Can you help me make sure my first chapter is ready to query or self-publish?
Hi everyone! This week we are going to take a look at an anonymous fellow author’s first chapter. I am looking at this as an agent who is seeing this in their slush pile, and as an editor, polishing it before publication. I will add his chapter first and my comments are linked and listed below in blue. You can click the link to go directly to the comment if you choose. It’s a short chapter, so I’ll add some commentary afterward. Let’s jump in.
Chapter One – ‘The Woman and the Zebra’
Cape [JH1] Town had fallen, and Tambamba had taken its place [JH2]. The rustic village sat where the South African city once stood. In the centuries that
had passed since Cape Town’s destruction, its ruins were crushed into the earth, and its existence eradicated from record. This, too, was the case with every country and city that once existed centuries ago, in a civilization [JH3] referred to as the humanoids. Nowadays, each rural village was indistinguishable from the next, and only one authority ruled the planet: the Holy State of Borea.
Perry Benson despised living in Borea. The voice recorder in his neck, the tracking device embedded in his foot, made him resent the absence of freedom in his life. He did not even get to choose where he travelled, or how he got there: each morning as he left his house, he sat down in a mechanical wheelchair and it took him to work. This was the main reason, Perry suspected, that his belly was so rotund, and his cheeks were so chubby.
On one particular Tuesday, as Perry reflected that, at twenty-seven years of age, he ought to cut off the straggly blond fringe hanging over his eyes, his life remained as monotonous as ever. [JH4] He twiddled his thumbs [JH5] as his automated wheelchair [JH6] carried him back from a day’s work in the local state factory.
“It certainly was,” Perry lied, pushing back his fringe. “I love working in the Eradiction [JH9] factory.”
“All occupations under the Holy State of Borea hold equal importance, of course,” said Mabel, “but how lucky we
both were both to be randomly assigned as Eradicts for the rest of our lives.”
“That’s right,” agreed Perry,
while silently wishing that the state had assigned him to a different occupation nine years ago. Even now, his hands were covered with blisters due to the difficult hands-on nature of his work [JH10].
“Hello, Janice!” called Mabel, waving at a brunette woman as her wheelchair entered the village square.
“Good evening, Mabel. Eradiction for you today?” [JH11]
“As always!” replied Mabel. “We gladly do any job the Holy State of Borea assigns to us.”
Perry rolled his eyes, but thought of the voice recorder in his neck, and said
:, “It is our pleasure. Are you looking forward to attending Recreation Day tomorrow, Janice?”
“Absolutely! I love celebrating the Holy State of Borea.”
“May we all remain loyal to the Holy State of Borea,” they said in unison. The door opened in response to their voices, and Mabel entered the house. But as Perry [JH13] followed her inside, a scream echoed across Tambamba.
Perry halted, stunned by the unexplained noise, and looked across the village square at the screaming woman. Her eyes widened as she pointed to the other side of the village, where a second woman stroked a wild zebra that stopped to rest nearby.
Perry gulped to suppress his horror. He knew what caused the stir. Touching animals was forbidden by the Holy State of Borea. [JH14]
“Get away from there!” boomed a man, arriving in the village square behind the shrieking woman.
“Yeah, stop touching that animal!” hailed Perry, despite inwardly resenting that the woman’s actions were illegal. He glanced up at the late-evening sky and spotted a black aircraft making its way towards Tambamba. Currently, the vehicle was just a distant spot, but Perry knew that several Demiurge – the people [JH15] who created Borea’s laws and enforced them with violence – would be inside. He sprinted inside his house and slammed the door behind him, before racing to the nearest window and looking out.
The aircraft landed in the wild grassland behind the village. The law-breaking woman peered over her shoulder [JH16] as six Demiurge in black uniforms emerged from the vehicle. They chased her as she sprinted away [JH17], racing past Perry’s window and across the village square. One of the figures launched a spear that lodged into her arm. She collapsed to the ground, and batons flailed as the Demiurge beat her to death. The woman shrieked and screamed until her blood-covered body fell limp
onto the ground [JH18]. The Demiurge carried the woman back to the aircraft, saluting the villagers waving from their windows.
“Is everything all right, darling?”
said asked Mabel, appearing at the bottom of the stairs.
Perry choked back a sob, and stared at the pools of blood covering the ground outside. “Of course,” said Perry, a tear glistening in his eye. “Everything’s fine [JH19].”
