Sometimes you set out to do a thing for one reason … only to find it was so much more than you ever imagined. More than you could have actually planned. In this case, I learned just how much value can be wrung out of focusing on the first chapter and how it relates to the rest of the plot.
Months ago I donated a First Pages package to a national writer’s group for their scholarship* auction. In a First Pages package I ask for a one-page synopsis (500 to 1000 words) and the first chapter, about 3000 to 5000 words. In this case, I told the sponsors I’d take 8000 words for this special deal. I also placed a slightly higher value on it than I would normally charge to cover anything unusual that might come up. When it was all over, the committee put the winning bidder and me together via email. We communicated about scheduling and then we got started.
As it turned out, I had quite a bit of email conversation with the author who bought the package. We went round and round for days. Some days I waited impatiently for her next email.
My author’s manuscript was romantic suspense, but the premise threw a third person into the mix, a character who kept trying to run away with the plotline. We tweaked the synopsis and took care of that. As we did so, the author began to realize the third character had been masking the fact that her two main characters weren’t very interesting (her words and assessment), so while we allowed the third character to step backward into the periphery where she belonged, we added details to the two main characters’ backstories to make them more compelling. We didn’t actually change much about the scene in which we’re introduced to them—a little dialogue, a few facial expressions—but now the motivation seemed much more clear.
I also was a little unexcited by the first paragraph—the oh-so-important opening paragraph—so I suggested some ways to make it more active, less passive, and to start revealing character early on. The author grokked my thoughts right away and the next time I looked at that opener, wow, it was great. We continued to discuss and tweak the synopsis too.
And then we were finished. The author herself decided she’d gotten what she needed from our interaction, and she cut me loose, although I invited her to keep in touch.
Thank you so much for all of the excellent advice to improve my manuscript. I really like all of your ideas about where and how I can increase the romantic tension between my two main characters, and I appreciate your point that I need to focus on [male character] and [female character], rather then let [that other character] steal the story. You really are amazing. Rather than just offer a critique, you actually took the time to figure out what I needed to do to make the story work—even though I didn’t know it myself! You can add psychologist, motivational coach, and mind reader to your résumé.
It made my day.
But here’s the thing—this was fun for me. :) Fun! I’d say I had three hours of actual time in those nineteen pages, including detailed notes over three passes. It helped that this author “got” what I was saying and was able to run with it. I feel great about the work we did.
The first pages of your novel set the tone; introduce your characters, milieu, and motivation; set the story in motion; and—we all hope—make the reader want to keep turning the pages. Take special care with those pages.
I’ve always loved to read and write and talk about what I’m reading to anyone who would listen, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I managed to stumble into the work I was meant to do, even if that stumbling around in the dark took the first half of my life. :) I’m here now, wide-eyed and loving every minute of it. Next!
* Scholarships would pay for registration at the national conference, where aspiring authors attend classes; meet agents, editors, and other authors; and just generally marinate in the writing business for a few days.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”