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Ask anyone and they’ll likely say that writing a book is a hard job. Ask a writer and they’ll likely say that starting to write a book is a harder job. I can sympathize. For many years I’ve desired to write a book, and my biggest hurdle has been the first five to ten pages. I guess it's because those pages are arguably the most important.

If you’re an indie author, you want to keep readers reading. If you’re querying agents, you want to keep them from throwing your few pages on the slush pile (if you can even get them to ask for the pages to begin with!). In this blog post, I’m going to share with you five simple ways to write a strong first ten pages of your next fiction book no matter what plans you have for publication.

Before I launch into my five tips, I want to start with reassurance. There is a lot of pressure on writers to make their first few pages, their first chapter, and most especially, their first sentence pop. “Grab me from the opening sentence!” readers, agents, and publishers cry. And the writer quivers a bit and takes an honest stab at it, sometimes with strange results that have the opposite effect than they intended.

I recommend considering how your first sentence and first 10-15 pages work together holistically. With a bit of planning and forethought, you can lay your worries about the opening sentence or first few pages to rest and write a beginning to your story that will keep readers engaged until the last page.

1. Decide on your point of view and tense.

This seems like an obvious one, but it may take some time and tinkering to determine which point of view and tense will work best for your novel. Most mass market fiction is written in third person limited, but there are plenty of exceptions. First person can often be found in YA and some contemporary romance. Second person is rarely used, though it could work for a novel (perhaps a mystery or thriller) where the narrative voice is strong and the author wants the reader to feel that they are part of the story.

I’ve written on narrative tense, especially the different forms of past tense, in a previous blog post. Past tense tends to be the most commonly used tense in general, but present tense can be used to successfully immerse the reader in the events of a story, allowing them to experience everything as it unfolds alongside the protagonist.

2. Don’t overload your writing with world-building details.

Every fiction story includes world-building elements, even if it’s a story set in our modern world. World-building encompasses everything from the world's physical setting to its history to its morality to its ecology and everything in between. The temptation can be to info dump at the beginning of a novel so that the reader has the world’s full history, geography, and life norms/rules fully in their mind before they begin reading. But info dumps don’t normally make interesting reading and can cause your reader to stop reading before the story has really begun.

One way to avoid this, is to drip world-building information slowly throughout the story. Introduce world-building elements as required by the plot and needs of the characters. Provide only as much detail as is necessary for the reader to understand that aspect of the world, but take care not to be too heavy-handed. For instance, if you have created a language and

vocabulary for items in your made-up world, and characters refer to those items, you can subtly define them within the description or action rather than providing a "dictionary" definition.

3. Introduce your protagonist.

Some people may suggest starting your story with any “strong” character, but that can leave writers wondering, Isn’t my protagonist my strongest character? I tend to agree with writers here. If a reader doesn’t meet your protagonist within the first page or two, they can be left wondering who it is they should care about in the sea of other characters.

To that end, keep your cast of secondary characters in check. It’s OK to have characters who may receive fleeting references (the just-another-face -in-the-crowd folks who might also have a name). Your secondary characters should play a role in the plot, however, no matter how small. If they don’t help to move the plot forward, they may be best left out entirely.

A few other things to consider when introducing your protagonist—unless you’re writing an epic fantasy where family trees and lineages are important, your reader doesn’t need a family history or chronology to introduce them to the main character. In fact, too much character backstory (think along the lines of expository information about what the character’s childhood or teen years were like) can slow down the pace of the beginning of your novel significantly, causing reader frustration and lack of interest. The same goes for excessive character descriptions. Weave relevant descriptions of your protagonist inconspicuously into the plot but don’t overdo it. Some details are simply superfluous.

Beware worn-out story openers.

You might find books written one hundred or two hundred years ago that started with a weather event (“It was a dark and stormy night …”) or a dream/the protagonist waking up from a dream. These are cliché and outdated ways to begin your story.

That said, it’s not enough for me to say “start your story in the right place.” What is the “right” place? Sometimes a writer might just "know." But this is where professional feedback plays an important role. An author coach or editor, critique group, or feedback partner will be able to help you identify the best place to begin your story.

Take care not to use outdated writing styles and story conventions.

In the vein of not beginning your story using outdated modes, consider a few other “out of fashion” or antiquated storytelling techniques that may cause readers to lose interest. For example, nowadays, unless you’re writing epic fantasy or a historical novel, prologues are quite rare in fiction. As I’ve said before, there are always exceptions to the rules, and a prologue could work well if you have a story whose plot relies on a past event that could be detailed in a prologue flashback. Instead of placing the flashback at the beginning of the novel and breaking up the flow of those first few pages, consider placing it in a prologue so you can jump directly into the action without the change of scene and tense.

A few other odds and ends: reconsider semicolon usage, which is typically not used within fiction, especially not within character dialogue, avoid mimicking older language styles (Shakespeare anyone?), and when querying, list recent (no more than five years old!) comps (with no comparisons to the “greats” of your genre i.e., Tolkien and Rowling for fantasy or YA).

