One of my writing buddies recently asked me to have a look at the first chapter of a work-in-progress. This is one of those things that writers do for each other when we’re starting a new project. It’s never easy to send those first couple of chapters to someone. I usually start my email request with, “I know this is a mess, but could you have a look? Is there anything here? Ignore the grammar, spelling, and general confusion. I just need to know if the story has legs.”
As a writer, I get all jacked up and excited when I start a new story, but then about two-thirds of the way through the opening chapter, I have my first panic attack. What if this sucks oily bilge water? What if there is no story here? What if it’s boring? I usually make it through the first three chapters before I ask someone to have a look at what I’ve written. Of course, I’ve hacked and chewed and self-edited the damn thing to death before I ask for that first critical look. The hope is that you have introduced your characters, provided a conflict, and set the hook so the reader wants to know what happens. The first three chapters set the tone for the book, and the opening chapter is critical. If I bore you in the opening pages… it’s all over.
We all offer to help each other with that first look, but we all have a love/hate relationship with actually doing it for someone. Each of us prays that the person asking has something decent in those first few pages. Let’s face it, no one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings or to have to tell someone that perhaps they should take up rock collecting instead of trying to write. We’re each hoping that those early pages will have some gem of a story that captivates us.
Perhaps the worst requests come from a family member who thinks they have a clue and yet rarely do. So many people seem to think writing is easy. Just tell the story. Pay no attention to plot or pacing, no attention to character development or description of people and places, and don’t worry about a timeline for the story. After all, it shouldn’t matter if in chapter one the child is two, and in chapter two, which takes place a day later, the child is four. Fortunately, I have been the one doing the requesting and my relative has always been very generous.
The request I received the other day came from a twice published author who has taken some time off, but is trying to get back into the swing of things. She read Protecting Parker and Blood Link when they were… well… damn near unreadable. Without her help, my first novel would never have seen the light of day. I was delighted to have the opportunity to do something for her for a change.
Her email read, “I know there are mistakes in here with words. I’m ignoring them and just going. I guess I need to know if so far it flows or if it’s boring as hell.” I could feel the author’s worry and fear. Her email may just as well have read, “Please don’t judge me based on this draft. I know it’s awful, I know the words aren’t right, I know I can’t spell, but please read past that and look at the story. Does the story work? Do you hate the characters? Am I peeing into a head wind on this one? Be honest, but don’t crush me.”
It’s hard to shut off your “inner editor” and just read. Once you’ve written for a while, it’s almost second nature to edit as you go, but in this case, I wasn’t being asked to edit. I was asked to read an opening chapter and simply give my thoughts as to whether the story had legs. If asked, the author herself would tell you that it had issues – but who’s first unedited draft doesn’t?
I called her after reading through the pages and told her the truth as I saw it. “It’s got legs. You still have your voice. There are a lot of problems, almost all of which you will see as soon as you take a deep breath and start self-editing. But, there is definitely a romance novel in there. Keep writing. Let me see the next two when you’re finished.”
The relief was evident and she thanked me mightily. I was happy to help her.
Of course, I also told her it would be better if the heroine was in the military and someone was blowing something up or shooting someone. She called me a name and hung up. Sheesh… I was just trying to help.