1st Chapter Tips from a Literary Agent Panel

Back in February, I attended the Minnesota Writing Workshop in St. Paul. One of the presentations was a panel of agents and editors reading the beginning of manuscripts and commenting what they liked and didn’t like. As I listened in, I picked up 5 tips for writing the first chapter.

1. It Shouldn’t Be Boring

Okay, I think we all know our first chapters shouldn’t be boring, but writing an engaging first chapter is hard. I think the biggest mistake writers make is trying to reveal everything in the opener, resulting in too many details of setting, too much backstory and exposition (“info-dumping”), too much inner monologue, too much dialogue without context, etc.

Basically, we’re lacking a proactive character who is doing something interesting.

When a writer is spending too much info-dumping, they’re giving very little attention to the protagonist and what the protagonist is doing in the present. Readers need a reason to care about the main character to keep reading, and proactive characters will give the reader a reason to care. While world-building is important, your character should be doing something interesting from the start.

2. It Should Be Consistent in Tone

During the panel, there was one submission that had a strong opening line. It was something like, “The place reeked of death.”

Right away, the line gave the story a dark tone, and agents were intrigued. The story then continued on about middle school children checking out a creepy cave. The dark tone vanished, instead replaced with a cutesy tone. One agent explained she would stop reading because she felt cheated because of how the dark tone changed.

There should be consistency in tone throughout your whole novel, but the place where the tone is inconsistent is in the first chapter. This problem occurs because writers aren’t sure how to grab the reader, so writers will use a different tone to lure the reader in.

Keep your tone consistent. I’m sure you don’t want agents to feel cheated and send you that rejection letter.

3. It Should Start at the Right Place

One submission started with the main character doing her morning routine in the kitchen. She wasn’t doing much but drinking coffee and eating breakfast, so the agents got bored.

As the panel discussed the first page, one agent continued to skim down and found the line, “I heard the gunshot. He finally committed suicide in the garage.” The panel then discussed how that was so much more interesting and suggested the opening started there.

Finding the right place to start your story is definitely a challenge. Start too early and you might bore your readers. Start too late and you might leave the reader confused. You might not figure out where to start until you’re working on your tenth revision, but it’s something you definitely need to figure out before querying agents.

4. It Should Be Marketable

Agents gave more criticism than praise, and there was one submission that received a lot of criticism. I felt really bad for the writer. The first page opened up with a lot of telling, mostly about details of the gods and goddesses of a particular mythology. The agents got bored after a few paragraphs in.

One editor said based on the portrayals of the gods and goddesses there was no way she could sell this book. Ouch.

But that’s how the publishing world works. Publishers need  to sell books in order to stay in business. There are so many published books about mythologies that a manuscript would really have to stand out in order to get an agent’s attention. If you’re writing a story in a genre that is already saturated in the market or if your book won’t attract a big enough audience, then it’s very, very likely publishers aren’t going to publish your book. It’s not fair, but business isn’t based on fairness.

5. It Should Stay Focused

One submission started with a teenager discovering she has super powers. I was intrigued. So were the agents. Then the story dove in to a long monologue about the MC’s guidance counselor, and after that went into a flashback.

Uhhhhh… What?

Agents said they were confused to why the story had changed and they wanted to read more about the protagonist discovering her powers, not the guidance counselor and the flashback. Jumping around too much in the first chapter will make the readers want to put down your book. The solution here is to avoid jumping around in the opener.

My Synesthesia: What Is It and How It Affects My Editing and Writing

color-pencils

Back when I was an intern at Ice Cube Press, I sometimes attended events and classes with my boss. A few years ago, Steve was teaching a writing course every Monday night in another city an hour away. I came along for one class. During the drive back home, I revealed to him that I was a synesthete.

“I have a condition called synesthesia,” I said. “It causes me to see colors in words and numbers.”

“What?” Steve said.

