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Your First Three Chapters

Giving Your Novel its Best Start—and its Best Shot

Few readers will go beyond ten or fifteen pages if a novel doesn’t engage them. Agents and editors—even if interested in the manuscript—almost never go beyond thirty or forty pages before finding a reason to reject a novel.

Most agents and editors, when asking for material, will request a “partial” before they ask to see a full manuscript. A partial is usually considered 3 chapters (although the agent may request a specific page count, like 50 or 100 pages). It’s crucial for these pages to be in top shape. Unfortunately, many times a novel starts in a promising way but falls apart after the first few pages, often for reasons of technique that can be identified and fixed. Here are some tips for making sure your first three chapters get, and keep, the reader’s attention.

  • Begin at the beginning. Sometimes you need to write the whole novel, or at least a good chunk of it, to know where the beginning is. Sometimes the beginning is clear from, well, the beginning. In any case, you have to start where your story begins, and often that is not on page 1. And one other thing: Ditch the prologue. Yes, I mean it.
  • Start as you mean to continue. Your first chapter starts off with a swashbuckling adventure. Your second chapter continues the story as a homey romance. Gnashing of teeth (by your readers) will ensue. If you’re promising your readers a humorous romp through Victorian England, turning the story into a horror about Jack the Ripper isn’t the way to instill a little tension into the narrative.
  • Deliver on genre conventions—or know why you’re not. Connected to the idea of starting as you mean to continue is the idea that you need to understand, respect, and deliver on genre conventions. A romance ends with a happily ever after. A novel may be about two characters falling in love, and one of them can die at the end, but you can’t call that novel a romance. That would be a love story, which is a different creature. If you’re really talented, you can of course turn genre conventions on their head, break genre rules and essentially thumb your nose at readers’ expectations, but you do so at your own peril (just ask any reader why she threw that book against the wall and almost invariably it will have to do with thwarted genre conventions.)
  • Keep abreast of changing tastes. You may, as most writers do, write for yourself, or write the novels that interest you, but if you want to have commercial success (or at least get published), then you need to care about what your readers want, and you have to understand that readers’ tastes change. Most readers (including editors and agents) happen, at this moment in time, to prefer third person limited (and to some degree, first person) point of view. Omniscient narrators are not as appreciated as they once were. Head-hopping, which no one cared about twenty years ago, is a disastrous no-no now. Lengthy discourses on the state of society were tolerated, even appreciated, forty years ago, but no more.
  • Give your reader something to do. Some of the most convoluted, uninteresting writing comes from writers who are trying to tell their readers exactly what they should be thinking and picturing at every moment. Story-telling isn’t cinematography, though, and much of the joy of reading comes from filling in the blanks—imagining, in your own head, what the writer is describing. You have to find the balance between dumping too much into your story and not enough. This is especially tricky to do at the beginning of your book, when you’re trying to establish your characters, their conflict, the world they live in and their backstory. But it can be accomplished!
  • Establish your voice. The first three chapters are where you assure your readers that they’re in good hands. Having a convincing voice from the beginning goes a long way toward assuring your readers that they haven’t made a mistake by investing some time with your book.
  • Explain, or at least imply, why your characters do what they do. Because character motivations so often exist in their backstory, writers often put off showing motivation until the backstory is revealed. But that can lead to unfortunate situations where your characters comes across as jackasses, instead of sympathetic people, or as illogical and untrustworthy. If that’s your intention, fine, but too often it isn’t, and there’s a divergence between how the reader experiences the character and how the writer intended the character to be experienced.
  • Make war, not peace. Conflict is the core of all fiction, but very often writers “save” the conflict for the denouement. Which means that readers yawn their way through the first 70,000 words. Tension and conflict can, and should, be built from the first page. Your characters have to want something. (A great way to have conflict is to have characters who want something in direct opposition to each other.) Characters grow and change or resist growth and change. They respond to motivation and conflict in ways that are in keeping with their characters. (The Pope and a Hell’s Angel will respond to a verbal taunt in different ways. One assumes, anyway.)

Problems with these elements commonly crop up in novels. Fixing them before your work reaches your readers is key to your success.


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New books for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!

Ask the Book Doctor: Using characters to inspire you

Q. Meredith says, “I often find B characters in novels more interesting than the leads, yet they’re never fully developed (hence the B aspect). I wonder if using another novelist’s B characters as a jumping off point for a new character or story would ever produce any ideas worth exploring.”

A. As writers, we can find inspiration all around us, and other people’s fictional worlds and characters are a good example. The key point here is how (as Meredith specifies) you need to create a new character. Of course, you can’t use another writer’s characters or worlds, as that is copyright infringement, unless the novel is out of copyright protection (which is why we have all those Jane Austen mashups). Authors keep the right to produce derivative works (that is, other stories based on their characters and worlds) and although fan fiction is a popular sport, for someone seriously pursuing a writing career, you have to create your own characters and worlds unless you want to end up on the wrong end of a subpoena.