Here are my comments:
[JH1] First, you want your manuscript to be in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, double-spaced if you’re sending to agents (this was single-spaced), 1-inch margins all around. (I already dealt with the formatting issues, and changed the single quotes to doubles before transferring it here.)
[JH2] I want to caution you about starting a book with passive language. Passive says something had happened, but active language says something happened. It brings the events closer to the reader. You could say here, “When Cape Town fell, Tambamba took its place.”
[JH3] If you are planning to be published in an American market, or by an American publisher, they will Americanize your spelling. This would be: civilization.
[JH4] This is an odd sentence. On a particular Tuesday (what makes it particular?) as Perry reflected that at twenty-seven he ought to cut his hair, his life remained monotonous. What? As he realized he should cut his hair, his life remained monotonous? Let’s change it to: On one particular Tuesday, Perry reflected that, at twenty-seven years of age, he ought to finally cut off the straggly blond fringe hanging over his eyes. But nothing ever changed. He realized his life remained as monotonous as ever.
[JH5] Do people really twiddle their thumbs? Or is it more likely he was absently picking at a piece of peeling leather on his seat, worn away by daily rides to and from work?
[JH6] I like the automated wheelchair idea, but do they live in a domed city? Because any kind of weather would be trouble for a wheelchair. But what if they were in tiny, one-manned vehicles, like a fancy mechanized wheelchair, but with a Lucite dome over the top and side-sliding windows? And a guidance system that is run by the Demiurge to take you wherever they wanted you to go. This is scifi, get a little creative with this. You could describe it the first time and then maybe just call it a vehicle.
[JH7] Dialogue gets double quotes. The only time you use single quotes is if there is a quote inside a double quote. All the rest of the time it’s an apostrophe.
[JH8] I’m interested in this, too. If society is so monitored, do they arrange the marriage partners according to likes/dislikes, ability to perform certain functions, or skill in a job, or do they let them roam around, find someone to love and get married? It doesn’t seem like this is that kind of society. So she could be his state-assigned wife, Mabel?
[JH9] Since Eradiction isn’t a word, the closest I came to was Eradication which means: extermination, removal, annihilation. So are they killing things? What are they killing? You’ll need to either give some hints, or explain this pretty quickly after chapter one.
[JH10] Now I’m really wondering what they are eradicating if his hands have blisters. What is he doing with his hands? Is he turning cranks, or holding tools, or killing things, or people? Give us just a couple of words here on why he has blisters. Instead of saying due to the difficult hands-on nature of his work, tell us what that difficult hands-on thing is. Maybe say his hands were covered with blisters due to the motion of his tools (doing what?) all day for work. (But with a little more eloquence. Lol.)
[JH11] For today? How often do they switch jobs? If not often, then she’s been in Eradiction for a while. (He said he’s been doing it for nine years, and she said they’d be doing it for the rest of their lives, so it’s a permanent job.) Janice will know she works there already. So maybe just say, Eradiction go well for you today?
[JH12] As a rule, try to save exclamation marks for times when they are actually yelling. I can see it when she’s calling over to Janice, so a few of these are fine. But as a general rule, if they aren’t shouting, don’t use the exclamation point. If they are excited, or you want to use emphasis, tell us what they’re doing instead. Does he clap when he says it? Does she bounce on her toes as she asks it? Do they clench their fists in excitement? You know when someone is excited, even when they don’t yell, because of their body language. So SHOW us the excitement if you can, rather than use an exclamation point.
[JH13] You have quite a few places with two spaces. You’ll need to catch that. It’s an easy fix. In Word, on the “Home” tab, in the “Editing” section, click on “replace.” In the first box where it says “Find what,” put two spaces, and in the second box where it says “Replace with,” put in one space. Then click “Replace all.” That’s it. There’s nowhere you need to have two spaces, so it’s okay to replace all, but if you are a little anxious about it, and you want to see where the changes are being made, instead of clicking “Replace all,” click on “Find next” and then the “Replace” button, and alternate those two keys for each instance in your book.
[JH14] Because…? Are they unclean? Only a food source? Holy? Extinct? Why is it forbidden to touch them? Unless there’s a big reveal of this later, tell us now.
[JH15] Are they people? You said the ancient civilizations were humanoid? So what lives here now? Are they alien? Mutant? Evolved? If they aren’t human, I wouldn’t call them people, but beings, or something like that. Entities, forces, esses, lives, etc.