“I see colors in words and numbers. Okay, I guess I don’t really see colors. More like I perceive them. A text could be in black, and I know it’s in black, but I’ll still see the words in different colors.”

We were on the interstate. He drove past a green exit sign, the letters printed in white. He gestured to it.

“What color do you see?” he asked.

“Yellow,” I replied. Yes, I knew the word “exit” was in white, but it was still yellow to me.

His eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yep.”

We soon drove past by another exit sign.

“What color is that?” he asked.

“It’s still yellow,” I said.

During the rest of the car ride home, he asked me what colors were on every sign we passed . He even asked me what colors were in an upcoming book title (pink, pink, more pink, and yellow). Despite being completely baffled, he believed me when I told him synesthesia is a real thing. Or at least he told me he believed me. He probably thought I was nuts.

What is Synesthesia? 
Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another sense. Basically, my brain is cross-wired.

There are several types of synesthesia. Some people see colors when they hear music. For others, they experience certain tastes when they hear certain words. I have the most common form called grapheme-color synesthesia. I perceive letters and numbers in certain colors. The text can be printed in black, green, gold, whatever, but my brain will change the colors. This is what I see:

colors
How I perceive letters and numbers. (For I, O, and 0 I don’t perceive them with outlines. They’re supposed to be white. I just outlined them so you can see them.)

When it comes to words, I associate them with the color of the first letter, though the other colors from the other letters are still there, just faded. The first letter is very strong, completely dominate. The word “book” is a yellow word, though the O’s white and the K’s purple are still there, just lightly. Pencil is a green word. So is the word dog.

Subconsciously, I’ve always known I had synesthesia. When I was in elementary school I was always afraid to color in words because I knew my colors would be “weird” and I was worried my classmates would tease me.

College was when I discovered synesthesia is an actual condition. It started on the last day of my HR class. My professor was discussing underdogs. His underdog example: Taylor Swift.

“What do you think when you hear the name Taylor Swift?” he asked the class.

My instant thought: RED! Her first name is red. Her last name is red. And her latest album (at the time) is called Red.

Then I thought, “Her name is red? Don’t say that out loud! People will think you’re crazy!”

Later in the week I typed, “I see colors in letters” in the Google search bar. The results: Synesthesia. I remember thinking, “There’s an actual condition for this? This is… real?” Relief washed over me. I never thought I was crazy, but finding that this condition existed gave me a sense of peace.

Isn’t Synesthesia a Disorder?
No! It’s not a disorder!

It’s as much of a disorder as being left-handed.

Sure, there are some cons to this condition, but all the pros outweigh them. Every synesthete is different, and I could just be lucky that my synesthesia has been a gift. The only time it becomes an annoyance is when I’m spelling words that are too similar (read, reed, emphasize, emphasis) or when I’m trying to recall a particular word and all I can see is a blob of color. Some people claim that grapheme-color synesthetes struggle with math, though this had never been the case for me. Perceiving colors has never been a distraction when I’m reading. At this point of my life, it’s just a normal occurrence. It has helped me in so many ways, like:

-Helps me catch grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors
Words too similar I’ll miss. For example, read and reed. They both have two yellow letters in the center. For the most part though, errors stand out because the colors aren’t correct. If you write “no” when you meant “not” I’m going to notice that little bit of red from the T is missing. Accidentally used a plural instead of a singular? I’m going to notice that splash of red from that accidental S.

-Helps me catch repeated words
Repetition in text really stands out to me. If you use the word “see” too many times, my brain is going to notice that little red word. I’ve also edited manuscripts that contained too many characters with similar names. (Do you know how much yellow is in Harry Potter? Harry, Hermione, Hagrid, Hogwarts, Hedwig, Hufflepuff, etc. Greek mythology also has a lot of people whose names are yellow and green.)

-Helps me remember names
Taylor Swift’s name is red. My first name is red. Steve’s name is even red! Researchers have found that synesthetes have better memories than non-synesthetes, especially when it comes to remembering names. I normally remember people’s names based on the color of the first letter in their name. So even if I forget your name, I’ll at least remember your color.

