Polishing Your Opening Chapters

ACFW Advice, Friends of ACFW, tips

Are you headed to the ACFW conference or preparing to submit your proposal to an agent and editor? If so, you need to polish those first three chapters until they shine. The synopsis, marketing ideas, platform and bio are important, but the strength of your writing in those chapters is what makes the agent or editor keep reading and ask for more.

When I meet with aspiring authors at the conference for paid critiques I find they often have some common issues to address in their chapters. Here are a few suggestions that I hope will help you polish your writing:

  1. Tighten the writing and eliminate extra words. Be clear and concise. Use one strong, specific verb rather than one or two general verbs. Example: Rather than saying, she walked quickly across the room.  Say she strode across the room. This picks up the pace and keeps the story moving forward. Think of earning a quarter each time you cut out an unneeded word.
  2. Use active verbs rather than passive. Example: Rather than saying, “she was sitting,” use “She sat.” Rather than, “he was wiping,” use “He wiped.”
  3. Deepen the point of view by eliminating phrases like she thought, she wondered, she noticed, she saw, she heard. Just tell us what she sees. Sometimes you can use a question instead. Example: Instead of, He wondered if he should call his boss and ask for the day off. Just write what he thinks. Should he call his boss and ask for the day off?
  4. Use only one space after a period rather than two. I am often surprised how many authors still follow this old rule.
  5. Give each character their own paragraph with their dialogue and action. Go to a new paragraph when you move to the next character’s response, including their action and dialogue.
  6. Show your characters’ emotions by their actions and internal thought rather than naming the emotion. Don’t say she felt leery, she felt angry, she felt sad, etc. Show it by describing their body language, facial expression, internal thought (if they are the POV character) or actions.
  7. Write the scene in the order of how it happens. Don’t tell us how someone’s voice sounds before they speak. Don’t tell us what they are going to do before they do it. Sometimes authors summarize what is going to happen and then go into the dialogue and description of the action. This is redundant and slows the pace. You only need to say it once. Keep the story moving.
  8. Be careful of long sections of narrative and internal thought. This slows the pace. Keep your character active while he is speaking or thinking. Have him take a walk, visit a cafe, play a basketball game. No one likes a scene with just talking heads and no setting or something interesting going on.

Hope to see you in St. Louis! Learn more about Carrie Turansky and her books here.