Revising the First Page or Chapter
By Margo L. Dill (AKA Editor 911)
Post after post has been written on opening lines; award-winning children’s author Richard Peck does an entire workshop on them. Agents and editors preach at writing conferences and on their blogs that it’s important to catch the reader from the first word, and they reveal they often don’t give a manuscript more than a few lines before they make a decision on it. Readers are known to use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon to read the first few pages and decide whether or not to buy the book.
So, this means that yes, the first few sentences of your picture book or the first chapter of your novel really are that important.
I have just as much trouble with chapter one, the opening scene, or that first line as anybody. In my first published novel, Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg (middle-grade), I completely rewrote the opening chapter before submitting it to publishers for the third time. I revised the first chapter from my main character, Anna, receiving a baking lesson from her ma while soldiers walked by on the street to Anna, her siblings, and Ma running for the cave in the back of their yard while Yankee shells flew over them. After the change, I received a book contract.
My next novel coming out on March 18, a YA titled Caught Between Two Curses, went through so many first chapter revisions I lost count—mostly because my critique group and a slush pile read at a conference let me know that something just wasn’t right. Finally, I got the right combination of characterization, action, and plot, and I received a publishing contract from Rocking Horse Publishing.
The first words are important!
So how do you revise the same first words time and again and also know when you have it ready to go? Try these few tips:
- Ask beta readers or critique group members to read your first part and offer suggestions. What works for them? What doesn’t? Is there any place where they would have stopped reading if they didn’t know you personally? Are they confused or notice any awkward parts?
- Take the feedback and start a new file. Leave the chapter or beginning they read alone with the rest of your manuscript. Work on the first lines by themselves in a separate file, incorporating their suggestions and your gut feelings.
- If time permits, do this twice, starting the story two different ways in two different files. Then ask readers to read again and answer those same questions above. Hopefully this time, they won’t have much feedback except, “Great job!”
Why the separate document files?
This is just a mind game. If you write different versions in separate files, you don’t feel like you’re replacing everything you’ve already done, and you’re just trying something new. If you, your critique group, or beta readers like either of the new beginnings, then you just cut out the old and put in the new.
The crucial thing to remember is that the first lines are worth spending extra time on—it’s the window to the rest of your book. If readers aren’t willing to open that window farther, you’ve lost them, and that’s not something any writer wants to do.
Thank you Margo!
Margo L. Dill is a children’s author, speaker, freelance editor, and writing instructor living in St. Louis, MO. She owns her own editing business, Editor 911, where she works with writers to revise, edit, and proofread their manuscripts. She is the author of Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg (Oct. 2012, ages 9 to 12) and the soon-to-be released Caught Between Two Curses (March 2014, ages 14 and up). She teaches online novel writing courses through WOW! Women on Writing (http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/WOWclasses.html) .To find out more about Margo or to contact her, please go to http://margodill.com/blog/.
Caught Between Two Curses by Margo Dill will be out from Rocking Horse Publishing on March 18. This is a young adult novel that tells the story of 17-year-old Julie Nigelson who is caught between two curses--one put on her family years ago by a scorned lover and the other, the Curse of the Billy Goat on the Chicago Cubs. While Julie tries to figure out her own love life, she's racing against time to save her family from the curse once again.