How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?
After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.
If you’re like me, sometimes it’s tough to process feedback on your writing in an effective way. Doesn’t matter whether it’s your writers’ group, beta readers, reviewers, your agent, your editor–none of us humans are wired to welcome criticism.
I talk through my formula for taking in feedback and making it work for you so it’s actually nutritious and life giving, instead of something that drains you.
If you’ve got ways to feed off feedback, let me know!
And shout-out to my writer pal, Becky Moynihan, who’s awesome at embracing feedback, and whose second book birthday is upon us, ADAPTIVE! Check out her YA dystopian fantasy series here.
When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.
A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.
Questions you solve when writing the query:
When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.
Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.
The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.
You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?
Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?
Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.
I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.
Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.
If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.
Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC
I’ve read many amazing books this year! Find all the reviews at my Goodreads page.
Find even more at my guest post, “9 High Flavor Reads for Your Teen (and You)” at Jennifer Puryear’s Bacon on the Bookshelf blog.
There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.
The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.
No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).
I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”
Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.
Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.
Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.
Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.
Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.