Sunday, February 24, 2013

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!


  1. Justin who? "As Long As You Love Me" is a song by the Backstreet Boys! Nooo...I'm so old.... ;p

    I never describe the character who's in the POV seat. What the MC looks like is immaterial to most readers, save a few key traits that affect the story. Lizzie Bennet's "fine eyes" attract Mr. Darcy, Scarlett O'Hara uses her arresting face and decorous demeanor to manipulate men, and Anne of Green Gables' hatred of her signature red hair and freckles gets her into trouble again and again. Other descriptors are just fluff.

    My biggest problem with introducing characters is that I tend to make them unlikeable--immature, selfish, naive--and I advertise all of their flaws on page one. Of course I intend to make them mature over the course of the story, but if readers don't like them on the first page they'll too often stop there.

  2. Great advice, especially about goals, backstory and prologues. It's SO important for protagonists to have a goal, even in memoir. It's so difficult to weave in the backstory without the info dump in the first chapter, and it's so tempting to put that backstory in a prologue. All of these tips apply to memoirs as well as fiction!

  3. Thanks for all the tips about first chapters. This is great, concise info, and I've bookmarked it. Thanks! :-)

  4. Thank you, Anne, definitely bookmarking this for when it's time to edit. I'm just going to forget about my first chapter, or more precisely, the first couple of pages, for now. I'll never finish the book if I keep dwelling on its beginning and everything that's wrong with it. There's a lot that's wrong with it.. Thank you for the great advice.

  5. A good checklist for that first chapter! No overdone details with mine. (Anywhere in the book!)
    Ironically, my publisher requested a prologue for my first book. The next two don't contain one though.

  6. Anne, Thanks for trading weeks with me! I'm buried in The Chanel Caper & just coming up for air. I recall an interview with Denis Lehane in which he said that he had written the beginning of Mystic River about 75 times. He had *that* much trouble getting it right.

    Beginnings are hard. First chapters are a bear. Even for writers like Denis Lehane.

    The solution: butt to chair, hands on keyboard but I also find it helps to go retro & print out that chapter, then hand-edit the old-fashioned way.

    Something else that helps me is reading it on a different screen: a phone, a tablet, a desktop, a laptop. Seeing your work in different fonts, different type sizes can really help, too.

  7. I have to say that I disagree with the part about description. I followed that advice for years because it's every writing book, and yet, lately all I'm doing is adding a lot more description because every critiquer commented it was missing in action. I think what happens is people believe description is boring or lacking in action -- and it actually only is if it's written that way. If it draws the reader into the story, it'll work.

  8. Tamara--You brought up a great point. Maybe I should have added a 14th question: "is your character somebody a reader wants to spend time with?" They don't have to be likable, exactly, but they have to be compelling. I had the same problem in the Best Revenge. Camilla was immature and I wanted the novel to show her coming of age process. But it's such a fine line between immature and irritating. I finally cut the whole first chapter of The Best Revenge from the original version.

    Meghan--You're so right. These are rules for any kind of narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction. It can be really tough for memoirists to get that story arc going from page one.

    Lexa--Glad it's useful!

    Sasha--I think we all tend to get bogged down in the first chapter before we get going. We try to make it perfect when we should be writing down whatever comes into our heads and edit later.

    Alex--Sometimes prologues ARE necessary. I guess your publisher thought so anyway. I hope mine does, too :-)

  9. Perfect timing. I'm editing my rough draft right now. Not this second- now, but you know what I mean. Prologues are my down fall, I love them, but yes...agents hate them. And I too am sick of characters analyzing themselves in mirrors, waking up from (fill in the blank), or not knowing where they are and the person next to them is their girlfriend, boyfriend/ wife/ love/ whatever. If the story is good enough, then you don't need clichés or layers of character description. Thank you for the advice; it has been dually noted.

  10. What a great compilation of advice. All of these are tips I've heard before, but seldom consolidated on one place. I will happily pass this article along.

