You’ve got your idea. Your characters are fleshed out. The setting is crystallized in your mind.
You power up the laptop, and you place your fingers on the keys. Chapter one.
There’s a magic in that. You can practically feel the readers forming an orderly line to purchase your book, even before you finish the first paragraph. But what do you want to accomplish? What are the things to avoid in your first chapter? In this post, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty of a novel’s first chapter.
What are you looking to accomplish?
In a first chapter, you have several things that you want to accomplish and clue the reader on. This is not an exhaustive list, but let’s look at some common items.
Every book needs a dose of laughter. Even hard-core, freak-out scary stuff needs a scene or a sentence or a word intended to allow the reader a moment to breathe out some of the tension you’ve mummified them in for pages and pages and breathe in ease.
This post will acquaint you with five make-them-laugh techniques you can choose from when you want to give your readers a giggle, chuckle, snigger or even a good old-fashioned, snorting, belly laugh.
5. K — the sound it makes is the funniest letter
This rule appears to be universally agreed upon by comedians. So much so, that in Neil Simon’s 1972 play The Sunshine Boys, there’s a scene in which an aging comedian schools his nephew on comedy and the letter k:
“Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say ‘Alka Seltzer’ you get a laugh … Words with k in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland … Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there’s chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny — not if you get ’em, only if you say ’em.”
This is an easy way to add a touch of subtle humor to your writing. Any author can give the diner their character is hiding out in a funny k-name. (Crunchy Cracker Café). By the way, according to my research, these sounds are funniest when you put them in the middle of sentences. (I don’t write the rules — I’m just reporting them.)
If you want to make your readers laugh, shock them. According to Author Scott Dikkers in his book How To Write Funny, this funny filter includes anything you shouldn’t say in mixed company. He also says it’s a method best used like a garnish. Never the main course.
Example: The television series The Black List deals with grim storylines. The kind that make you me want to close your eyes and turn down the sound. Here is one example of how they used shock to elicit laughter in the midst of a tense scene in which Reddington is trying to extract information from a guy who is part of an illegal organ transplant ring. The bad guy has a heart condition, and Reddington (the bad guy you can’t help but love) has spiked his drink with Viagra.
“Those drinks you’ve been enjoying on the house? They weren’t from the house. They were from me. I hope you don’t mind. I took the liberty of adding a special surprise ingredient. Something to treat any localized dysfunction you may be suffering. Has the little man been falling down on the job? It’s a miracle drug, not so much for a glutton with a bum heart, however. But look on the bright side, you’ll die with a marvelous erection.”
As an author, you can easily set your readers up to they think they know what’s going to come next — and then throw them a curveball. An example of this can be found in another scene from the show The Black List. The character, Reddington, is standing in front of this huge portrait of a woman hanging on the wall in someone’s house, and he says:
“Last night I got up for a scoop of orange sherbet and she caught my eye. I just stood here in the dark, squinting at her. She’s breathtakingly unattractive.”
The curveball is the word unattractive. Up until this point, the audience thinks he’s going to wax poetic about her beauty, and he doesn’t. Not only is she unattractive, she’s breathtakingly unattractive. Breathtakingly misdirects us to think beautiful. Had he said very unattractive, the laugh wouldn’t have come. But he used a word that our brains are trained to pair with the word beautiful. We were misdirected, and as a result, we laughed.
I’ve heard that publishers contemplating buying a new author’s work want to know how big his/her email list is; in other words, how many regular subscribers will get a personal notification from the author about the upcoming publication? Clearly, a regular newsletter going out to your readers is an effective marketing tool.
Nevertheless, the quality of your work is your first best sales influencer. Those writers whose every book I purchase (Grisham, Cornwell, Evanovich, Grafton) won me as a fan because I read one book, loved it and sought every other offering. I’ve never even seen the newsletters of the authors I mentioned.
However, I do subscribe to several newsletters; I’ve also unsubscribed from many which I initially liked but which turned into continual sales pitches (and I’m going to mention one in particular: Jeff Goins, who saved my life with his 500 word challenge, but who now promotes himself and his workshops tirelessly).
How can an author write a newsletter that fans will eagerly devour?
Katie Rose Guest Pryal says, “Newsletters are a special way to share personal insights with your readers. Newsletters, therefore, create connections with your readers. . . If you convince someone to let you into their inbox, you have to make it worth their while. . . It is, in its very form, personal.”
Write in a conversational tone, as if you were writing a letter to a cherished friend (what a lost art!). Julianne Q Johnson suggests, “What’s going on in your life? What are you working on right now? What book have you read lately and what did you think of it?”
If I had a newsletter right now (I’m planning to start mine when my work-in-progress is ready to submit), I’d write about the kitchen and bath remodel going on at my house (oh, the horror!).
Marylee McDonald sends out one of the best author newsletters I’ve ever read. She specifically targets it to other writers. A recent issue included a description and a link to a training podcast she was part of, a short introduction and a link to an article about a writer friend who fought his way back to writing after a massive stroke, and three calls for submissions from periodicals and publishers. Most of her newsletters do not mention her latest book or her side career as a writing coach and workshop instructor. Her followers already know about those and know they can click on her website link for more information.
Catia Shattuck says,
Remember that while you can use your newsletter to sell more books, the main part of your newsletter shouldn’t be selling your books. Your newsletters allow readers to get to know you, and then, just a small note about a new release will result in them buying your book. If you just use your newsletter to advertise your books, you will lose subscribers. A good recommendation is to sell every third newsletter.
“Keep it short, sweet, and structured,” says Jane Friedman. She adds,
Hardly anyone will complain that your emails are too short; the more frequently you send, the shorter your emails should probably be. It can also help to deliver the same structure every time. Every newsletter Ann Friedman sends has links to what she’s recently published and what she’s been reading, plus an animated GIF of the week.
Some more content ideas for author newsletters:
Reminder: if your newsletters are nothing but sales pitches, readers will unsubscribe or delete them without reading.
Need more suggestions? Check out these articles:
Now it’s your turn. Do you have an author newsletter? Do you follow any good author newsletters? What do you like to see in an author letter? Share in the comments below.
Lots of gorgeous stuff here.