My husband sometimes teases me for the way I start behind the wheel on a long road trip, driving faster than I normally would. I’m not exactly sure why I do this and I soon settle back into my normal rhythm.
It occurred to me the other day that this is how I start a novel – and it’s not really a good way to write either. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve had it dinned it to me that I have to hook the reader right for the start, maybe it’s just the nervous excitement of the new project. But what I’ve realised is that if my readers are exhausted by the end of chapter one, they just won’t keep reading.
On the other hand, I don’t want them snoring either – it’s all about finding the right balance. When I was at the SCBWI LA conference recently I was lucky enough to have my manuscript assessed by US agent, Michael Bourret and I learned so much from the experience.
It was this assessment that made me realise that I need time to settle into a novel and that I really need to think carefully about how I introduce my characters and lead the reader into the story.
I had submitted ten pages of a YA thriller that I thought needed plenty of action to hook the reader – but after speaking to Michael I realised that I might have overdone it a little.
As Michael pointed out, it moved very fast and there were not enough beats or pauses, time allowed for the reader to draw breath and absorb. In some parts there was too much detail and in others, he felt I’d skipped over important information.
His overall comment on plot and structure was, “The pacing feels much too fast. We never pause or linger, so nothing really sets in.”
Michael’s suggestion was that I think about changing from present to past tense and slow things down. He also made me realise that I had about four scene changes in the first chapter.
- You need a hook, but not manic action
- Give the reader time to linger and absorb what they’re reading (the foreshadowing I had put in the first chapter was lost because there was so much else going on.)
- It can be helpful to consider a different tense or point of view in order to make your novel more accessible for the reader – and allow them to form a closer connection with your main character.
- Limit the number of scenes in your first chapter and explore each one thoroughly before you move on.
- Let the reader get to know your main character so they will care what happens to them and will want to follow their progress in your story.
I’m now going to try rewriting my novel in past tense. I’ve also taken my foot off the accelerator and I’m allowing my main character more time to reflect. I have a lot of work to do in the rewrites, but I feel renewed enthusiasm for my story knowing that thanks to my SCBWI LA assessment, I have the tools I need to make it better.
If you have any tips or experiences on pacing the start of the novel, feel free to share them in the comments section here.