warned about. The first chapter is the one you’ll revise the most often, anyway, and it’s better to do after you’ve written the end of your novel and understand how to link it back thematically. For now, just write! Have fun! Get to know your characters, immerse yourself in their world, and just get your story down on the page, because it needs to be told!
I hope you spare the bug. Its name is Herman. I’m certain of it. Well, maybe Henrietta.
**If you want to submit your chapter for critique, please visit my website (here) and then respond to this post there letting me know your name and the (tentative) title of your work. Then email me through the “contact me” link on that website. If you’re one of the first to respond, I’ll get back to you and ask for up to 12 pages of the first chapter (industry standard; Times Font double-spaced).
Have fun, and happy writing! If you’re stuck, I have a blog post on writer’s block to get you unstuck.
Kendra Griffin, Professor of English at Aims Community College, is the author of Young Adult speculative fiction novels The Pox Ward and Apocalypse Thoughts. Learn more about her work and creative writing workshops here or sign up for her newsletter (Get The Pox). Apocalypse Thoughts will be free on Amazon through midnight on -4/12, or you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway through April!