One of my most popular workshops is on Writing First Chapters. I've taught this topic at Surrey International Writers Conference, I'll be teaching it at GenreCon in Queensland, Australia this November, and I most recently taught it at Star Wars University at Star Wars Celebration Orlando.
And here's the cheat sheet!
Note: You'll get a lot more out of it if you take one of my classes, but hopefully you'll find this little slice of my personal rulebook helpful.
First Chapters (CHEAT SHEET!)
1. First of all, RELAX. You do your best writing when you're calm, nimble, and not afraid to mess up.
2. Be aware that the first chapter is often the writer making notes. It might get cut. That's normal.
3. Start with action, character, and conflict. Don't info dump.
4. Figure out the instigating factor and rewind one scene. That's where to start.
5. Know the things that literary agents claim will get your first pages rejected.
Including: dream sequences; a character looking in a mirror to describe themselves; the most boring day ever or the most action-packed battle ever; a character waking up; a gross bathroom scene; an overtly sexual scene; a cliché for that genre; beginning with an interesting character and then killing them off to focus on the actual hero.
6. Skip prologues. Agents hate them. If you need one, add it after the book sells.
7. Your opening line must be awesome. Read great opening lines that set the tone for their books.
8. Know that you can break the rules, but it's only going to work if the book is genius.
9. Got a great first line? Good. Write a great second line. Keep compelling them.
10. Avoid using cheap tricks, cliches, and tropes. They won't work on a literary agent.
11. Make each chapter its own little story. Beginning, middle, end. End on a cliffhanger or question.
12. Remember: the first chapter is the hardest to write. Just get it on the page. Fix it later.
13. Give us strong character and voice from the first sentence.
14. Make the first chapter represent what to expect for the entire story.
If you're interested in having me read and critique your first chapter, you might want to sign up for my upcoming Worldbuilding Crash Course workshop at LitReactor, which happens entirely online.