The First Three Things Editors Notice
It’s no secret that editors spend a lot of time reading. On the subway. At our desks. Over dinner. In the shower (I haven’t done this yet, but if I could figure out a way to do it without ruining my book or manuscript, I would totally do it). Since we read so much every day, our editor eyes home in on specific things (we have special homing-in eyes. Picture laser beams, but even cooler).
So what are the first three things editors—or at least, this editor—notice when we start reading a new manuscript?
1. Are the characters doing stuff?
This might feel obvious, but your characters should have active roles in the plot. Worldbuilding and beautiful writing and voice are fabulous and play an important part in every novel, but first and foremost, I lock into whether the characters are advancing the plot rather than simply being moved through the story like a puppet on a string. If the characters aren’t active, it’s hard for me to want to keep reading. Put your characters in motion right away and let us see the world and voice through the character’s actions! (For more about characters and establishing agency, don’t miss this blog post).
2. Are we thrown into the world immediately?
It can be tempting as an author to spend the first few pages or even few chapters of your novel explaining to the reader how the world works, who inhabits it, etc. Resist the urge to do this! My favorite books all start in a scene, telling me very little about the world I’ve just entered (the opening scene of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass comes to mind. I didn’t even know what a dæmon was, but I knew I had to keep reading to find out!). A manuscript is guaranteed to draw me in if it tosses me into the deep end of the world and forces me to swim (for more on starting in a scene, check out this post on first pages).
3. Do the scenes set up conflict?
I always notice when the first pages of a book establish conflict that will be resolved over the course of the novel. This doesn’t mean that your first scene has to feature an epic battle that pits two forces against each other; it just means that I want to have a sense in the early portion of the book that conflict is coming later down the novel. Maybe we see the main character side-eye a former friend who has betrayed her. Maybe we’re introduced to a creepy haunted house that the protagonist has always wanted to explore. Whatever the situation, I love when early pages hint at conflict to come. I’ll keep reading to see the fireworks!
What do you notice in the first chapters of a novel, and what keeps you reading? Tell us in the comments below!