In the past, I’ve talked about how freelance editors might charge for their services. There are many ways professionals might do this, but one way I discussed was using the sample edit to determine how many hours a project is estimated to take, applying an hourly rate, and then charging a full project fee. Time is, therefore, money, as the saying goes.

Logically, it makes sense then that saving time will also save you money. Now, before anyone objects, let me explain what I mean by this. It’s not hard to find editors and proofreaders on the internet who promise a quick turnaround and a suspiciously low cost no matter how long the manuscript is.

Particular types of indie authors actively seek out these sorts of services, so there’s a market for them. The credentials and training of such an editor may be nonexistent. The experience and results are usually poor. It doesn’t take much effort to search writer, author, and self-publishing Facebook groups to see posts about supposed editors who ghosted their client, never returned a manuscript, or edited so poorly that even the little amount of money spent on the service was wasted.

I could say more about and break down the math on, for example, a $100 line- and copyedit (if that’s even what you’re getting!) of a full-length manuscript, but I don’t want to waste your time. Let’s jump into the good stuff. There are ways to save money on editing, and they’re directly connected with a topic that I included in my last newsletter (preparing a book file for editing). That’s right. There are steps the author can take long before editing to lower editing costs. I’ve addressed the topic of self-editing and revision as a means to lower cost in an earlier post.

This time, I’d like to take a closer look at using formatting to lower editing costs. This is a shout out to the power of Word styles. If you don’t know how to use them, I recommend Louis Harnby’s post on the topic. Here, I’m going to talk about why you should use them. In my most recent newsletter, I gave practical tips on how to prepare your book file for editing. This is not quite the same thing as formatting, but the topics do overlap a bit because formatting involves considerations like page and section breaks, font size, style, and color, etc. Save yourself time and effort by preparing your book file by using Word styles.

Let’s break down the pre-editing process to illustrate the point at which formatting adds time (and therefore, money) to an editing job. When I begin any editing project, the first thing I do (after saving the original file and creating a new editing file, project folder, etc.) is clean up the document. This includes the following steps:

  1. Making global changes (Track Changes turned off): changing double spaces to single, single quotes to double (or vice versa), checking the position of punctuation and quotation marks, and changing smart quotes to curly quotes.

  2. Taking a “walk” through the manuscript to note items of interest for the style sheet, to check for missing text and correct chapter number order, and to get a feel for the general shape of the manuscript.

  3. Formatting all text within the manuscript with Word styles.

  4. Running PerfectIt to begin making changes to the document that don’t affect style or tone or require a query to the author.

Let’s take a look at number three on that list, since it’s the topic of discussion for this blog post. For each type of text block (heading, subheading, first paragraph in a chapter, all other paragraphs, special text, book title, author name, section breaks, etc.), I have a Word style with preset settings for font size, type, and location (right, left, justified, centered) and paragraph settings (space before or after the paragraph, widow and orphan control, page breaks, etc.). With one click, I can use the Word style pane to apply that style to any block of text within the document.

In order to do this in a complete way to make it easier for placing the document into a layout template or formatting software, every piece of text in the document must have a Word style applied. In the traditional publishing world years ago, editors had a code or tags they would use to show the purpose of each piece of text to the book’s interior designer. Some publishers still use tags today, but in the indie publishing world where most authors will either use a free layout template or a formatter using InDesign or Vellum, Word styles act as the tags, telling other industry professionals the purpose of each piece of text.

Going back to the list of four pre-edit items, you’ll notice that none of them are actually the manual line-by-line edit. If you don’t edit, you may not know what goes into the editing process and the cost of services. Well, this list of four pre-editing steps is one part of the process and the cost. Another part is the time and effort it takes to read line-by-line through the manuscript, editing and adding relevant information to the style sheet. As mentioned, you can already read about how to save money in that part of the process in a previous blog post.

To save money in this first part of the editing process though, you may need to brush up on your Word styles skills. Formatting with Word styles can be a time-consuming process. It could potentially add more than a couple of hours to the overall work, especially if the manuscript is long or has complicated formatting choices. So learning to apply styles and having them in place before you send them to an editor could save the editor time (and you, money!). It won’t mean they won’t check formatting at all. It just means that they’ll spend less time checking formatting and more time actually editing your work.

As a final caveat: don’t confuse applying Word styles with the actual formatting of your book. Word styles should be basic, giving the future formatter or interior designer a clear picture of the different parts of the book that can then be tweaked and customized to create the beautifully designed book that you desire. You should only send a fully formatted book PDF file to an editor if they are going to proofread your page proofs; otherwise, it’s important to make sure editing, especially heavy editing such as in line editing, comes before the full book design and formatting process.

Finding a best-fit editor for your project can be a chore. There’s a sea full of editor-fish but not one of them are alike! A writer must consider what sort of editing their manuscript needs and then seek out editors who provide that kind of editing. They might also want to seek out an editor who has worked with their genre. But how helpful (to the writer) is it if they find an editor’s website or social media page containing a laundry list of genres and the names of a couple of types of editing? Probably not very.

