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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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Book Proposal Boot Camp – June 15th and 16th

Book Proposal Boot Camp

Write your book proposal in a weekend! 

June 15th and 16th, 2013!

My popular book proposal class usually takes place over the course of six weeks. But I’m offering a new approach – Book Proposal Boot Camp! This is a virtual class – everything takes place via email and online – that will take place over just one weekend.

For complete information about this class, click here.

What to Do About "No"

An online writers’ group I belong to recently had a discussion about saying no — how to do it, how to mean it, how to deal with people who try to negotiate after you’ve already said no, and so on.

That got me thinking about the other side of the coin — when people say no to us, or at least say no to our queries and proposals and manuscripts.  There’s a right way to deal with those, too, and keeping in mind the process that goes through your mind when you say no helps ease the sting.

For example, when someone asks me to help with a school fundraiser, I may very well see the value of it, but simply not have the time to participate.  I have other priorities that take precedence.  Turn this around: when someone says no to my idea, it’s not always because my idea sucks or because I do, but rather that the agent already has a house full of clients or the editor already has something similiar in the lineup.

In other words, it isn’t about me personally.  When I say no to someone, I don’t want them to argue with me about it or find reasons to overcome my objections, unless I’m clearly inviting them to do so.  “No, I can’t help at the fundraiser” is different from “I’d like to help at the fundraiser, but it’s being held on a day I’m out of town.”

The first means I’m not able to help; the second means I may be willing to do something as long as you don’t expect me to show up on the day of the event. In the same way, “No, I’m afraid I can’t take you on as a client” is different from “I really like this book idea, but I don’t think it can reach a big enough audience as you currently envision it.”

Understanding how to differentiate between these kinds of responses is crucial for writers.  One is an opportunity to show your creativity and ability to respond positively to criticism; the other is an opportunity to move along.

One of the most important things I learned to do as a writer was to make a plan before I ever started submitting a project.  So if I was going to submit a manuscript to agents, I didn’t just pick the top three or four I really wanted to work with.  I researched fifty or seventy-five, then sent letters to my top ten.  As soon as I got a rejection from one, I sent the pitch to another (always pausing to ask myself if the pitch needed to be reworked).

The other thing I learned to do was detach from outcomes.  All I could control was the writing and submitting part of the process.  Once I had the submission plan in place for a particular project, I moved along to the next project.

Moving along to the next project is the most important part of dealing with rejection.  I know some people will say, “But you have to be committed to this project!  You have to do everything you can for this project!”  And while that’s true to some extent, the six months it takes between starting to pitch a project and finding a home for it cannot be solely devoted to that project, unless that project is your life goal.

I don’t let any one project be my life goal.  My life goal — to make my living as a writer until they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead hands — requires that I move along until I find the project that hits the sweetspot: I love it, an editor loves it, and an audience loves it.  And sometimes it takes a lot of rejection to get there.

Responding to an Edit Letter

Part of the process of getting published includes having an agent or editor request revisions. Sometimes you’ll even be asked to revise your proposal or manuscript before a contract is offered; you’ll almost always be expected to make revisions afterward.

These edit letters can feel daunting — you’ve already put a lot of work in and now they want more? More than that, they can feel threatening — like the editor thinks you suck. But part of being a professional is being able to accept feedback, criticism, and suggestions without taking it as a personal attack on your worth as an individual.

I understand that this is hard to do: I have received any number of edit letters that have made me seriously consider joining the Peace Corps, where at least they’d appreciate me. But I’m a professional, working in a highly competitive business, so here is how I respond, no matter what I think of the feedback:

Thank you so much for your suggestions. I can see that you have thought them through carefully and I’m sure they will be an enormous help in the revision process. I will consider your feedback carefully as I get to work and will let you know if I have any questions.

Then I shut the hell up for about three days. By that time, I have eaten enough chocolate and drunk enough tequila that I’m willing to entertain the idea that perhaps my agent/editor does have some worthy ideas for how I can improve my project.  Then I start making the requested changes.  I make them even if I don’t agree with them.  

It’s that last that many writers find impossible to do, and since they don’t agree with anything the agent/editor says, they respond to an edit letter with, “Nah, I don’t wanna.”  Which is not the response of a professional.  (Trust me on this.)

Once I have made the requested changes, I very often see that the agent/editor is right, or at least not wrong, and so there’s no problem.  I submit the revision and everyone is happy.  But sometimes, not as often as most writers would like to believe, the agent/editor is wrong.  But by having made the change, I can show that I tried, explain why it’s wrong, and then begin a discussion about what else could be done to fix the weakness the agent/editor sees.

This is how I show respect for my agent and the editors I work with, and it’s what I expect from my authors (who are all so wonderful that this post is absolutely not about any of them).   Graciously accepting agent/editor feedback on your work is basic professional behavior; don’t personalize it.  And for heaven’s sake, keep some Ghirardelli on hand for all such emergencies.