There are many things publishing professionals look for in your first pages and chapter: voice, storytelling personality, if the story starts in the right place, showing vs. telling, grammar, grasp of the English language, and more.
As a freelance developmental editor and former literary agent, I usually knew after the first few pages or chapter if the manuscript was ready or not.
How is that possible without reading the entire manuscript?
As many of you know, most writers edit the first chapter about a thousand times more than the rest of the book. That’s for two reasons—the first, is because it’s when readers will decide whether or not they want to keep reading your book; and the second is simply because those are the chapters literary agents will look at in a submission. For both the reader and agent, it’s a make-or-break moment to decide whether or not this story is worth reading.
Therefore, if the writer’s first chapter (the chapter that’s supposed to be the cleanest/most thoroughly edited) has some obvious holes in it, it then suggests these concerns (such as info-dumping) carry throughout the whole manuscript.
Let’s start with the one I see most often.
1. Nothing happens in the first chapter.
These are the chapters where the character is walking around in her room, staring at the landscape, sitting on top of a hill, reminiscing at a coffee shop with a friend—you get the idea. It’s the chapter created to serve a single purpose: provide the reader with background information and show the character in her usual habitat. While it’s important we (briefly) see the protagonist in her homeland, we don’t want to watch her waking up, getting ready, having breakfast with her family, and heading off to school. Instead, start at school when a werewolf runs across the playground, attacking students.
This issue hints at larger ones. Perhaps a writer doesn’t know how to skillfully weave background information in such a way that the reader isn’t aware it’s happening. It also could mean the writer needs to restructure his/her whole manuscript in order to make it a page-turner.
2. The opening pages are mostly info-dumping.
The first red flag ties neatly into the second in that the first chapter lacks scene (so, nothing happens in the first chapter) and the pages are all about the background story of the world or character. Or, maybe there is a scene, but it’s so heavily weighted down by info-dumping, it gets lost.
The term “info-dumping” refers to paragraphs or sections of text when an author (rather unceremoniously) plunks a whole lot of background information about the world, character, setting, etc. before, after, or in the middle of a scene—slowing down the pace of the story… and making the story less fun to read.
The Oxford Dictionary defines info dump as: “A very large amount of information supplied all at once, especially as background information in a narrative.”
Many stories begin with: the character recalling his/her past life, recounting events leading up to a war or a time of change, reminiscing better days (such as when his/her family was happier), etc. However, your story should start with a scene—and one in which we get to know your character (and want to follow him/her for the rest of the book). The scene doesn’t have to be in medias res, but it does need to be gripping and suck a reader in.
In addition, it’s important to note that info-dumping isn’t strictly exposition. It can happen in the dialogue, too.
While we as authors do need to ensure the plot is moving forward, you want to be careful not to insert your authorly hand into the story. When you are editing, consider carefully if your character’s dialogue sounds natural and is something a middle school student, teenager, adult, etc. would say in real life.
3. The background/world-building information is abrupt and pulls the reader from the scene.
This is when the info dumps happen mid-scene.
Some writers have interesting first chapters with an engaging scene and setting, but they break up the scene with too much background information. For example, the characters are in the middle of arguing and all of a sudden two paragraphs of background information are unceremoniously dropped into the flames, snuffing out the fire. By the time, we get back to the argument, the reader may feel distanced from the action… and no longer feels invested in what the characters fought about. (Again, this leans toward issue #2 of too much info-dumping.)
4. The entire chapter does very little showing (and mostly telling).
This is the chapter that tells you how your character is feeling, if it’s cold outside, if a protagonist doesn’t get along with another character, etc. The reader isn’t allowed to experience this information through context clues (such as your characters wearing heavy jackets to indicate a cold climate).
To dive deeper into this topic and avoid telling (vs. showing) in your pages, check out my article, Mastering Showing vs. Telling.
5. The protagonist is two-dimensional or unlikeable… or both.
The more writers I work with, the more I’ve been noticing some trends. The first is that most new writers struggle with making their protagonist (and cast of characters) three-dimensional—which makes complete sense given that this is a new genre they are writing in and they are still learning how to write well.
The second trend surprised me, however. Many, many writers will portray their protagonists as flippant—sarcastic, self-assured individuals who care little for the opinions and expectations of the world. And who also kind of resent the world.
