Tag Archives: Manuscript

“First-Pages” Problems

l_b706fe80-deaa-11e1-8e83-cf6193d00005If you’re consistently receiving feed back from literary agents saying something along the lines of, “Well, I really like the hook/idea but I’m not connecting to the writing, so I’m sorry but this is a pass,” then you have a “first-pages” problem. While the rejection could be a matter of taste from that agent, or a disconnect with the “voice” of your writing, it’s more than likely a common “first-pages” problem, and there are lots of those.

Here are the common problems of first pages I spot consistently:

  1. You started in the wrong place. You have to get to the inciting incident or the turning point in your character’s life that puts him/her on the main path of your plot fast, in the first chapter. If that turning point happens in chapter 3, start in chapter 3 instead. Your first two chapters are probably backstory, which leads me to #2.
  2. cb138b2a5c501e5398583db28fd16bef--writing-humor-writing-quotesYour first chapter mostly consists of backstory. You as a writer consider the backstory important because you’ve used it to frame your story or construct your character’s world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of your characters (that’s characterization), but backstory should be sprinkled throughout your entire book, never dumped on the reader. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: BEWARE the dreaded info dump of backstory. NEVER DO THAT. This is where you the writer find it necessary to reveal the minutia of your character’s lives to us that has NOTHING to do with advancing the plot. So, please never have your character in Chapter 1 just doing some mundane activity like riding a bike, washing dishes, etc., any activity where they are basically just sitting around thinking about stuff. Because the stuff they are usually thinking about is the backstory. GET TO THE ACTION.
  3. Nothing happens. No conflict. Plot has to be occurring. So whatever happens to your main character to motivate them to deal with the conflict around which your story is built, whatever this turning point in their life is that literally shifts them from their ho-hum existence to the tension-filled new “path of plot” the reader wants to spend their Saturday night devouring, it better happen in the first chapter. Do not leave characters idle. Do not write a scene, especially in the first chapter, that does not introduce or advance the story problem/plot. LISTEN THOUGH, I’m not saying you have to start with a gun battle. Start with a bang doesn’t literally mean that. Yes, action’s great, but I still like having a reason to care first. So some context is nice. There are ways to create some character depth without giving us their life story in an info dump.
  4. You used a prologue. (#’s 1-4 are almost alike. See a theme here!) This is akin to backstory. MOST AGENTS do not like them. Skip them. Start your plot MOVING from page one. No backstory. No boring situations. Prologues tend to be giant excuses to dump backstory on us.
  5. 7b63c3026e762392e6758e1dc8fcd60b--writer-quotes-writing-motivation-quotesBeware purple prose. Basically this is trying to make everything sound elaborate and ornate. That means adjectives and adverbs everywhere instead of proper showing. So if your sentence is: The ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE girl ran ADVERB through the ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE forest, her ADJECTIVE heart hammering ADVERB as the band of ADJECTIVE men dreamed ADJECTIVE … just no…
  6. You may lack a balance of dialog, narration and action.
    Every book consists:

