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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!

Establishing–and juggling!–multiple revenue streams

Multiple streams of income. You’ve probably heard that as a writer you should have them—but how? And why?

Simply put, having multiple streams of income means you earn money from various sources. A staff reporter has one source of income, her employer; a freelance writer may have ten or more, depending on how many clients she’s juggling at any given time.

Beyond that, though, and what I think is most important for freelancers, is the concept of having a variety of types of income. This makes intuitive sense to most people. If you have one spigot, and it gets turned off, you’re going to go thirsty. If you have ten, and one gets turned off, well, you still have nine to draw water from.

That’s the key to surviving the often-turbulent waters of freelancing. For many years, writers who wrote exclusively for consumer magazines did very well for themselves—and then the economy tanked, and print media was devastated, and those writers were left scrambling to regroup when assignments stopped coming. Going from 80 to 0 in a couple of months is like slamming into a brick wall. It takes a while to shake it off. Writers who weren’t so heavily invested in writing for consumer magazines had an easier time of navigating the new waters.

The problem—which I’m sure you can immediately see—is that you can get too scattered chasing all kinds of opportunities and end up with nothing much to show for your efforts. Everyone has a limited amount of resources (time, attention, energy, knowledge). If I’m trying to break into magazine writing, should I also be trying to break into book publishing and corporate writing at the same time?

Probably not. Although I now have many sources of income—book advances, book royalties, magazine writing, teaching, editing, coaching—I certainly didn’t start that way. I didn’t pursue all of the possibilities at the same time.

I started with books, mostly because I’d always wanted to write them. I focused on martial arts related topics (a subject matter I knew pretty well). Then I started to write for magazines: first, I wrote for magazines that published martial arts content, then I wrote articles with a martial arts slant for general consumer magazines. Then an opportunity arose for me to edit a martial arts magazine, so I branched into that. In the meantime, because I had become familiar with book publishing, and I had some editing skills and deep intimacy with the Chicago Manual of Style (from grad school days), I started doing copyediting and developmental editing for book publishers. Then came chances to teach writing and editing skills at various universities (as well as online courses I develop myself).

What’s effective about this approach is that I got pretty good at one skill (say, writing books). Then I branched out and got pretty good at another skill (say, writing magazine articles). Then I spent time mastering yet another skill (editing magazines). Each time, I was getting paid for mastering the skill, and I didn’t try to take on too many new skills at one time.

In practice, how does this work? Each year, I look at my income, creative, and personal goals. I look at the mix of work I have, consider what I would like to be doing, and make adjustments. If I have too much of one kind of work, I will tend to solicit another kind. For example, a few years ago I felt I was relying too heavily on magazine income, so I started doing more teaching. If one area is dead (nonfiction books is an area I’m not spending much time in now), then I concentrate my efforts elsewhere (right now I’m doing more editing).

How do you get started creating multiple streams of income? First, look at where the opportunities are. I recently got a question from a reader who wanted to know how to make a living writing short stories and poetry. If I had that secret, I would sell it for ten million dollars and go to the islands. There just aren’t many opportunities to make money selling short stories and poetry. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, but that work needs to be filed in the “personally fulfilling” category and not the “how I’m gonna pay this month’s rent” category.

The opportunities are going to be a little bit different for everyone, depending on what your skills are, what network of freelancers you’re linked into (they’re going to be one of your best sources of leads to new opportunities), and what you find interesting to do. In other words, you need to make logical connections. If you write articles about a certain subject matter, could you write a book? Could you give classes? Could you edit other people’s writing on the subject?

One of the best ways to get started is to expand your horizons with your current clients so you can get the skills, experience, and portfolio you need to work in another field. So, for example, if you write for a website, and you’d like to do more photography, it’s a fairly simple proposition to propose a photo-heavy piece to your editor. Now you have a solid credential to show to potential clients.

I know one writer who has turned his photography skills into a steady stream of business shooting other writers for book jackets and promotional material. He happened to make the connection between the facts that 1) he had good photography skills and 2) he knew lots of writers who needed photos for various PR-related purposes. It didn’t take him a huge investment of time, money, or effort to let these people know that he could help them solve a problem (how to get a flattering photo from someone who understood their needs).

What skills and relationships do you have that you can make connections between? For example, I’m a member of a nonfiction writers’ group that includes people wanting to write books. After I’d been a member of a while, it became clear that I knew more than most of the members about how to write book proposals because I’d written so many of them. I realized that many of the writers would happily sign up for a class on how to write a book proposal. So I connected with the group’s moderator/owner, got her blessing to develop the class, and have been offering it periodically for several years. It is one of my most lucrative streams of income, and I don’t have to do that much work to promote it. In fact, many members of the group actually promote the class for me. It fills a need, so I don’t have to do any arm-twisting to get people to see the value in it.

The key to developing multiple streams of income is to make those kinds of connections in your own career and life. What do your clients wish they had that they don’t? Who is the connector in your life—the person who knows everyone and what they’re up to? Does that person know that you’re looking for connections? Be open to new possibilities, but also let things evolve. I took my first stab at teaching an editing class about ten years ago, but it didn’t work out as I’d hoped and I ended up only teaching one class. A few years later, an opportunity to teach copyediting came around and I took it. Some years after that, an opportunity to teach developmental editing opened up and I had great success with it.

The lesson? Plant the seeds, cultivate them, make adjustments as you go along. We’re looking for a flower garden here, not a field of corn, so your seeds shouldn’t all look the same.