Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Want to Avoid Things Editors & Agents Hate From the Very First Chapter?

Writing is tough, writing well is even tougher. And at the top of the tough list is writing, while you keep in mind things that might turn off an agent or perhaps an acquisition editor in that very first chapter. Things that could stop your hopes for that book dead in it's tracks.
Then you have to decide, while keeping these things in mind, if something is important enough to your story to go ahead and do it anyway, despite the added risk of rejection.


Reprint in large Print Ed

But what follows below is, in general, a list of ‘don’ts’ for when you’re trying to get past that first hurdle and have your work seriously considered by those who can give the green light to your project. Those things you might waytto know about before you decide to go ahead and do them anyway.

For starters if you're thinking about a prologue, you  might think about skipping it – in general agents hate them and usually they’re just a lazy way to give readers a whole lot of back story that could actually be handled better throughout the novel.  BUT, you may have an excellent reason for a Prologue that doesn't fit into these niches. If you do, have at it. Just remember that magical word "Prologue" may well send chill up the spine of the editor or agent reading it.

Okay, I think we all agree the first chapter has to move quickly and draw the reader in. In General avoid any discussion of the weather here, i.e. “it was a dark and stormy night’. Also avoid lengthy character descriptions such as, “her hair was a silken black, curly and dropped to well below her hips. The color was the perfect contrast to her crystalline, sky blue eyes, large in a heart-shaped face with flawless alabaster skin. Her clothes clung to every voluptuous curve, caressing a hip here, cupping a full breast there, lace accenting the d├ęcolletage of her designer dress.” Somebody's head will be spinning after reading all that, unless he or she has fallen asleep.  My advice? Drop it in in small bits and pieces throughout the story instead. Give a tease and a taste, don't bombard your reader. 

In general the opening ‘my name is____’ is a real turn-off. Rarely it works. If you have some compelling reason to do it, hey, it's your book, go ahead. But, be aware, it sends up red flags.

Don’t create a first chapter in which nothing happens. People wandering around, streets getting described, people eating breakfast.  Nothing is worse than just laying background for a first whole chapter. SOMETHING needs to HAPPEN! Physical, emotional - something!

As a general tip, don’t have a lot of adventure and action throughout the first chapter turn out to be a dream. As a reader I find it terribly annoying and there are lots of agents who’ll tell you they hate it too.

Give your heroes and heroines some flaws.  Don’t make them too perfect. Boring. Hey, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes. Odd Thomas in Dean Koontz's novels has plenty of problems.  They're just more interesting if they have flaws and find ways to overcome them as well as 'suffering' from them.

Don’t get yourself stuck in the ‘information dump’, the feeling that you need to cram in to the first few pages all the information you think the reader needs to know to understand the story. You’ve spent time getting to know your characters, do the reader the courtesy of allowing them to get to know them over time (the course of the book). Let their personalities evolve and be revealed. We don’t need a crash course - and besides, the end of the book is too late anyway.  I've probably stopped reading before then if I can't see the story and backstory unfolding as I go.  Same applies to agents and editors.

Mostly it's just common sense, but sharpening your attention to be focused in on it. Whatever bugs you as the reader will also bug the editor or potential agent. If you're overwhelmed by description, if you feel like you're being spoon-fed information and not discovering it on your own, if nothing is happening and the characters are just going round in circles, you don't want to go down that road as a writer yourself.

Now, all that said, sometimes you need to write with speed and go back and look for these flaws - they aren't always easy to avoid as you write.  That's why so many writers emphasize the rewrite stage as the most important.  You may want to do some of what I've brought to your attention  above. If you do, well, go ahead, I'm not the ultimate authority, no one is.  Sometimes you can make it work, but it is always a very difficult sell.


  1. Peggy,
    This is good advice.
    Thank you.

  2. You're welcome Marilyn. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Excellent advice indeed. I like your blog. Thanks for the invite.

  4. Thanks Nomar. Appreciate the comment and the compliment.


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