Hello and welcome to the first of a series of articles on self-editing!
Writers often say, suspicion or gloom coloring their tone, that editors decide within minutes whether to accept or reject a submission. It’s true to some degree, in the same way that we have a limited amount of time to make a good first impression when meeting someone in real life. It used to be said that the first five minutes were make-or-break, then one minute, and now it’s thirty seconds. Wow. Life sure moves fast nowadays. So, yep, an author’s first chapter is vital.
But just as there are things we can do to increase our chances of making a good first impression when we meet someone – we all read those articles about the importance of smiling, listening, and making eye contact, right?! – you can do the same with the first few minutes of your story.
Editors, of course, vary, and I can only describe what I do when assessing a new submission. I open the manuscript, grope about for my knitting, and shout for someone to make me a cup of tea.
Okay, I’m lucky if anyone hears or does my bidding tea-wise, but, hey, worth a try. Then, knitting and tea in hand, I know if the story’s good if the tea goes un-drunk until it’s tepid and the knitting needles loll idly in the wool. Sometimes a book’s first sentences / paragraphs are so good that my rear plonks itself down in the chair again, knitting un-fetched.
(In case you’re wondering, C.F. White’s Responsible Adult One: Misdemeanor was one such read. It leapt from the page and slapped me in the face! Isla Dennes’ Sex, Spoons & Salsa was another. A total WT—? OM—! start.)
So what do (acquisitions) editors hope to find in that first chapter? Saying ‘well-written stories, please,’ is about as helpful as offering a Kleenex in a storm, right? What I want is a story that starts right away and drags me in and along with it. Why don’t I get it? Mainly because what a lot of writers do is use the first chapter to tell the POV character’s backstory and how she feels about her life.
A typical situation I see is the POV heroine in motion, in her apartment, say, or driving somewhere, lamenting her situation. She spends the first 2000 words telling us about it. It’s all in one place, on one note, and there’s little to no dialogue, let alone any interaction or story momentum.
It’s usually all passive telling. Don’t believe me? Do a ‘was’ / ‘were’ count and see how many are highlighted on the page. That’s the author telling the reader things about the heroine rather than showing the heroine doing them. Search for ‘ly’ and see how many adverbs are in there – that’s the author telling readers how the heroine’s doing something, rather than showing her doing it. Search for ‘thought’ / ‘realized’ / ‘understood’ and so on and see how much filtering lies between the heroine’s experience and the reader. Have a look at how much she’s talking to herself / her cat. Why can’t she interact with another person, instead?
So, take a gander at your first chapter and check if each page advances the story and how much variety you give readers. I see a lot of:
Heroine entering her condo, furious at having been fired.
Heroine pacing about condo, feeling this is the last straw as her relationship has also ended.
Heroine still pacing about condo, lamenting she’s wasted her life on her demanding but crappy job and unfulfilling relationship.
Heroine starts drinking in condo and getting maudlin about her poor upbringing or feelings of failure at having let her parents down.
Heroine flicks through photos in condo and introspects a little more about all or some of the above.
Heroine, now drunk and still in condo, decides to do something about the situation, such as take a different job or reconnect with old friends / old bf from HS.
And scene. And not much of a hook for chapter two… What could have been shown instead? The heroine getting fired; heroine breaking up with partner and later getting fired; the final straw that made her break up with partner, then her breaking up with partner and later getting fired… The possibilities are endless!
In the interests of show don’t tell, here’s a page test for the first chapter of For the Fireworks, the first in my Rent-a-Gentleman series:
P1. Xander is at his contemporary art gallery’s showcase evening, and trying to avoid an ex.
P2. Xander interacts with his staff and clients, a little tired of his casual-sex lifestyle.
P3. Xander is restless now the evening’s over and gets a message that the escort service app he runs has a new client.
P4. Xander is fascinated by this woman and her request for an escort for the entire weekend.
P5. Xander decides to be the gentleman she’s rented.
P6. Ella wakes up late and hungover after drinking a whole bottle of wine.
P7. Ella rushes to work, a prestigious law firm in London’s Square Mile.
P8. Ella’s co-worker reminds her she was given the day off. Ella goes shopping instead to get things for the weekend away that she’s dreading.
P9. Ella discovers she went on an escort app while tipsy and rented a gentleman for her weekend away!
P10. Ella drives to the meeting, intending to cancel the arrangement, but one look at Xander and she finds she can’t…
So—hopefully!— in those opening scenes, I introduced the protagonists and created empathy for them by showing what they lacked. And in the inciting incident—the meet-cute—I showed how they were what each other needed…one day, when they’ve earned it!
If you found this article helpful, or there’s anything arising from it you want to discuss, please comment below. And if there’s any further aspect of self-editing you’d like tips on, please say and I’ll get to work!
Have a great week.