Throughout my years as a published author, I’ve participated in various mentoring programs. This past weekend at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference. I was assigned to mentor three writers for a total of six hours. This being my first such experience at a conference, I wasn’t sure what to do. Guidelines would have been helpful, but I was out there on my own. So I started by asking my subjects how far along they were in the writing process and what they wanted to learn.
The eager writers were nearly done with their manuscripts and wanted to hear writing tips and how to submit their work, where to find agents, what to do in terms of author branding. So we talked about all of those topics. Then they gave me about 30 pages each of their work to read. It would have been helpful to have had those pages emailed to me before the conference, because after going all day from around 9 to 7 or so, I wanted to relax. But I diligently read through and critiqued their manuscripts that evening.
Each person wrote fantasy or science fiction so we had those elements in common. That was up my alley since I write sci fi and fantasy romance in addition to cozy mysteries. As for the basics of fiction writing, it doesn’t matter what genre you favor. The principles are the same.
When I read their work, I found the world building blocks to be solid. The problems they shared involved pacing in the first chapter.
Either I found too much backstory repetitively entwined through the current action, with snippets of dialogue from prior conversations running through the protagonist’s head in the middle of a fight scene, or prolonged chit chat between characters that could be shortened. In a couple of cases, I suggested moving up the beginning to the point where my interest really kicked in.
These are not uncommon problems. I’ve revised my own openings endless times, haven’t you? And nowadays, when on Amazon potential readers can sample your first chapter and determine on that basis if they’ll buy your book, these first few pages are critically important. This experience also shows why it’s good to work with critique partners who can view your opening from an objective perspective and tell you if it works or not. So here are the basic points I’d like to reiterate about first chapters:
- Start with action or dialogue. If you absolutely must begin with a description, make sure it is emotionally evocative from the main character’s viewpoint.
- Leave backstory for later or weave it in with dialogue. Or drop it in a line or two at a time in the character’s head if it relates to the action.
- Make sure all conversations serve a purpose.
- Remember to include emotional reactions during dialogue between characters.
- Make sure your characters are not talking about something they already know just so the reader can learn about it.
- Keep the story moving forward.
Are there any other points that you would add?