-Helps me keep track of time
Time is made up of numbers. When it’s 6 o’clock, I feel the world is green. When it’s 7, the world feels like purple. Sometimes when I’m not watching the clock I still have an idea what hour it is based on the hour’s color.

-Makes the world a colorful place
Words are everywhere. They’re on books, signs, menus, advertisements, etc. With so many words and numbers out there, my world has so much color. It truly is beautiful. My synesthesia is a gift, and I’m grateful that my condition makes my world a colorful place.

 

Are you a synesthete? If you are I’d love to hear about your gift in the comments!

5 Signs That You Hired A Bad Editor

I’ve said it before, but I’m going to say it again: there are too many bad freelance editors on the Internet. Most of the time, writers never realize they hired a bad editor, or if they do, it’s already too late.

I’ve already written about how you can spot a bad or unskilled editor based on his website or an email interaction. But what if you’ve already hired an editor? What if during the process you wonder if your editor is really as good as he claims to be?

Here are some signs that your editor is a bad one. If you suspect that you’ve hired a bad editor, fire him and try to get your money back. Even if you can’t get the money, you need to stop wasting your time with someone who is doing more bad than good for your manuscript.

1. Changes Your Manuscript
The biggest red flag is when s/he makes changes to your manuscript. This is not the same as RECOMMENDING changes. That’s what real editors do. And I’m also not talking about inserting a comma then or there, moving two words around, or fixing a spelling error.

I’m talking about big changes like:

  • Inserting additional adjectives and adverbs
  • Changing the meaning of your sentences, changing either words or the whole sentence structure
  • Deleting or adding sentences and paragraphs
  • Changing descriptions of places, characters, and other things
  • Adding or deleting dialogue
  • Changing your characters’ personalities, goals, and motives
  • Deleting or adding scenes
  • Changing your voice
  • Changing your plot and story

Even worst, you’ll know if you have a bad editor if he is inserting grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.

Editors don’t rewrite anything. They comment and point out problems for you. At the end of the day, the writer is the one who has to make changes.

It’s YOUR story, not the editor’s.

2. Hidden Fees
A good editor will be upfront about time and costs. He will usually estimate them before he begins his job. If you’re getting fee after fee, that is a huge sign that your editor just wants your money and has no interest in helping you. It might even be a scam.

If later on an editor realizes that he has to do more work than he estimated, he will be honest about it, but he won’t be sending you fee after fee. Some editors want payments upfront just to show they won’t hit you with hidden fees.

3. Unresponsive and Missing Deadlines
Communication is important in a writer/editor relationship. Professional editors take their work seriously, and they know they have an obligation to help you and meet deadlines. We know you will have questions about our work and our feedback. If your editor is not communicating with you, he is either a scammer or has poor communication skills.

Your editor should be hitting deadlines too. If we expect children to turn in their homework on time, we should expect adults and professionals to do the same. If your editor is missing deadlines because he has bitten off more than he can chew, he still needs to communicate that with you. Yes, sometimes we miss deadlines. Sometimes we’re just behind or emergencies come up. While I can’t speak on the behalf of all editors, I will always contact my clients when I’m behind. If I realize ahead of time that I’m not going to meet a deadline, I will contact you.

4. Unable to Explain Comments and Recommended Changes
When writers and editors work together, writers should be able to ask questions about the feedback. If a suggestion doesn’t make sense or if they disagree with it, they should be able to ask for a further explanation.

One advantage an editor has over critic partners and beta readers is that an editor can explain why something needs changing. A critic partner can tell you a sentence is chunky. An editor can explain WHY it is chunky. A critic partner can say you should show instead of tell. An editor can explain WHY you should show. A beta reader can tell you a scene doesn’t make sense. Editors can explain why. Get it?

We expect writers to disagree with changes we recommend, and we will talk about it. If your editor can’t explain why you should make the recommended changes, then he’s not skilled or he doesn’t care.

