Five Ways to Destroy Your First Chapter (and Turn off an Agent)
There are many ways to turn off an agent (and many ways to turn on one—hello, two-martini lunches, six-figure advances, and fruit-of-the-month club!) so why should writers hinder themselves in any way? My goal in writing this is to be candid and to share the biggest and most common “first chapter” writing mistakes I’ve seen as an editor, both at large publishing houses and in a freelance capacity.
Oy vey, the prologue! I’m here to be honest. Just like Abraham Lincoln. In fact, the kids in my son’s third-grade class recently asked me if I was taller than Honest Abe. As a five-feet-ten inch woman, I took this as a compliment. But I digress.
Hear me now: a prologue is simply a dumping ground for material that can be placed more naturally and with more flair within the actual story. Usually, an author creates a prologue when he or she thinks, “Now where am I going to put that significant information that I need to tell the reader?” First, don’t tell, show (more on that later). Second, weave the material into the meat of the story and make the first chapter stronger and more significant. Then no prologue is needed.
But wait! Not so fast—you can pluck your perky prologue from the trash if you’re effectively introducing an antagonist (perhaps the killer’s POV, mystery writers?) or if you’re setting the stage for a piece of historical fiction and the reader is unfamiliar with the period. Or if you’re churning out sci-fi, you might want to arm the reader with information about this new world. Simply make sure that the prologue is valuable and the material cannot be placed more effectively elsewhere in the story. Otherwise, your reader will skip it, bottom line.
2. Too Much Character Description
She had [adjective] hair the color of [nouns] and [nouns]. Her [adjective],[adjective] lips were the perfect [noun] for her [adjective] face. Her [adjective] [noun] with the [adjective] [noun] was [adjective], [adjective], and *faints* [adjective].
It’s as if someone played Mad Libs.
Don’t give over-the-top character descriptions on page one. Save it, space it out, get to the meat of the story. Throw in some action, some dialogue, and just touch on description. You can mention your character’s long, blonde hair as it gets caught in a wind turbine (did I tell you I’m a bit morbid?) but don’t just list it out in a bland description. We don’t need you to “tell” us everything, which brings me to my next topic…
3. Tell vs Show
She was from Texas, flirty, and gregarious is “telling” about your heroine. Instead, “show” the Texan woman using engaging dialogue, which illustrates her gregarious nature.
“What’s up, cowboy?” she asked. “Apart from sexy, what do you do for a living?”
Then there’s no need to tell the reader about her personality. Easy peasy, and so much more engaging and effective! Attract the reader’s emotions by showing.
4. Overkill on the Backstory
Jason’s father was a spy in the CIA just like his son. When Jason’s father had been alive, he and Jason had worked many missions together, karate-chopping side by side, writing with invisible ink, and trying out different aliases. On their most infamous job, they’d busted a coke dealer in Paraguay who also sold fake Gucci handbags in Chinatown, but that was after Jason’s mom had died and his cousin, David, had gone to prison for tax evasion and counterfeiting scratch-off tickets.
Whew, okay, we get it. Waaaaaay too much information, right? Right.
It’s a natural tendency to want to purge everything about your character’s backstory at the very beginning, but it slows the pace and excitement exponentially. Jump into the action, the scene, without being weighed down by backstory. Instead, sprinkle the backstory about in the remainder of the book, leaving the reader with nuggets to discover down the line.
5. Starting at a Snail’s Pace
“She stared out the window and thought about the past few days.”
Nooooooooo! Don’t do it. Nothing is more frustrating than a character who is doing virtually nothing besides “thinking” or “reminiscing” while folding laundry or getting a cup of tea. Or did you begin by describing the landscape for the first two pages? Let’s get the story going.
Begin with trouble, a conflict, action, or dialogue. You don’t need to create a fake “hook” line, but at least make sure that something happens! Write your chapter as “active.”
So in the end, start strong instead of tacking on a prologue, dive into the action and/or dialogue, don’t over describe characters or backstory, and show versus tell. It’s very important to catch an agent’s eye (or at least not annoy or bore them) from the first page and chapter, so try and keep in mind these five points. It might just be the difference between a full manuscript request and a “thanks, but no thanks” stock response.
Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com.