  11. Ruth--You're right--reading in a slightly different way really helps, especially with line editing. I always catch mistakes in the blog when I preview it on this green background. I see stuff I didn't see in black and white, even though I looked it over a dozen times.

    Linda--It's interesting that your critique group likes long descriptions. It may be that they prefer literary writing. Whether the book-buying public will prefer it depends on your audience and genre. If you write thrillers or mysteries, my feeling is they won't. But if it's literary or women's fiction, it might be great. Most modern readers are drawn in by story, not description, because they want their emotions engaged. But if it's gorgeous, poetic writing, lovers of poetry and literary writing might be "drawn in."

    Christine--I'm glad this came at the right moment for you. I haven't run into the one with people waking up not knowing who they are, but I probably don't read enough contemporary books.

    Elia--Thanks for passing it along.

  12. A best-selling trad published author that I met for a crit at a writing conference, told me to put in a prologue when she read my scifi. Who should you listen to then, a successful author or the agents? I tend to go with what the author says, at least for now.

    The MS in question is in the starting stages of the subbing rounds. I'll give it some more time before I change it. There is so much contradictory info in the blogosphere.

  13. SUPERB compilation of suggestions that I loved reading. I agree completely with all your points and have tried to implement them in my books. You're created such a great learning environment.
    Thank you so much.

  14. What a great list. I try to do all that when I write a first chapter, but having it in one place is a big help. And I voted for your blog as Most Useful.

  15. Great post... I'll be referring back to this when I edit my opening chapter:)

  16. DG--I think the problem is that so many beginning writers misuse a prologue for info-dumping, so agents who read hundreds of queries a week have seen so many bad ones they dislike them all. But a seasoned writer can use a prologue for something besides a crutch. I sure hope my publisher thinks I fall in the latter category.

    Patricia--Thanks. It's great to know you find the blog helpful. :-)

    Phyllis--Thanks so much for your vote. When an author has written as many books as you have, it gets easier to know what the first chapter needs. It's all about the learning curve.

    tf--I hope it helps!

  17. Ha, to prologue or not to prologue, that is the question.

    I had one in this latest book I'm working on, took it out, put it back, took it out again. It was only one page, was in the villain's POV, and I thought it lent something to the story. But then, I just couldn't make up my mind. It's out now. But I might put it back.

    Funny too, in most of my books, I never reveal what the characters actually look like other than the color of their hair and the ambiguous "beautiful". To me, their picture is on the cover so why bother. I just had a reviewer say that she was disappointed that I never said what she looked like. Then, in another book, when I did say what she looked like, another reviewer was mad because I didn't allow her own idea. UGH!

    I still write what I want, because I still love to write, but I'll tell you what, you can't please everyone. And I'm not going to even try. I just want a good book, with a good plot, with no holes, and something that makes me cry. If I don't cry at some point in either writing or reading my own stuff, then I know it's no good.

    And you know, I am the biggest Robinson Crusoe opening writer ever. My characters are always musing about something.

    Another great post. Thanks.

  18. Hi Anne,
    Thank you for putting together 13 important tips to follow when writing any novel. Ah, 13 tips for the year 2013. Very appropriate. I also downloaded your mom's book and I shared your post and the book on Facebook.
    Thank you,

  19. This list is going straight onto a spread sheet. Love it.

  20. As always, Anne ... this is a great post to use as a tool to make our work better and stronger. Thanks :)

    I often think that most prologues are a yawn but if you must introduce something of that nature, why can't it just become the first chapter ... it could be where the story really begins and dovetales into how it ends. Just a thought.

  21. Anne-There's something to be said for paying homage to classics of your genre. Regencies have always started with the heroine looking in the mirror :-) As far as prologues, I think readers like them more than the average agent does. Agents don't like them because they're in a hurry and want to cut to the chase.

    Tracy--I love to have my numbers match. I started with 14, but I had to cut one :-) Is that a little obsessive? Probably.

    Leslie--I admire anybody who can put things into a spread sheet. I know, I'm sad...

