A Lesson From Elizabeth Sims

(((((Mondays will be my “Heyyy! Here’s a Tip About Writing By Someone Who’s Actually Published!” Day. Enjoy.)))))

((((P.S. I’m working on a Chapter One of my storyyy (more to come on that one!!), so this seemed like the most apt topic to launch with.))))


“8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One” by Elizabeth Sims (January 2011)

Sims opens this article by comparing the first chapter of a book to the appetizer of a meal–“Small, yet so tremendously important. And do full of potential. As an aspiring author, the prospect of writing Chapter One should not intimidate, but excite the hell out of you.”

She then lists the 8 ways promised in the title:

#1: Resist Terror.

“Here’s the truth: Agents and editors, all of them, are paper tigers. Every last one is a hungry kitten searching for something honest, original, and brave to admire. Now it the time to gather your guts, smile and let it rip.

Your inner genius flees from tension, so first of all, relax. Notice that I did not say agents and editors are looking for perfect writing. Honest, original and brave. That’s what they want, and that’s what you’ll produce if you open up room for mistakes and mediocrity. It’s true! Only by doing that will you be able to tap into your wild and free core. Let out the bad with the good now, and you’ll sort it out later.

“Remember who you are and why you’re writing this book. What is your book about? What purpose(s) will it serve? “If you haven’t outlined yet, consider doing so…knowing where I’m headed frees my mind from everything but the writing at hand. Being prepared makes you calm, and better equipped to tap into your unique voice–which is the most important ingredient in a good Chapter One.”

2. Decide on Tense and Point of View.


3. Choose a Natural Starting Point.

“Basically, write your way in. Think about real life. Any significant episode in your how life did not spring whole from nothing; things happened beforehand that shaped it, and things happened afterwards as a result of it. Think about your novel in this same way. The characters have pasts and futures (unless you plan to kill them); places, too, have pasts and futures. Therefore, every storyteller jumps into his story midstream. Knowing this can help you relax about picking a starting point. The Brothers Grimm did not begin by telling about the night Hansel and Gretel were conceived; they got going well into the lives of their little heroes, and they knew we wouldn’t care about anything but what they’re doing right now.”

4. Present a Strong Character Right Away.


5. Be Sparing of Setting.

“Pack a punch into a few details. Instead of giving the history of the place and how long the character’s been there and what the weather’s like, consider something like this,

“He lived in a seedy neighborhood in Kansas City. When the night freight passed, the windows rattled in their frames and the dog in the flat below barked like a maniac.”

Later (if you want) you’ll tell all about the house, the street, the dog’s make and model, but for now a couple sentences like that are all you need.”


6. Use Carefully Chosen Detail to Create Immediacy.

“Let’s say your Chapter One begins with your main character getting a root canal. You could show the dentist nattering on and on as dentists tend to do, and that would be realistic but it could kill your chapter, as in this example:

Dr. Payne’s running commentary included the history of fillings, a story about the first time he ever pulled a tooth, and a funny anecdote about how his college roommate got really drunk every weekend.

Bored yet? Me too. Does that mean there’s too much detail? No It means there’s too much extraneous detail. How about this:

Dr. Paybe paused in his running commentary on dental history and put down his drill. “Did you know,” he remarked, “that the value of all the gold molars in a city this size, at this afternoon’s spot price of gold, would be something on the order of half a million dollars?” He picked up his drill again. “Open.”

If the detail serves the story, you can hardly have too much.”


7. Give It a Mini Plot.

“Every chapter should have its own plot, none more important than Chapter One. Put a lot of conflict in early.

Pick your trouble and make it big. If it can’t be big at first, make it ominous.

Bring action forward in your story; get it going quick.

Put your backstory in the back, not the front. readers will stick with you if you give them something juicy right away.”


8. Be Bold.

“Put your best material out there. Do not humbly introduce your story–present it with a flourish. Don’t hold back! Set your tone and own it. You’re going to write a whole book using great material; have confidence that you can generate terrific ideas for action and emotion whenever you want.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: