Margo Dill Guest Post - Petite ReviMo March, Day 2

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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 ( .To find out more about Margo or to contact her, please go to

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. 


Stacy S. Jensen said...

Really love the idea of a separate file. I need lots of mind games during revisions!

Kirsti Call said...

Thanks for the great post, Margo. Now I'm off to revise!!!

Teresa Robeson said...

Thanks for the kick in the pants, Margo! I really do need to spend more time on bettering my opening scenes. I leap into the middle and get carried away and often forget to make the beginning stronger.

Charlotte Dixon said...

Thank you, Margo, for the two separate files suggestion. Your encouragement is appreciated.

Margo L. Dill said...

Thanks, everybody. Glad I could provide something useful and helpful! :) Good luck with revision. It's a beast!

saputnam said...

Thanks for the great post, Margo. I do a version of this now, in that whenever I revise I make a new document and cut & paste the old one onto the new blank canvas and date it… then I add the old version to my folder for that particular story. Each of my stories, even the “vomit ones,” have a folder in my computer’s WIP folder.

One trick that I have learned over the years is that when I get a critique back I color code the suggestions and add them right into the manuscript, so when I’m ready to revise I have the parts that I need to work on front and center.

Joanne Roberts said...

Thanks for the reminder about openings. I'm not sure I've been spending enough time on them. I know what I'll be revising for the rest of the day. Many thanks!!

Cecilia Clark said...

Thank you Margo. A good beginning can make all the difference and I know I have some work to do there. :)

Lori Mozdzierz said...

Thanks, Margo, for the reminder to create openings that snag the reader hook, line, and sinker!

Vivian Kirkfield said...

What an awesome post, Margo! Thank you for this golden nugget - 'first lines are the window to the rest of your book' - I will make a banner of this and post it by my workplace because I found it quite powerful and want to remember it as I write and revise. :)

Patricia A. McGoldrick said...

So true about the first words! I like your suggestion to open a separate file for the work on revised words.

Lisa Willard said...

Margo, Thanks for sharing your ideas! First lines are such a challenge. I'm going to revise mine now.

Donna Essner said...

I struggle with my beginnings, too. When looking to buy a book, I use the 'Look Inside the Book' feature, as you mentioned. Thanks for sharing this, Margo!

Heather said...

Hi Meg! My name is Heather and I was wondering if you could answer a question about your blog! Please email me at Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com :-)

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