Within the first few pages of a book, a reader decides whether to continue or to give up. Writers focus a lot of attention on those first few pages, and with good reason. But what should you be looking for?
Don’t get stuck on your first chapter. Write something, anything, and then keep going on the rest of your novel. But when it’s time to edit your work, pay close attention to that first chapter, and how you use it to set up the rest of your book.
One issue that I often discover when I beta read is that at first I struggle to find my way in the book world. Is this a fantasy world? Is it our world? Are we talking current day, past or future? Who are these people? What’s the relationship between them? Who should I be focusing on?
These days, we tend to prefer books that go straight into some sort of action, but is that action detailed enough for readers to pick up what they need? You don’t have to explain everything at once, but make sure there’s enough detail to be able to follow.
Book two (or three or four) of a series provides a special problem. It’s so tempting to follow straight on from the previous book, but you know these characters and situations far better than the reader, who might have a large time gap between books. Are they going to remember that character? Are they going to remember the setting? Do they understand the significance of that event? What about the reader who glances at book two without realising it’s a sequel? Will they be interested enough to find the backstory, or will they be completely lost?
All this is why putting a manuscript to one side for a while and then reading with fresh eyes is a very good idea. Then make sure you read what’s actually written, and you don’t fill in the blanks with your memory. Is it clear who that person is? Have you indicated the time, the setting, the main drive of the story? Is the genre clear (or at least hinted at) from the start?
Sometimes, all it takes is a few extra words, or an extra scene, to make the difference between an opening chapter that leaves the reader floundering and one that pulls them onwards, already deeply engrossed in your story.