"Our Story Begins…": On First Chapters and Partials

by Cathy Day



Dear Students: 


For most of the semester, I’ve been pushing you to KEEP MOVING FORWARD, no matter what. Horizontal writing, not vertical. No revision. Keep sketching. Keep going. But yesterday, I had to remind you that–for the final–you also have to turn in a solid first chapter or two or three for me to assess.


Final Project 


  • The partial. A polished, ready-to-go-to-an-editor excerpt, 25-50 pages. This is vertical writing, polished, edited, as perfect as you can make it. It will probably change by the time you finish your novel, but for now, it’s good to have something you can actually show people.
  • Final draft of your storyboard or outline/synopsis Please also include a short explanation of how far into the book you are, how far you still need to go, etc.
  •  The rough draft you have drafted this term. This is horizontal writing, one document that contains the 2,250+ words you produced each week + anything you produced over and above that amount. The person with the most number of words/pages wins a prize! 

This comes from Darcy Pattison’s blog “Fiction Notes” but it reiterates a lot of the concepts we discussed early in the semester when we read our four novels. 

Grabs your reader’s attention

Grounds the reader in the setting. 

Intrigues the reader with a character

Here’s a quick test of character. Read the first five pages of your manuscript, then stop. Turn over page five and on the back, write everything you know about your character, JUST FROM THOSE FIVE PAGES.

Gives the reader a puzzle to solve, a questionthey want to see answered. 

The plot, the events of the novel, should give the reader an immediate puzzle to solve, something to worry about, something to read on to find out what happens next. It must start on page one! Not page 3 and certainly not page 25.

Best Practices for a Novel’s Opening Chapter

·        Start with a scene.
·        Put us inside the character/s we’re supposed to be “with” 
·        Make something happen.
·        Hold off on backstory. 
·        Start with a strong hook, end with a “cliffhanger.”
·        Teach us how to read the book, what to expect.

Things that make people stop reading when they start a novel

·        Nothing happens.
·        Logical Inconsistencies.
·        Voice is flat
·        The point-of-view isn’t clear or disorienting.

But Cathy, why polish a partial when you aren’t done with the whole book yet?


So when people ask you, “What’s your book about?” you have something to show them. These might be friends and family, or, in my case, it’s an employer or someone willing to give you money so you can keep writing. I’ve been working on my novel for a few years, and I don’t yet have a complete first draft that’s ready for human eyes, but based on a polished partial, I’ve gotten an agent, a fellowship, and a job. It’s deeply comforting to know that, even though you’re deep in the murk of a work in progress, that there’s something “done.” I wrote more about this here.


How do I begin?


Here’s a blog post that illustrates thirteen different types of novel openings.



Why 50 pages? 



You need to pretend that I am not your teacher, I am an agent. You’ve queried me, and I have written back and asked for 1.) a synopsis of the whole book, and 2.) a partial, which might mean:

  • the first 50 pages
  • the first 1, 2, or 3 chapters
  • a combination of the two.

My chapters are very short, like 5 pages a piece. Do I send only 15 pages then?


No, they expect something around 50 pages. That’s what’s expected.


My chapter 3 goes to page 55. Do I just stop at p. 50?


Absolutely not. You want your partial to stop at a chapter break. So go to p. 55.


My chapter 3 goes to page 61. Do you send 61 pages instead of 50?


No. Go back in and trim a few pages until you get it down to about 55 pages.


I can’t.


Oh, yes you most certainly can.


Why are you giving us the option to turn in 25 pages if the standard is 50?


Two reasons: Because I know that none of you are actually done yet (and in real life, you would never begin this process until you had a complete manuscript ready to go), and because I want you to still be writing, moving forward, getting the whole first draft DONE.


Okay. [Sigh.] 


Good luck! Can’t wait to read your partials!

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