5. Provides Little to No (Critical) Feedback
Honestly, many writers enter the editing process with a mind set that their book is already perfect and the editor will only find minor mistakes.

Sorry, that’s not the case.

Good editors dig deep. They will be honest and point out every problem they find. You will receive A LOT of critical feedback, and yes, the editing process with an editor can be overwhelming. We always advise to take it slow. If your editor is giving you all praise (no criticism) or providing little feedback, that’s a sign that the editor is not skilled to catch all the problems in your manuscript.

These bad editors can really hurt a writer’s career. Once an editor tells a writer his manuscript is all ready to go, it is really hard to critique that writer’s work after that. The writer will believe that his work is perfect. He won’t listen to anyone with constructive criticism, and if his work was poorly edited, convincing him to listen criticism is beyond challenging.

A good editor will provide tons of feedback. If you’re not getting much feedback, it’s time to fire your editor.

How To Spot A Bad or Unskilled Novel Editor

Thanks to self and digital publishing, freelance editors can now find more work. Unfortunately, this has opened the door for unskilled and bad freelancer to take advantage of writers. There are a lot of bad editors on the Internet, and writers now have to struggle to find professional and honest editors. Bad editors leave writers with bad experiences, and they give good freelance editors a bad name. You should never have to spend any time or money on a bad editor, but sometimes you don’t know you have a bad editor until it’s too late.

Some of these editors just want your money. Some of them have their hearts in the right place but don’t have the skills to help you. But how can you tell a good editor from a bad one? Well, here are some signs of a bad or unskilled editor, just based on their website and a few email interactions.

1. Makes Ridiculous, Far-fetch Claims and Promises
This is a given. If an editor makes over-the-top promises, that’s a sign that he’s a scammer. Professional editors are honest about what they can and cannot do.

Far-fetch claims are like:
“You must have your novel professional edited before you send to agents and publishers.” (This is false)
“I can edit 50 pages in an hour.” (Not possible, even for proofreaders.)
“I can make your book a best seller!” (We can never guarantee that your book will be a hit.)

If an editor makes promises that are too good to be true, you’re probably facing a scam or an editor way over his head. Run away.

2. Provides No List of Services
There are four types of editing:

1. Developmental editing or content editing– editing for plot, characterization, and story
2. Line editing– editing for paragraph structure, sentence structure, word choice, voice, and anything involving with the writing itself
3. Copyediting– editing for grammar, punctuation, spelling, fact checking, and consistencies
4. Proofreading– editing for typos, missed grammar and spelling issues, and sometimes formatting

Good editors list what services they provide. They will also explain how each service works. If you don’t see a webpage devoted to what services the editor offers, that’s a red flag.

A good editor will NEVER offer all four types in one round. They may not even offer all four types of editing. Most editors only have skills in one or two particular types. There are some who only perform developmental editing. There are some who only offer line editing. Some, like me, will offer both developmental and line editing and offer a package deal. Each good editor tells you what he provides.

A sign of an unskilled editor is misusing these terms. If someone says he provides a developmental editing but also says he’ll be checking for sentence structure and misused words, that’s a sign that he doesn’t understand the different types of editing. Stay away from these kind of editors too.

Also, not all freelance editors edit novels. There are freelancers who edit magazines, newspapers, academic papers, etc. You need to find someone who specifically edits novels.

3. Provides No Preferences in Genre or Age Category
Editors are readers. We have certain genres that we like, and the books we like to read are usually the books we edit. Good editors list what genres and age categories they edit, and they also list what genres they don’t consider. There are very few editors who read and edit everything (and yes, I envy those people), though they will state that. They won’t try to hide it. Some editors may even say they won’t edit anything with gore and sex.

You need an editor who reads and edits your genre and age category. Why would you hire someone who only reads mysteries when your book is fantasy? And do you really think someone who only reads adult books has the knowledge to help you with your young adult book? That doesn’t make sense at all!

