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.