Nancy Ann Dibble gives a fantastic guideline. It's important to capture a reader's interest immediately. Start with a bang - throw them into the story. If you start by giving a bunch of background information, it can be boring! Think about it, a reader needs to care about a character to want to read about their past. And even then, they only want to know the parts of their past that are relevant to the story.
The first chapter should give a reader some sense of what the main character is going to go through for the entire book - it's like a hook to draw the reader in. (One way to do this, as Dibble suggests, is to start the book in the middle of the story - fill in the background information as it's needed. That's a great way to give a reader a sense of immediacy.)
I'm not at an editing point with Project Jane yet, and I had no idea that I'd completely ignored one of main factors in Dibble's advice - make a reader want to keep reading... don't start with background information... soooooooo -
Thank goodness for Georgia McBride*! I recently submitted my first two chapters for her review and she was able to see what was missing right away: the conflict!! Though my prologue enticed her to keep reading, the first chapter was like a different story. The tension necessary to keep a reader interested was missing. Have the same problem? Here's how to fix it - introduce the CONFLICT. Conflict = tension.
Project Jane begins on the morning of Jane's first day of eleventh grade. I wrote a lot of background information into the first chapter, while she's getting ready. It's all stuff a reader needs to know - but I didn't give any clues or hints about what was to come for Jane. BIG mistake! Why would anyone care that Jane once had a fight with a friend? Why would anybody want to read about the things she does to get ready for school? Nobody would! Unless they have a vested interest in her, which should be the first thing established.
A side note here is this: just because you understand certain writing concepts does not mean that you automatically use them. You need to check your own work thoroughly when you begin to revise it. Or ask a friend to read the first chapter to see if they're drawn in and want to read more.
Would I have seen the error when I began the revision process? I sure hope so, but who knows?! In any case, thanks to the clear and concise feedback from Georgia, I've been able to start thinking about fixes for it much earlier. It's not a mistake I'll make a second time.
I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule - as there are to most. Maybe your main character has such a thrilling background that writing about it in the first chapter IS what you use to hook a reader. If that's the case - more power to ya! (But make sure your character has just as interesting a present as they do their past - otherwise you're writing about the wrong part of their life!)
So, there ya have them... My thoughts on Dibble's quote!
* PS Georgia McBride is the founder of the twitter chat #yalitchat. She holds it every Wednesday night at 9EST. Join us - it's always fun and very educational!!