It seems fair to say that writer’s want to know that an editor will provide them with both quality service and clear corrections and suggestions for their manuscript before they spend money on editing service. So how can they know they’re going to get quality service from any of the myriad of editors (and self-proclaimed editors) on the internet?

A growing list of criteria for vetting editors perennially circulates social media, usually including some or all of the following:

  • avoiding marketplace sites where editing services and prices are a “race to the bottom”;

  • checking for professional membership badges or credentials;

  • reading testimonials from the editor’s previous clients;

  • interacting with the editor on social media channels;

  • asking for the editor to complete a sample edit;

  • asking to see a sample of the editor’s work.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I would argue that interacting with a potential editor on social media or scheduling a phone or video call would give a sense of the professionalism of the editor (how they interact with you and with others) and perhaps reveal the depth of their knowledge and expertise about writing, editing, and self-publishing.

Testimonials, portfolios, and work samples

However, asking to see a sample of the editor’s work seems like another sure-fire way to see whether an editor is “legit” or not. A professional editor with a website should have a testimonial or portfolio page. Testimonials, for the uninitiated, are praise from previous clients that help bolster the credibility of the editor and the services they provide. A portfolio page may include any number of things: a list of book titles (by genre, usually with author names), a carousel of book covers, or short paragraphs describing what it was like to work with a particular client on their book.

Just like no two editors are the same, no two portfolio pages are the same. If an editor has signed an NDA, they may not legally be able to share anything about their previous projects (if unpublished) beyond the author’s name and the genre of the book. The editor could still share about the editing experience with that particular client without giving any details about their book away; however, none of these examples really show anything beyond “this editor has had a steady stream of clients who write in this genre and have been satisfied with the editor’s work.”

If an editor can’t place examples of their work on a portfolio page, then they definitely won’t be able to share a sample file of their work on a previous client’s manuscript. In fact, most editors wouldn’t want to share work samples even if they ethically or legally could.

The nature of the editor - writer relationship

Writing is deeply personal, and it is always a leap of faith to share your writing with an editor. The relationship between the editor and writer should be one of trust and respect. I recently had my website proofread, and while the stakes for that sort of work aren’t particularly high, I still felt a sense of protectiveness around the written website copy and the style and grammar decisions I’d made while writing it. I had to trust that my proofreader cared about the professionalism I wanted to portray through my site in order to receive and apply the suggested changes and feedback.

The same happens with other writers, especially writers with a story to tell! Now imagine a writer and I have spent months working on a manuscript together, polishing it and working to ensure that the story (and the author’s voice) shine in every way. I’ve agreed to keep the writer’s work safe from public eyes until it is absolutely ready and the writer (not me!) submits the manuscript for publication. But if I decide to take a snippet of that author’s work and share it with a potential client, I’m doing two things:

  1. Breaking the trust of the author whose work I had agreed to protect.

  2. Offering a work sample that may or may not accurately reflect how I would approach work on the potential client’s manuscript.

It’s a lose-lose situation. I may lose the client I already have a relationship with, and I’m not offering the potential client a clear picture of how I can help them.

Happy medium (maybe): sample edits

A sample edit of the work that you would like an editor to edit is a good way to get a feel for whether the corrections and suggestions an editor makes are the type of feedback you are looking for.

If you look at an editor’s sample edit and think, “Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for!”, then you’ve probably found your match. But if your sample edit leaves you wanting or scratching your head, then seek a second opinion. Share the sample edit with fellow writers or authors and others who are knowledgeable in the field (privately, of course).

If an editor is trying to rewrite your story or is not listening to your concerns, that’s a big red flag. I say all this with a caveat. Just like most things in life, some people are really good at making it seem like they’re good at something when they’re really not. Supplement your sample edit with some questions.

For example, ask the editor to explain their process; ask about their credentials or where/how they learned to edit or proofread; ask for details about the type of feedback they provide and how they provide it. There are industry standards, even for freelance editors, and if the editor responds in a way that seems to stick out like a sore thumb, it may be better to look elsewhere.

More on industry standards

Industry standards are the generally accepted ways and means of doing business across the editing world (trad publishing, self-publishing, fiction, nonfiction, etc.). Sample edits, while widely accepted, may not be offered by every editor, and some may require a small fee to complete one. This is just a variation in the process, not necessarily a red flag.

Other standards to keep in mind as you look for an editor:

  • Do they offer a service agreement/contract or NDA before services?

  • Do they ask for your style preferences?

  • Do they include a style sheet, cover letter, or editorial report with their services (not just for manuscript evaluations or developmental edits)?

  • Are they a member of a professional editorial organization or association?

  • Do they abide by transparent and respectful marketing practices? (For example, not promoting on nonpromo days on community forums or Facebook groups or not directly messaging potential clients without permission.)

  • Are they transparent about their process (from onboarding to editing to return of work and follow-up)?

  • Do they seem knowledgeable about the steps in the self-publishing process, and can they point you in the direction of helpful and reputable resources?

An ongoing conversation

Vetting professional self-publishing service providers is an ongoing conversation, one that will continue for as long as the global marketplace continues to become a busier and more crowded space. Authors should arm themselves with information and trust their gut, seeking out professionals who provide the guidance they need.

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