One of the things I’ve learnt since my publishing journey began, is that I’m not that great at first pages or back cover blurbs.
I’m lucky that I have a publisher who looked past my first chapter and read the whole story and thought it had enough potential to publish – something that many publishers wouldn’t have done. When I first wrote Frontier Incursion, I spent days, and possibly weeks, agonising over the first chapter – I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t really know how to fix it. There are probably more discarded beginnings of that chapter than just about anything else, sitting in my computer folders. Sometimes it was a prologue. Sometimes it was a brief blurb, and sometimes it was a whole chapter. Fortunately I had an editor who gave me tips and suggestions so that I eventually approached the whole thing differently. What that meant was lots of rewriting – and I mean lots. I think I rewrote the first chapter three times in its entirety, even after being accepted for publication.
I’ve learnt a number of things as a result:
Firstly, I often start things too slowly.
Secondly, I sometimes forget to develop my characters into living, breathing people who grab the reader immediately.
Thirdly, because I know what the whole story is, I sometimes forget that my readers won’t understand the significance of the little things in the first chapter.
The second book in the Frontier series (Frontier Resistance.)has just been published in digital form. Andrew at Hague Publishing made it available on Netgalley for ARC review prior to the official release date. An early reviewer pointed out that the first chapter wasn’t helpful if you hadn’t read the first book. I’m going to link to the review, even though I cringe a bit when I read it, (OK I cringe a lot), because it made us both take another look at the beginning, and then restructure it. I will be eternally grateful to that particular reviewer, because those comments were the stimulus behind a much better first chapter. It’s one of those moments when you realise that a one star review is advantageous – if you have time to think it through and make it better, and because I’m now approaching first chapters in a completely different way.
So, back to my points.
Firstly – Don’t start slowly. You need something to grab the reader, tug at their emotions and suck them into the story. Another reader recently sent me an email. She’d just read the first (revised) chapter of Resistance, and this is what she said: ‘With those opening pages! You sucked me in! My brain only just started thinking – no. This has to be a bad dream…’ That’s music to an author’s ears. After reading the revised portion at the launch a few days ago, I felt happier and happier with each word I read, and so, apparently, did the audience, judging by the comments.
Secondly – When I wrote Incursion, I was still confused about showing versus telling. I told too much and showed too little. If you’re wondering what I mean, then have a look at this link. It says it much more clearly than I can. Showing helps the reader connect with the character, stay interested and keep reading. Too much telling (it’s important that you balance it, which is a writing juggling act) bores the reader and leaves them an uninterested observer. As readers, we want to be swept up into the story, not sitting on the sidelines.
Thirdly – remember that the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen twenty-three chapters in, so if you don’t grab them at the beginning, they’re not going to keep reading.
Nowadays, I understand just how crucial those first words are. Are they interesting? Do they grab you? Can the reader see the character? Feel the character? Are they swept up? Or are they sitting on the sidelines?
All authors need test readers. Ask people to read it, but demand they tell you the truth, and don’t expect that they’ll always say things you like to hear. Tell your test readers to be blunt and say what they liked or didn’t like. And one more thing – sometimes friends don’t make the best test readers because they don’t like to hurt your feelings! (I can however, recommend test readers who are your children…!)