Before I give my final tips, I want to reiterate that agents, editors, and contest judges are looking for reasons to reject your manuscript. This is completely different from readers, who are usually willing to give your first several chapters a chance, if you hook them in with an interesting character, great writing, or a plot they can't resist. Readers want to love every book they pick up. Agents and editors can't afford to do so, and they don't have the time. So the tips I've been giving you in this series are meant to help you AVOID giving these gatekeepers reasons, besides your plot or characters, to reject your manuscript.
So let's look at your characters. We all know we don't want stereotypical characters–no cute, snotty cheerleaders and jock football players who only want one thing; we all write unique and interesting beings. (I won't say human beings because they could be animals or aliens, right?) David Kirkland, author and editor with High Hill Press, whom I've told you gave me the idea for these blog posts, said this about the characters in the beginning pages of your novel, “Ask yourself: Does it [your manuscript] open with important characters? Sometimes the opening pages [I've read in submissions] have mostly been about minor characters. That misleads the reader.”
I couldn't agree more. I have read countless manuscripts, with and without prologues, where some character has hijacked the first several pages and then disappeared–and not because it is a murder mystery and this person was killed. If I haven't made the following point already, I will try to emphasize it well here. The two best ways to figure out how to open your novel is to 1. read books in your genre and study how other authors do it 2. get a critique group and let them focus on your beginning. Present your main character in the first pages, and be clear (usually) by the end of chapter one what the main problem is in the novel–When is the moment life changed for this character and what is the journey this problem is sending him or her on? This is where you start and whom you start with.
Finally, let's look again at the writing craft–adverbs and adjectives to be specific. I have said on here many times that one of the best books on writing you can read is On Writing by Stephen King, so I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record. You don't need my blog posts, if you have read this book. It's inspirational and instructional! Anyway, he harps on this point about adverbs (especially) and adjectives. You should use them sparingly. (Ha!) If you find yourself using a lot of adverbs and adjectives, ask yourself if you could replace these with more specific verbs, nouns, or figurative language that is not cliche.
One thing I've noticed is the overuse of color words. A writer will say something like: In her red crimson dress, Mrs. Adams glanced around the room, noticing the brown couch with its light gray sparkles, which did not match the shag green carpet.
When I read that sentence, I'm trying to picture all those colors, which I'm not even sure matter in this case, unless Mrs. Adams is an interior decorator, and that's what this book is about. Again, read your favorite published, successful authors and see what they choose to describe and how. Yes, you will notice adjectives, color words, and adverbs–they are not evil–but how do these authors handle description and specific nouns and verbs?
Best of luck to you. I wish all your writing and publishing dreams will come true. And hopefully this little three part series helped in some way with that dream.
Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, teacher, and published author, living in St. Louis, MO. She blogs on a regular basis about being a single mom and writing at http://www.margoldill.com, where you can also find a list of her children's books. She teaches novel writing for WOW!, and you can find her class here.
photo above by Guudmorning! on flickr.com
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Never Stale! The Muffin provides daily writing tips, inspiration, and news from the bakers of WOW! Women On Writing.