    1. dialog: characters talking,
    2. action or beats: people doing things, and
    3. narration- commentary or what is told to us from a certain point of view. The POV is who is telling it, so 1st person vs 3rd person offer slightly different narrative perspectives.
    4. SO… If you say, have tons of dialog all in a row with no break to show us what your character is doing (action) or narration (to help us understand how they are feeling or their motivations), then it gets rather boring and feels unbalanced. You need to balance all three of these so there is a proper rhythm to the writing and you engender a proper feeling of engagement in the scene from the reader. We need all three to feel immersed. Try the “read aloud” test to see if you feel or hear this balance.
  7. You feature so much exposition to set the scene it’s too much. While you do have to create some atmosphere, don’t make that your focus. Balance again.become-a-writer
  8. You start with cliches,
    • Waking up,
    • Or worse you let us go through an entire chapter thinking something’s happening in reality and THEN they wake up. Proper fake out. YUCK.
    • A weird, purple-y prose or confusing (meant-to-be mysterious or uber-cool) opening sentence that comes off sounding you know just … nope. 
    • Talking about the weather.
    • Sexually explicit first sentences or worse add murder+sexually explicit.
    • A character checking themselves out in the mirror to describe themselves. (Yes, Divergent did this and it worked…. I know.)
    • Characters just hanging out thinking.
    • Character giving tours of their space/home/etc.
    • There are lots, please feel free to Google them. Yes, sometimes there are exceptions if done well, ahem, Divergent
  9. Your characters seem boring. Fictional characters are larger than life. That’s why we want to read about them. I don’t want to spend an entire novel reading about your aunt who is 60 and likes to watch House Hunters figuring out who killed the red hat lady. (I wouldn’t want to read about me trying to figure out who killed the red hat lady!) Now if your aunt is a 60-year-old southern lady in Texas that used to chain smoke, then quit and now pops tic tacs all day, and is mildly grumpy in the cutest of ways because of her lack of nicotine, while throwing out southern colloquialisms and constant one-liners and has the ability to make the local sheriff sound like an idiot at key moments and run circles around him to solve the murder of the local red hat lady, then I’m all ears.
  10. Your first chapter does not have it’s own arc. You need rising and falling action in the first chapter. Each chapter should be a mini arc.
  11. You have a weird opening. No first line of overtly sexual dialog, No My name is …, Once upon a time…, No purple prose first line, No nauseous or main characters vomiting (you won’t believe how many people think that watching your main character feel sick or get sick in the first paragraph is somehow relatable).
  12. Make your main character relatable and make me care about them— or if you feel you must have a sucky protagonist (not the best idea for a debut writer), make them immediately seem redeemable, at the very least. People don’t generally want to read about people they don’t like for 300 pages. But they do want to read about RELATABLE, LIKEABLE characters. BUT, Not only do I want to like them, they have to give me a reason to make me care what happens to them or those around them affected by the story problem.
  13. You have to give me stakes to care about. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. SHOW ME THOSE IN CHAPTER 1.
  14. In romance, the hero and heroine don’t meet for a few chapters. They need to meet in Chapter 1.
  15. You opened with a rape scene in christian fiction.
  16. Too much telling vs. showinggeorge-mcfly
  17. You mixed tenses and POV. You must remain consistent in your tense and only switch POV’s in different chapters or after section breaks if multiple POV. Keep tense the same though. Ex of mixed tenses) We wanted (past tense) to make it work, but she feels (present tense) like it’s not going to happen. So, she is moving (progressive present tense) out and I stayed (past tense) here. Doing this makes you look amateurish, and it warns of future problems later in the text.
  18. Be careful about trying to be mysterious in chapter 1, it can come off as confusing.
  19. Don’t tie things up so neatly at the end of chapter 1. You need to leave breadcrumbs at the end of every chapter to keep the reader engaged and ready to jump to the next page.
  20. Voice needs work. 

Please share in the comments any additional first-pages problems you’ve identified! Thanks!

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The long-haul truckers of editing: Magazine versus manuscript editors

Going from magazine editing to manuscript editing is like switching from the life of a commuter to the life of a long-haul trucker. Sure, commuting raises your blood pressure and sometimes you want to drive off an interstate river bridge, but after about two hours most people reach their destination without choosing to swim with the fishes. For manuscript writers, agents, and editors, everyday’s a lesson in patience and perseverance. They know that with time and effort, they will reach their final destination, but first there’s a lot of work involved to drive it to completion.

Magazines are by nature publications with quick turnarounds. They are stocked with a lot of short articles – some no longer than paragraph-long blurbs — and usually written by a multitude of authors. Magazine features are in the 1,000 to 3,000-word range — about the length of a chapter — so the writing arc and editing time is truncated. The line and copy editing and fact checking is a 3-pass job more often than not. (I’m talking small press and trade pubs. I don’t pretend to know about the big boys. My career took a “I just had twins” 8-year happy hiatus and I never made my way to one.)

Manuscripts, on the other hand, are innately personal and encompass many thousands of words. For instance, my sci-fi fantasy should shake out somewhere under 100,000 when I’m done editing down. These word counts are not only based on reader preference (middle grade less, adults more) and necessity (fantasy and sci-fi are often longer for sufficient world building) but eventual printing costs. (For a good guide to manuscript word count by genre, visit Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.)

Now, imagine trying to shorten a magazine article to fit a column so there’s room for a big photo or some fun headline art. You cut a sentence or two, or tighten phrasing easily without losing meaning. Now, take a debut sci-fi fantasy novelist like (ahem) me, for instance, who needs to cut 11,000 words just so an agent doesn’t toss it immediately because the printing costs on a work that long are just too risky for a first-timer. Cutting this without losing meaning requires hours of work. Days of work. Metaphorically speaking: Cruise control, missed turns, detours, tolls, sleep deprivation, pit stops and murder. After all, you’re supposed to kill your darlings. But don’t focus on that now. There’s snacking too — lots of it. A box of those pink coconut covered Twinkie things and Coke Zero. A lot of people say chocolate. Whatever you need to get you there.

But that’s not the half of it. Once you do secure an agent, there will be agent edits. And when you get that book deal, there will be MORE editors. MORE edits. Realistically, your book will not be the same one you sent to agents by the time it’s ink on paper. This isn’t a bad thing. The articles my writers sent me were never the same articles I printed either. It just took me far less time to get them their final copy in hand.

NOTE: “The Word Loss Diet” book has been an immeasurable tool for me. It taught me to use a brevity of words, so that the ones that do end up ink on paper, carry the most weight. Critique partners are great. Contests like #PitchWars open your eyes. Networking with other authors opens doors. 

Now. Break’s over. Get the keys back in the ignition and DRIVE.

 

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