But you can certainly be inspired by other people’s stories and characters! In fact, for Jenny Jacobs’ The Winter Promise, the whole book was sparked by seeing Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is a minor character–a B character–but there was something about his situation that struck me as having a lot of potential for a story. The character I ended up writing, Lord Robert, has almost nothing in common with Faramir, but the novel wouldn’t even exist if I hadn’t seen Faramir and thought, “Hmm.”

The key is to make the character/story your own, even if the spark comes from another character. What about the character intrigues you? How can you make the story your own? Dig deep and you might be surprised what you can come up with!

Nonfiction to Fiction

Some advice for writers

Almost all of my private coaching clients are established nonfiction writers who are honing their fiction skills. So you can imagine their most common questions have to do with making this leap.

Fiction and nonfiction writing have a lot of similarities, but it’s the differences that can be most nettlesome. Here are my thoughts on things to consider about making such a transition:

  • Your past experience doesn’t matter much to agents and editors except as evidence that you are a professional (which is good but in itself isn’t sufficient to interest them in your work). Focus on getting the fiction chops you need to succeed.
  • You have to be all in. Nonfiction writers often sell based on queries and proposals, but novelists (especially for the first few books) have to write the complete manuscript and polish it to perfection before they can generate interest. (Obviously I’m talking about traditional publishing here, but even if you’re self-publishing, to succeed you have to be committed to the project in a wholehearted way.)
  • You have to read and respect the genre you’re writing in. There’s a misconception among non-novelists that you can make a lot of money as a romance writer (or an erotica writer or a fill-in-the-blank). Sure, some people have lots of success in these genres, but you can’t pick a genre just because you think you could make some money. You have to read the genre, understand what it’s about it, and like it in order to successfully write it.
  • You have to keep an open mind. Just because you’re an established professional in one field doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn in another. Educate yourself, read, be an empty vessel instead of a know-it-all.
  • Your colleagues are still your best go-to group. Even if your nonfiction buddies don’t write fiction, they may be willing to act as first readers, or be able to connect you with someone who can help.
  • You have skills and tools that someone else just starting out doesn’t have. You’re a media professional. You know how to use words. You aren’t going to burst into noisy tears at the first sign of criticism. You know how to research (and how to stop so you can write the darned thing). You know how to focus. You have discipline. All of these elements are crucial to writing fiction, too.

Freelance writer Karen Kroll comments, “There’s much more to it than you realize at first, even if you’re an experienced nonfiction writer. The other thing that’s so different is the lack of certainty. Not that freelance nonfiction writing is certain, but if you stick with it and develop your skills, most freelancers can steadily build a client base; the ability to diversify (i.e, some magazine, some trade, some corporate, etc.) really helps.”

This is a great point: there are many different types of opportunities for a nonfiction writer that simply don’t exist for a novelist. One approach that works for several of my clients is to combine the two.

If any of you have made this transition, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

5 Steps for Finding Your Audience

To be a successful book author, you have to think about your audience from the very beginning. And by that I mean the very beginning–at the inception of your idea, you should be asking yourself questions about who will want to read what you’ve written.

Here are some steps to make the process of finding your audience less daunting:

1. Think of your work in big terms. You’re leaving a legacy–something you want to be proud of. What is that legacy going to be?

2. Ask yourself what your message is. Do you believe wholeheartedly in your message? People can spot insincerity.

3. Find out what makes your audience tick. What moves them and motivates them? You have to care about your audience to succeed.

4. Consider where you’ll reach them. Where are they? How can you connect with them?

5. Commit to your message and your project. It takes significant dedication and perseverance to succeed in the book business. But you really can do it!

On Doing the Work

Occasionally aspiring writers ask me how I got my first romance published. I tell them that it began as a project — an assignment, really — that a colleague suggested I do when I told her that my agent liked the mystery I had submitted to her but thought the romance between the two main characters wasn’t working, and I didn’t quite know how to fix it.

“Write a romance,” the colleague said, so I did. A 40,000 word manuscript, a short sweet contemporary, and it taught me what I needed to know. It was also later published by Avalon, under a pen name. Every single time I’ve told an aspiring writer this story (and in fact most of the time when I tell any writer this story), I’m met with a moment of stunned silence and then the admission, “I would never have done that much work to fix a problem in a different manuscript.”

It’s interesting to me how often people want something very badly, but they don’t want to do the work without any guarantee of a reward. I completely understand this; I don’t like to do work unless someone sends me a check afterward, and maybe flowers, too. But if I hope to master a craft, then I’m going to have to do a lot of work that no one sends me money for, and in fact, no one may ever read or care about. You have to know this and do the work anyway.