We were really pleased to welcome Catherine Johnson (and her cake) to the Writing West Midlands’ meeting room for the second masterclass of Megaphone. Catherine focused on story: from your first chapter, can the reader tell what the story is about or not? She brought us back again and again to the fact that a reader, especially a young one – or a busy editor/agent who has twenty more manuscripts to read that weekend – wants to know right from chapter one, what the story is shaping up to be; what the crucial matter at stake is, for the character.
I remember once, about ten years ago, taking a chapter of my work in progress to an SCBWI-arranged meeting with a well-known editor. I thought it was pretty good. I’d always been told I wrote well. The editor scanned my first chapters, and eventually stabbed her finger onto a (to me, unremarkable) paragraph on the fourth page. “That’s your hook,” she said briefly. “Start with that.”
I tell this story because I now see – with the benefit of ten years of experience of failure and success in writing – that that editor and Catherine Johnson are saying the same thing. The first chapter must establish not just the who’s it about, but the what do they want right now? and the why is this interesting? To a new writer, who’s struggling with and in love with language and the pictures it can paint, inserting such basic story stuff can feel clunky, commercial, paint-by-numbers. It certainly did to me back then – though, more to the point, I had no idea how to do it! But look at any great literary work, from Hamlet to Mrs Dalloway, and I bet you’ll see that all these questions are answered very swiftly, in a manner fitting the intended audience. And that, without sacrificing any energy and beauty from the prose. This is even more so the case in great children’s fiction.
Reading first chapters is a great way of finding out how to make this work. Go to Waterstone’s, or use Amazon’s Look Inside function (other booksellers are available, etc.), and read the first pages of a number of books for the age range you’re writing for. Stop after chapter one, whether you’re enjoying it or not, and reflect: why am I enjoying this (or not)? Why do I want to read on (or not)? The answers will be illuminating for your own writing. Great prose will be mingled with strong character and a heart, a journey, a need or a want that hooks you and reels you in, like…