4. Has No Knowledge in Marketing
Time for business talk. Marketing is a big deal in publishing. We have genres and age categories to target the right readers for each book. If a publisher were to publish an adult sci-fi, they would not target middle graders or people who only love romance books.

I know people advise writers to read all the time. Editors need to read too, but more importantly, they need to be reading books that are current and have been published in the last five years. Good editors know what is going on in the market and what is going on with the genres they edit. They know what is popular, which genres are oversaturated, which tropes are popular, which tropes agents and publishers hate, current book clichés, clichés in specific genres, etc.

You need someone with expertise in your genre so he can help you make your book stand out. You don’t want your book to be the exact same as all the others, right? You need someone to help you avoid clichés and steer you away from overused tropes in your genre. I’m not saying you can’t use popular tropes, but it’s important to be original. We want to help you make your book stand out. Someone who doesn’t read and is not up with the market won’t be able to help you.

It’s hard to know if an editor is up-to-date with the market. If you want to know how current I am, check out my twitter. I like to tweet pictures of my dogs with the books I’m reading. Yes, I read old books and classics, but I make it a priority to keep up with the market.

5.) Has No Experience in the Publishing Industry
Lots of writers believe that the best editor is a former librarian or English professor. Sorry, those are not the best people to edit your book, especially for developmental and line editing.

If you’re planning to hire a freelancer, it’s best to hire someone who has experience in the publishing industry, whether s/he be a former intern, editorial assistant, editor’s assistant, literary agent’s assistant, literary agent, in-house editor, or so on. These guys have the insight of how the editing process in the publishing industry works, and they will have that marketing knowledge you will need.

For copyediting and proofreading, you can hire someone who is fantastic with grammar, punctuation, spelling, and fact checking. Just make sure your editor really has the skills.

6. Is Unwilling to do Revisions and Multiple Rounds
When writing a book, you will spend more time editing and revising than the actual writing part. Good editors and writers know a book undergoes MANY revisions, and good editors understand that you may need more than one round of their editing services. They are willing to help you until you reach the point where you no longer need their help. This does not mean you pay the editor only once. You have to pay for additional rounds, and for many editors, they accept clients on a first come, first serve basis. You will have to confirm that you want additional time slots with your editor if you’re considering multiple rounds of editing.

When an editor claims that he won’t do multiple rounds or at least a second round, I find that suspicious. Good editors want to help you. If an editor won’t do at least a second, I don’t believe he has best interest in you.

7. Refuses to Provide Sample and Client List
Good editors know hiring someone is a big investment, and they want you to be comfortable when you’re hiring them. They are willing to provide a sample so you can get a taste of their service. You can also ask for a list of their past client so you can contact them and discuss about their experiences.

Bad editors won’t do that. If they’re scammers, they won’t even have past clients, just writers who had their money stolen from them.

Other Signs of a Bad Editor:

Unprofessional, sloppy website-
If an editor has an unprofessional and sloppy website, he is probably an unprofessional, sloppy editor too.

Poor grammar on website-
Bad grammar, many spelling errors, and misuse of punctuation show the editor doesn’t have the skills to help you.

Special deals-
Most good editors are set on their prices. Special “limited time” offers are rarely ever good.

No Articles-
Some editors write articles or blog post to show their expertise. Not all editors do this, but if you find an editor who can show she knows what she is talking about, then great.

Pressure-
You should never be pressured to hire a particular editor. If someone is pressuring you, he just wants your money. Run!

The Truth About Editors

Why do so many writers hate us editors? Okay, maybe we do tell them what’s wrong with their writing, and sometimes we can be harsh, but it’s never ours—well, at least not my—intentions to put you down or crush your dreams. My job is to help you.

I want to help you become a better writer.

That’s why I started the Editor’s Quill. I’m a freelance novel editor. I’ve been a freelance editor for the past two years and an editing intern for the past year.

Welcome to my blog.