Since doing reviews for Good Book Alert I’ve discovered what it’s like to be on the other end of the submission pile. Of course, I always tried to imagine it, but weeding through a slush pile has been eye opening in many ways. It’s been great experience for me, and I came up with these tips to help writers capture the attention of readers or at least me. But keep in mind writing is art and these are my preferences.
First, what not to do:
Overwhelming first chapters: I’ve noticed some stories try to pack way too much into those first chapters. I’ve come across stories with too many characters or too much back story where I’m straining to remember everything and find myself re-reading. I like stories that flow easily. It’s supposed to be enjoyable rather than straining my reading comprehension skills. So in general, if I become confused because things aren’t making sense and have to study and re-read this isn’t a good sign.
Excessive Telling: I don’t want everything spelled out for me. Too much telling does not let the reader make the decisions. I want to decide what type of people the characters are based on the description. Don’t spell it out for the reader. There are some situations where telling makes sense, but if the writer is telling me too much I lose interest.
Head Hopping and Viewpoint Problems: If a writer doesn’t know how to handle viewpoint, I know they haven’t spent enough time (if any) in a critique group. They aren’t ready to publish, but since everyone can these days there is nothing to stop them. My view point preferences are either first person or close third. If it sounds like the author ‘telling’ the story this isn’t a good sign.
Slow Pace: I’ve come across several books moving too slowly. I get bored and start skimming. If a scene doesn’t move the plot, it needs to be cut.
Do I care? A few times I’ve found the writing to be good, but I just couldn’t connect with the main character. This is a characterization problem. The writer needs to dig deeper and give me a reason to care about their main characters. I tend to prefer just one main character in a story with a few supporting characters. I also like characters that are unique and sympathetic. They don’t need to have a superpower, but just something that makes them stand out from the guy next door.
Things to do. (Perhaps obviously)
There are many things a writer can do well, but here are somethings that stand out for me.
Conflict: In general, I like conflict and tension from the start, but it doesn’t have to be super intense first thing. Starting with a burst of action, drama, a wounded or beaten character will not necessarily get my attention. It depends on how it’s done. I often prefer to see at least some characterization upfront so I care about them before things go wrong.
Character goals: I like to be able to determine the goal of the main character within the first two chapters. Character driven stories are my favorite. It’s what I read and write.
Twists: A good twist is unexpected, but makes perfect sense when it happens.
Foreshadowing: I love foreshadowing when it’s done well. It’s a way of making connections so that when something happens in a story it makes sense. A story I read recently introduced a character in the first few chapters that was only an annoyance. Later, after about 75% of the story he immerged as a powerful antagonist who turned out to be responsible for some major things going wrong. Since he hadn’t been mentioned for several chapters it was impossible to suspect him, yet because of the set up it made sense.
Critique groups: Put your stories through critique groups before submitting them anywhere and/or self-publishing. Sounds obvious, but I see a lot of self-published stories that clearly have not been critiqued in anyway.