Self-Editing 101—13 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Opening Chapter

This is usually Ruth's week to post, but she's busy proofing galleys of her much-anticipated new novel The Chanel Caper. And next weekend, I'll be busy teaching THE TECH-SAVVY AUTHOR workshop. So we switched. On March 3rd, look for Ruth's post on why we like a tough, flinty heroine.

OK, let's talk editing. Editing our own work can be tedious. And painful. But it's essential. A paid editor can only do so much. We need to do most of the heavy lifting ourselves.

I've recently gone back to an old, multi-rejected project in hopes I can get my new publisher interested. Now that Boomer Lit is an up and coming genre, I'd love to get my comic Boomer novel, The Ashtrays of Avalon out there to readers.

Revisiting the old manuscripts (I had about 14 versions—tip: don't do this) I had to forget about being an artist and put on my editor's hat. It's always hard to block emotional ties to a work and imagine how a publisher might see the manuscript.

As usual, the opening chapter took the most work.

Introducing your reader to your characters and your fictional world may be the single trickiest job a novelist has. You have to present a lot of information at the same time you're enticing us to jump into the story. If you tell us too much, you’ll bore us, but if you tell us too little, you’ll confuse us.

An editor I respect a lot once told me to write my last chapter first and my first chapter last.

It sounded a little crazy, but I later realized what he meant is that it's a lot easier to get story momentum if you know where it's going—something I didn't do with this book—and your first chapter is going to need so much polishing that you shouldn't dwell on it when you're writing that first draft.

That's because when a writer is first diving into a novel, we’re not introducing the characters to a reader; we’re introducing them to ourselves.

All kinds of information about your protagonist will come up. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building in an ethnic neighborood of a city with a fascinating history. And her next door neighbor is a professional dominatrix. Or she feels a deep hatred for Justin Beiber. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part.

But be aware you’ll want to cut most of that information or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

It helps to remember this formula: first drafts are for the writer; revisions are for the reader.

Even if you’re not going the agent/publisher route, you need to keep your reader in mind. Self-publishers are judged, too, and reviewers and readers can be snarkier than any agent.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that should help in the revision process.

1) Do you have a Robinson Crusoe opening? That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character:

driving alone in a car/wagon/boat
musing while traveling on an airplane/bus/coach/spaceship
waking up and getting ready for the day
out on a morning jog
looking in the mirror

Especially looking in the mirror. It’s not wrong, but it’s seriously overdone. (Yes, I started my first novel this way. I think a lot of us do, especially if we're writing romance.)

The easiest way to show your MC to your reader is to show how he interacts with the world. Two or three other characters is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

2) Is your opener bogged down with physical description of the characters, especially of the police report variety? All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told height, weight or hair/eye color unless it illuminates character (see #3.) Let us know what kind of person he/she is and the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

Unusual characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable. But we don’t need to know the hair/eye thing unless the characteristic is important to the story—like Anne of Green Gables hating her hair and dying it green. (And can you believe the idiots who pictured her as a hot blonde in this new edition of the public domain book?)

3) Does your MC have a goal? Are you letting the reader know what it is? Characters need goals in each scene. But the protagonist needs one goal to rule them all—a compelling, over-arching objective for the whole book. He can’t be easily satisfied. He must need something very badly. This especially important for memoir writers: “I was born and then some stuff happened and I met some people and then I had a catastrophe but I pulled myself out of my misery and now I love life and God and multilevel marketing”—is not going to keep readers turning the pages.

A novel or memoir needs to be about one big thing, and the character has to have one big goal. Too many goals? You may have a series. Nothing wrong with that, but figure out what the goal is for this particular book.

4) Does your MC have strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene? We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: If the character is furious because his roommate keeps playing to As Long As You Love Me over and over—even if you’ve never heard of Justin Beiber you’ll identify with the anger, because everybody’s been angry.

5) Have you started with a POV character about to be killed? Or facing a challenge in a dream or videogame that turns out not to be real? If you get us intrigued and then say “never mind”, the reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted.

6) Do you introduce your MC as close to page one as possible? Don’t waste time on long weather reports or descriptions of the setting. Although that was a convention in classic novels, it feels like filler now. Modern readers want to jump into the story and get emotionally involved.

A line or two about the setting or atmospheric conditions will set the mood, but a modern reader doesn’t need the kind of long descriptions of exotic weather or far off lands that Victorians loved.  Even if we’ve never been there, we all know what London, or the Alps, or rain forests look like because we’ve seen them in films and on TV.