    Fois--I tried and tried to make my prologue into a first chapter, but it didn't come out right. Sometimes you need one. But it's always good to try alternatives. If it comes out, you'll have to tell me if it works. It's a book about our generation :-)

  22. Great advice. I ran through all of the tips and mentally lined them up next to my first chapter of my current book. I think I avoided all of the pitfalls except back story. And I can think of several books I've read lately that have these problems in the first chapter. are so right, they can be annoying!

  23. As always, Anne, excellent advice! I've left a prologue in a couple of books, one got published (traditionally here in Italy - back in 2007!) and the other was accepted by my agent back in the days when I had one (in the 1990s) but the ms never got sold!

    I totally agree with most agents that prologues aren't needed. Except that sometimes they are...but very, very rarely. My one prologue that was left standing and published was different in form: it asked a question then stopped... and the answer came only from reading the whole book, so that after the last chapter, the end of the prologue was given and served as a closing chapter... If all that sounds complicated, it really isn't, it had to do with a story where the main character falls out of time before returning to the present, and of course the prologue was set in the present...

    Hum, I don't know whether I'm clear. What I'm trying to say is that a prologue might work if it plays with time (present - past (the whole book) - present (i.e. epilogue)...

  24. Thank you so much for this post, Anne! I'm terrible at opening chapters, so I'm hoping this might help me out a bit!

  25. Great post, Anne. And perfect timing for me as I rewrite an older manuscript.

    As to openings, I am one of those readers who does like a little more description of the character and am totally in awe of those authors who can do it with a few swift lightning strokes.

  26. Christine--Definitely the pros break these rules all the time. I think JK Rowling broke every one in the opener of The Casual Vacancy. When you're famous, you get away with a lot. :-)

    Claude--My prologue is like that too. Prologue is in the present, then the story goes back to the past and progresses until the time of the prologue. Tough to make that work in a first chapter.

    Charley--I hope it helps!

    Alicia--Have fun with the revisions! Some genres have a convention of describing the MC in detail. The traditional romance does. But if you use description in a modern romance, it's best to do it in those quick, broad strokes.

  27. Great post all around. So much good information and so many good links. Thanks especially for the free book. I just downloaded it. Now all I need is time to read!

  28. Hi Anne,

    This is a great post as usual. I have nominated your blog for the very inspiring blogger award:

  29. Excellent post! Those are definitely landmines any author steps in when writing a beginning.

    Thanks for the useful links too. :-)

  30. As I was reaading your point on prologues being useless, I immediately thought of Eragon. That book would have been so much better without that intro and you would have lost literally nothing from the story. Everything in that darn prologue is revisited in great detail in the main text. I am removing the prologue from one of my books immediately!

  31. You ask a lot of good questions. In the end though, does all of this writing advice really matter?

  32. Rosi--I'm so glad you downloaded Sherwood Ltd. We all need more time to read, don't we?

    Misha--It is something of a minefield. That's why it's better to write whatever comes into your head first and worry about revising afterward.

    CBane--A book sure is easier to market without a prologue, so if you could eliminate it--great. I forgot to mention that in these days of "peek inside" readers often will only get to see the prologue when they're contemplating a buy. If it doesn't present the real meat of the story, they may pass.

    Michael--I call these "guidelines" rather than "rules." They're only important if you want readers. If you're writing only for yourself, none of this matters. And there are always geniuses who can break all the rules and still come up with compelling narrative. But they usually know the rules before they break them. And counting on being considered a genius isn't always the best career plan.

  33. Fantastic advice. I've been revising the beginning of my WIP today. So helpful! Thank you.

  34. This is great advice, but I think I violated a few rules with the prologue in my debut.

    In reverse order:

    #13 It was definitely necessary because it set up the entire premise of the book.

    #10 It opens up with a short phone call as the MC is talking to her uncle about getting an extension on her juice payments.

    With all the other rules, it's pretty much "no" to the questions that require a "no" and "yes" to the ones that require a "yes".

