When first isn’t always best

Suppose someone e-mails you and asks: “Could you send me a sample chapter of your book?”

Do you assume that they want your first chapter, or maybe the first couple? That’s what the Amazon Kindle site shows to the world when someone clicks “Look Inside” on your book cover. That’s what a lot of writers promptly send out automatically.

After all, why not start from the beginning, right?

Well, not necessarily.

With novels, in particular, first chapters can be problematic. Generally, they come in two forms:

1. A setup chapter that explains the background for what is to come.

2. An immediate leap into the action, to hook the reader into the drama.

In the first instance, the setup chapter can be a bit complicated. Of all the chapters in my recently published novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” the first chapter is the one I like the least.  I felt like it was necessary, but I really had to work on it to prevent it from being tedious.

Often with a first chapter, you spend so much time trying to explain the plot that you don’t show much of your writing chops. And if you’re not careful, the reader will start thinking: “Geez, this is slow. I sure hope it gets better.”

On the other hand, the “immediate leap” chapter offers problems of its own.  True, these are sometimes ideal to send out as samples — but if the idea is to go for the jugular and worry about background later, you run the risk of leaving the reader struggling for context.

So wouldn’t that be the case with any later chapters?

Well, yes, but that can be fixed. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of sending out the chapter, or chapters, that show your best writing. Then, to avoid marooning the reader on an unknown island, offer a one-sentence explanation at the top: “In this chapter, Marcia — the main character — comes to a crossroads in her relationship.”

Think of your sample as akin to a movie trailer. Most trailers don’t really tell you about the plot, but they give you a good sense of what you can expect.

Sample chapters, chosen wisely, can serve the same function.













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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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