7) Does the chapter have the right tone and establish theme? You don't want to set up false expectations in your reader. If this is lighthearted chick lit, you don't want to start with a gruesome murder. You don't want chirpy dialogue at the beginning of your dark fantasy. If you're going to be dealing with a theme of climate change, drop in a few hints right away, like the penguins who just arrived on a Malibu beach. Or in psychological suspense, you can hint at the dark secrets of the hero's family with ominous noises coming from the basement or the locked door to the attic.

8) Does your MC come off as a Mary Sue? A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is the author’s idealized fantasy self—an ordinary person who always saves the day and is inexplicably the object of everyone’s affection. A Mary Sue will make your whole story phony, because a too-perfect character isn’t believable (and is seriously annoying.)

9) Do we know where we are?  If the MC is thinking or talking to someone—where is he? As I said, we don’t want a long description of the scenery or the weather, but let us know what planet we’re on.

10) Have you started with dialogue? Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say.

It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and that dominatrix next door—you’re all ears.

11) Have you kept backstory to a minimum in your opener? Backstory can be dribbled in later in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks—AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

12) Have you plunged into action before introducing the characters? The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care

Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear that dominatrix got hit bu a golf cart driven by a guy who looked like your boss, you want to know when, where,!

13) Is that prologue REALLY necessary?  

Sigh. I've got one in that novel I'm revising. Yup. I've got a dreaded prologue and I sent the book to my editor with it intact.

But the manuscript was also rejected more times than any sane person would want to admit. One of the biggest reasons agents gave? The prologue.

If you have a prologue and you want to go the agent route, it's best to rethink. If you're self-publishing, you can take your chances with your readers. If you're with a small press--well, my editor hasn't let me know if I can keep it yet.

Here are some reasons why agents hate prologues

People skip them.

The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a whole new set of characters. Annoy a reader at your peril.

When an agent or editor asks for the first chapter—or you have a preview of the book on Amazon—you’ve got a major dilemma.  Do you send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that poetic prologue?

Agents hates the prologueses, precious, yesss:

From former agent Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.”

From agent Jenny Bent:
“At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.”  

From agent Ginger Clark:
“Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

From agent Andrea Brown:
 “Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

From agent Laurie McLean:
 “Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even usually ultra-tactful publishing guru Nathan Bransford says:
 “A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.” 


I know you’re all wailing. But try removing the prologue. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

A prologue can sometimes be like a first draft—something for the writer, not the reader. Not the overture, but the tuning-up. Like a character sketch, a prologue usually belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

Go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building, but try to cut it in your final revision.

But I know. Sometimes you can't. I couldn't.

So what about you, scriveners? What do you want to read about a character first off? What makes you want to go on a journey with this character? What do you find difficult about introducing a character?

And the free tickets go to.... has spoken and the winners of two free tickets to the March 2nd TECH-SAVVY AUTHOR seminar I'm teaching with author Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter/radio star Dave Congalton and a host of other tech-savvy folks are:

1) Janice Konstantinidis

2) David Schwab

Congrats, Janice and David!

Places are still available. More info in the "Opportunity Alerts" below.

Opportunity Alerts: 

1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats.

2) $2000 Grand Prize. NO entry fee. Call for Entries—The Flying Elephants Short Story Prize, sponsored by "Ashes & Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. AndWeWereHungry, a new online literary magazine, seeks literary short stories for its debut issue fiction contest. THEME: "And We Were Hungry....," or "Hunger." For isn't it, to quote Ray Bradbury, hunger or "lack that gives us inspiration?"  Prize: One grand prize ($2000) + three finalists (each $1,000) + eight runner-ups. Deadline: March 31, 2013.

3) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

4) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo  NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

5) Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd. Students get in for half price.

6) FREE BOOK!!! FREE on Amazon Feburary 24-28. Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie  ROXANNA BRITTON, a biographical novel about a real pioneer of the American west. The author is Shirley S. Allen, author of the bestselling mystery Academic Body and retired professor of creative writing from the University of Connecticut. (Also Anne's mom.) It's a delicious page-turner and a slice of real history based on family records and stories. Roxanna Britton was Anne's great, great, grandmother. This book is now available in e-book with a lovely new cover! This your chance to read it free.

This week Anne is visiting Alex South at Alex South's blog, Ten Stories High.  for his "ten questions" interview.

And our blog has been nominated for "Most Useful Blog" in the Paying Forward Contest. You can vote for us--and your favorites in many categories at the above link. Thanks for the nomination, Misha!

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