I Will Not Read Your Fracking First Chapter

So everyone has read that rather juvenile piece written by Josh Olsen by now. If you haven't, you've likely read clips of it here and there because agents and editors are eating that shit up. And yes, it's crap. The general premise is a good one, that hobby writers need to leave people who are working professionally ALONE, and that real writers aren't deterred from honest feedback. Unfortunately, that message is lost in Olsen's Junior High bitch fest because he won't own up for his own part in the incident that spurred his tirade. (Amber Gardner does a great job of pointing this out on her blog, and honestly, I thought she spoke more truth to the subject as someone just starting out than did the supposed professional script adapter Josh Olsen.)

I've been cultivating another critique thought for a while now, and Olsen's tirade brought it to fruition. We're starting up the Novel Critique group this week and that will bring a lot of first chapters my way. In addition to that I've recently critiqued a few first chapters by different writers, and I have to say, first chapters suck to critique.

The first chapter is pivotal to the entire story. Whether or not your story is even read is based on those first few pages. Agents tend to ask for just the first five, and if you can't sell them in that span then you're on the chopping block.

This brings us to our problem. As writers we look for a good critique of that first chapter to help us fix it and make it as amazing as it needs to be, but I honestly don't think that is possible. Your critic doesn't know your characters, they don't know where the story is going, they don't know the feel or mood of the story, so how are they supposed to help you fix it? They can't, not based on the first chapter. They can give you general thoughts, fix style issues, grammar, punctuation, flow, setting, so on and so forth, but the really important stuff, the Story Worthy Problem, the Inciting Incident, the Surface Problem, how all those things tie together and relate to the journey ahead and your character – they can't help you with that.

That's why I purpose that we stop critiquing first chapters. Put them out there as an introduction to your story, maybe collect some very general feedback or first impressions, but save the serious critiquing for later. Get several chapters into the story or ideally, done with it, before you ask for a serious critique on the first chapter.

I'm even willing to say that the first and last chapters should be critiqued side by side. That ending needs to tie directly into the beginning. It's a cycle. You need to have come full circle. You can't tell that about the first chapter until you've read the last.

So no, the title to this post does not mean that I'm turning into a professional dick. I would hope that I approach these writing topics with little more care than some “professionals” do. What I mean is that I think we should stop basing our critique interactions on first chapters. Yes, that's all that an agent gets, but that's not our goal in critiquing. Our goal in critiquing is to make that first chapter the best it can be. When we critique it first we do a disservice to the story. And that's what I'm saying.

See the full version of that amazing “full circle” picture here.


Amber J. Gardner said...

You...mentioned me...*blushes and melts into a puddle of goo*

I think you make an amazing point here. I totally agree! Also, I love this post to death cause this part...

"I'm even willing to say that the first and last chapters should be critiqued side by side. That ending needs to tie directly into the beginning. It's a cycle. You need to have come full circle."

...just solved my ending problem. I now know how to end the story without the cliffhanger being so evident. After reading your words, I was suddenly inspired with a scene that would end Aidan's story full circle. And then I would add an epilogue which would explain Anya's "openish" ending. It fits. It's perfect (or at least it feels that way now).

You ever watch the show House MD? I feel like you're my Wilson, one who unintentionally inspires my brilliant epiphanies. Thank you ^_^

David Noceti said...

Oh, you're only saying nice things because I linked you. :)

And alas, the Noceti household has no television sets. We're a strictly book, movie, internet family. Add in the tv and you'd definitely never see another post from me.

I'm always glad to help. It makes this all worth while when someone tells me that the blog has helped them in some way. Especially on days like today when I feel overwhelmed with the mountain of tasks still ahead and a messy faced one year old trying to use me as a jungle gym.

Amber J. Gardner said...

I only say nice things because you give me good ideas. Give me bad ideas and see how quick I'll turn on you ;)

I hope things get easier. I would say I feel the same way with my novel (rewrite of chapter 2 is overdue) and yet I can't since it's probably nothing compared to a parent's workload.

So do your best! It's definitely worth it.

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