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Six Tips for Chapter One Success

How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?

After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.

  1. DESIRE. Read through your chapter and mark in red any evidence of a character wanting something badly. What drives the person? What’s the mission here?
  2. SOMETHING WRONG. The Save the Cat method talks about Six Things Wrong for your character in the early scenes. Mark in blue something that makes your character blue/upset/angsty/angry. Have you shown at least one thing wrong with the person and/or with the world before it’s about to transform?
  3. THE WORLD BEFORE. The setting, the landscape, the context, some bit of that must be established to let us know what’s about to go away. Use yellow to shine a spotlight on the situation as it stands–whether it’s a stick of furniture or a satellite view of the landscape.
  4. ARRESTING IMAGE. Save the Cat recommends beginning with an opening image that resonates. Even better if it sums up the story! (Just think: English teachers will make their poor students talk about that symbolism for ages.) Mark with pink something that catches the eye in the first page or so, something that gets us curious and leaning forward.
  5. IRRESISTIBLE VOICE. Whether it’s the perspective or lens on the story, or it’s a resonant, engaging person talking to you, mark with purple the angle and sound and point of view that is unique. In other words, the teller of this tale must be king or queen and rule us for the rest of the pages.
  6. A CHANGE. It’s not the catalyst in my books–but that’s surely coming–and it’s not the Game Changer that the Story Engines method speaks of, but there should be something happening. Mark in green enough of a change, a plot moment that makes us sit up and say, Things are transforming here.

Four Ways to Feed Off Feedback

If you’re like me, sometimes it’s tough to process feedback on your writing in an effective way. Doesn’t matter whether it’s your writers’ group, beta readers, reviewers, your agent, your editor–none of us humans are wired to welcome criticism.

I talk through my formula for taking in feedback and making it work for you so it’s actually nutritious and life giving, instead of something that drains you.

  1. Say Yes to the No
  2. Request Compliments
  3. Point and Click
  4. Balance the Seesaw

If you’ve got ways to feed off feedback, let me know!

And shout-out to my writer pal, Becky Moynihan, who’s awesome at embracing feedback, and whose second book birthday is upon us, ADAPTIVE! Check out her YA dystopian fantasy series here.

 

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How a Query Can Help You Write Your Novel

When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.

Butterfly boots by Justin. Lyn Fairchild Hawks' favorite boots.

These boots are made for pitchin’–in all kinds of weather.

A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.

What have you learned about your novel while writing your query? Share below!

Story in a Nutshell

Questions you solve when writing the query:

  • Does my story have an arc that satisfies the reader?
  • Does my story have stakes?
  • Does my hero transform?

When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.

Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.

The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.

Appreciate that Audience

You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?

Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?

Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.

I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

 

 

YA Wonders from This Year

I’ve read many amazing books this year! Find all the reviews at my Goodreads page.

  • A Time to Dance (YA, MG): About pursuing artistic passion (dance) and losing a limb. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • A Wrinkle in Time (YA, MG): About love and hope and interstellar time travel. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • Boost: (YA, MG): About tall girls, basketball, drugs, and sibling crazy
  • Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (YA, MG): About friendship and first love
  • If You Could Be Mine: (YA) Love between two teen girls in Iran, where it’s forbidden.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun: (YA) Twins, first love, being artists, and coming out and speaking up.
  • Saints and Misfits (YA): About identity, defining your faith, first love, and assault
  • Second Impact (YA): About CTE, small-town football, and intrepid teen journalists.
  • The Hate U Give (YA): About losing a friend, police brutality, and interracial love
  • The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (YA): About basketball, small towns, sexual awakening, and getting out of Dodge
  • Trell by Dick Lehr (YA, MG): About finding the truth: a journalistic thriller led by a strong young woman who wants to free her incarcerated father.

Find even more at my guest post, “9 High Flavor Reads for Your Teen (and You)” at Jennifer Puryear’s Bacon on the Bookshelf blog.

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Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.