  35. Christine--Glad my timing was good!

    G B.--As I said, sometimes you gotta break the rules. Then you gotta realize some people aren't going to be pleased. But you can't please all of the people all of the time...

  36. I'm new to your blog, but this was such a great post that I just joined it.

    Prologue. Ugh! I'm struggling with mine. I love it and yet I know that agents hate them. But my beta readers love it. I'm on a prologue teeter-totter at the moment.

  37. One technique I'm using in my current project is to write a character sketch for important characters (at least for now) in which they tell their stories in first person. These stories are more candid than the characters would be in normal conversation but the writing is very conversational in tone. I'm finding I can incorporate all the little character traits that have been swirling around in my head and I can identify areas where I haven't fully worked out connections, timing, facts, etc. I don't intend to use these sketches verbatim in the novel but they allow me, as narrator, to get to know these people and I'm finding it helps me in identifying and writing scenes. Those little anecdotes are already in my head and I can grasp them more readily.

  38. Joanna--Welcome! We need to listen to beta readers up to a certain point. Often they don't know the industry, so they don't know what's going to be a handicap in marketing your book to trad publishers. If we're pitching to agents, we need to listen to agents. If we're self-pubbing, then beta readers can have more weight. It's dumb, but it's the truth of the industry.

    Keith--Great tip. What I'm saying here is that most authors' first chapters are like a character study. The best thing, if you have the patience, is to write actual character studies before you start to write the book. Sounds like you're doing that and it's working for you.

  39. Hi Anne. I'm popping in via the link on Misha's blog.
    Such an informative post. Concise information too.
    Thanks for sharing.

  40. Fantastic advice. I remember loving Robinson Crusoe, but then we were trained to have more patience and spend time in polite conversation with characters before asking them to begin their story back then.

    I'm one of those who always skips the prologue. I figure if it's that important it'll be in the story. Also, I haven't read any of the story yet, so I don't know if I want to read 'extra'. If I love a story, I do enjoy a good epilogue though.

    Thanks for such an in-depth look at revising the first chapter - very helpful!

  41. Charmaine--I actually liked Robinson Crusoe too. My parents had a library full of classics and I read through it without much discrimination. But like you, I learned from the classics not to pay too much attention to the opener--especially if it was a prologue. I'd skim until I got to the story. Then I'd check back to see if there was anything I needed to know. But as you say, we don't have time to read like that any more. All that weather reporting and throat-clearing that the Victorians loved just annoy most readers today. Glad you found the post helpful.

  42. I actually don't mind a lot of backstory early on, as long as it's delivered in an interesting manner (scattered throughout the chapter, rather than one large info-dump). But I realize I might be an anomaly in that regard.

    As for prologues, I've never had a problem with them. And, yes, my manuscript does have one. :) I'm not entirely sure if it's necessary -- it takes place in the past and from a different point of view. But it gets tied in later on and, in my opinion, lends a bit of emotional tension to the story (both in the prologue and later when it's tied together). Since I’m planning to self-publish, I don't feel the need to cater to an agent/publisher. As for readers, well, you can't please them all, so I'm writing to please myself. Though, if my editor tells me it adds nothing to the story, I will consider cutting it.

    Anyway, a very helpful post on creating a compelling first chapter that gives me a lot to consider. Thank you.

  43. Sarah--Like all writing rules, these can all be broken if your writing is spectacular enough. You can find geniuses breaking them all over the literary cannon.

    I'm not happy with the "now that we can self-publish, we don't have to follow any stinking rules" movement because it has created a lot of crappy books. Generally, it's best to learn to follow the rules first before you break them.

    That's not saying your prologue sends your work into the crappy book category. It may be breathtaking. And people will forgive a lot if you've got a compelling story.

    But if your editor advises against something, and you generally trust the editor's taste, I'd pay attention.

  44. But even geniuses have to learn to spell. That was supposed to be "literary canon" not the cannon you shoot people out of :-)


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