I don’t know if it’s because most of these people happened to read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE right before they started writing their first novel or if it’s because they think that’s what readers (particularly YA readers) want to read and the characters they relate to. Usually these characters come off as unlikeable (and just plain mean). So much so, that I (as a reader) don’t want to follow them through an entire story. It’s a fine line between bringing out a character’s personality (even if their personality is unlikeable) and making them relatable.
It’s also important to note here: writers should be reading. A lot. And not just the “classics.” Make sure you are reading books published in the last year, two years, or even five years. Books have grown and changed as a genre over the years and continue to become more engaging. (Or, at least I think so anyway.) As such, the style of writing today is distinctly different than the books written 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
But my point here is: write for the modern reader. That’s who will be picking up your book (not readers from 30 years ago).
6. The storytelling style is too sweet and/or lacks realistic human responses to (unfortunate) situations.
This is the exact opposite of issue #6.
We all know that in order for there to be a story, something crappy has to happen to the protagonist to prevent him/her from getting what he/she desires and what eventually spurs the plot into action. I’ve noticed that new author’s protagonists tend to be too understanding or forgiving (unrealistically so) when something terrible happens to them (such as befriending their parent’s murderer, who happens to be a handsome/beautiful peer) or they are too timid/sweet in the pages. The result of which is the protagonists come off as lacking voice, being difficult to relate to, or being unrealistic. If you can’t relate to or sympathize with the protagonist, the reader is likely to put the book down.
7. The protagonist lacks voice OR the different POVs lack distinct voices.
For those of you who don’t know, POV stands for point-of-view, which is simply the person who’s narrating the chapter.
Many new authors (particularly fantasy authors) who write stories from multiple characters’ perspectives throughout the book often struggle with differentiating each character’s distinct voice. This usually is a result of not knowing each character’s desires and goals. Think about it: every person in the world has something he/she wants (to get married, travel the world, become a teacher, publish a book, etc.). So do characters. It’s important to get to know your characters, and perhaps even before beginning the book. Don’t just get to know their physical appearance and tendencies, but dive deeper into their minds to learn what makes them tick and what they will do anything to achieve or get.
Even if the characters aren’t a POV in the story, it’s important to flesh out their desires, goals, and personalities (not just your protagonist’s). If your book is written entirely from a single POV (usually in first-person), you’ll want to bring out your character’s personality (and voice) in the way your tell the story, depicting his/her goals and how he/she sees the world. But it’s important that the characters the protagonist interacts with feel three-dimensional as well. This helps to prevent them from becoming archetypes.
8. The pages are littered with factual inaccuracies.
As a person who loves reading historical fiction and an editor who specializes in it, I have worked with a number of HF authors whose stories aren’t entirely accurate (historically-speaking). And, since I used to write (and research) nonfiction historical articles, I get pretty jazzed about this topic.
Here are a few quick things to note while you are researching:
- Find reputable sources when you are researching. Wikipedia doesn’t count.
- Ideally, sources should be as close to first-hand accounts as you can get. For example, if a historian wrote a book about a topic and he/she references the sources he/she used when writing the book, go check out those sources! This historian is not a first-hand account. The farther away you get from the original source, the more watered-down the information gets.
- Don’t trust everything you find online. There are many fake news websites or websites that pretend to be an institution of sorts.
- Utilize libraries and other standardized institutions when you are first doing some digging.
- Remember that history is written by conquerors—not the conquered. Try to find sources from both of the opposing sides, if you can.
9. The story lacks plot.
Sometimes new writers dive into the story of their heart, enjoying creating the characters and world. Only, by the end of the story, nothing happens and their aren’t ultimate stakes for the protagonist/world. For example, maybe the protagonist lives on a horse farm over the summer but misses her friends from school/back home… and that’s it. There’s no one jeopardizing the state of the farm, threatening to buy the property, or anything like that. While antagonists can be self, there needs to be plot/something at stake throughout the story.
10. The chapters are too long or short and/or don’t end in the right place.
Going back to our earlier point of writing for the modern-day reader, chapters shouldn’t be overly long. YA, for example, tends to fall comfortably around 10-15 pages per chapter. Therefore, when a writer of YA fiction writes chapters 30 pages long, that’s usually a red flag, indicating the chapters and story need restructuring.
In addition, you never want to end your chapter in a place that leaves the reader satisfied. To keep readers reading (and for your book to be a page-turner), end the chapter with a question, on a cliff-hanger, introducing a new problem, with the protagonist’s life being threatened, etc.—anything to keep the reader saying: “Just one more chapter.”