[JH16] Is she still standing there just petting the zebra as they come?! What is she doing? Surely she knows she is wrong and would at least try to play stupid. How would the Demiurge know she was petting it? Are they visually monitored as well? Let us know. Surely there is a limit to their surveillance. We need to know what it is. If not now, then later.
[JH17] If she’s in the village and they land outside/behind the village, they can’t just jump out of the vehicle and begin to chase her. They’ve got to enter the village first, and surely she’s not touching the zebra anymore. Do they enter the village and the woman runs into her house, but they chase after her, bang down her door and drag her into the square to make an example out of her and beat her to death there? That would be more plausible. But let us know HOW they knew from that far away that she was petting an animal—what sensor gave her away? Camera? Animal tag? Location of woman’s foot tag and the animal’s tag to show relative distance? It’s okay for us not to know some things, but with a story like this, we need to have plausible suspension of disbelief.
[JH18] She had already collapsed to the ground, so maybe say she pushed herself up, but they beat her until she fell limp to the ground.
[JH19] Great premise. I am already invested in the story. If humanoids were the ancient civilization, I am wondering about this new civilization.
I want to know who the Demiurge are and what they look like. Perry called them “people” but I have a feeling these aren’t people. I am very curious about the throat and foot boxes and why the government runs things the way they do.
I want to know why touching animals is illegal—and there should be a reason because it has such a big part in the beginning of this novel. It’s that first crime we witness, so we need to know more about it. There should be a big reason why.
And how would a zebra just wander into the village? If they aren’t allowed to touch them, wouldn’t they put up a fence to keep the animals out? Maybe say something about how a zebra must have jumped the fence and a woman was petting it. That makes it seem like seeing an animal at all was a rare occurrence and more likely that she’d touch it.
I want to know about the Holy state of Borea. What it is, who it is, why they are, how they got that way, and what they want from the people.
The dialogue is a bit stiff, but I also get that they are being monitored. However, I think it has room to improve as the book goes on.
I am definitely invested in the story and curious about how it goes from here.
What did you think? It’s a good start to a dystopian society. (Leave any comments for the author in the comments section. They will appear the next day.) The story raises a lot of questions and introduces a world we aren’t familiar with. It made me want to read further, to see if my questions were answered and to learn more about the world. I had some trouble relating to Perry. He’s a pudgy 27-year-old, who has long fringey hair and is unhappy with his life and his world, and he feels resentful when the woman commits a crime. It says he disagrees, he even chokes back a sob looking at pools of blood after the woman is taken away. I was told what Perry does with his time, and how he travels, but I didn’t feel like I got to know him very well. Part of that is because he can’t show how he truly feels in this society, but we could get into his head a bit more. If the incident with the woman is common, why does he still care when others don’t? If it’s uncommon, I’d think some more shock could be inserted. More of a reaction. Not that I’m saying it was done wrong, or that there’s anything incorrect about how it was done. This is a subjective business, and I personally, wanted to connect more with the character.
Would I query with this? Not yet. Another revision is in order, or a pass by an editor. Then the book will be ready to query or self-publish. I think some authors don’t realize that the book must be just as complete to query with it. Agents aren’t looking for a story with potential, they’re looking for a story that’s finished. Ready to publish with another pass by the agent. But don’t expect since the agent and the publishing house editor will go over it, that you can leave the book needing a few rounds and get a contract with a Top 5 house.
Would I send this to a small publisher? You do have a shot with a small publisher with this. Simply because small publishers do accept some books-with-potential. I know because I get a few of them to edit before publication. I have helped authors completely rewrite a manuscript to get it to a publishable state at the small publisher before … but they were great stories.
Would I self-publish with this? Not as it is, but with another pass and/or an editor, you’ll be good to go. You want the same quality you’d put into it if you’d queried with it, or better. Luckily, if you self-publish and learn a lot about self-editing, you can easily re edit your book and release the next edition. But why do that when you can do it now and put out a better book–one that will get better reviews and sell more copies?
The author must take into consideration their audience as well. If this is adult fantasy/scifi, then the audience of men and women is pretty mixed. But I’m finding with the younger generation, more girls than boys are reading the current fantasy/scifi. (That may not be statistically so, but it appears that way.) Of course most YA fantasy MCs nowadays are badass heroines and the books are widely marketed to girls. The author marketing a YA book with a male protagonist could go three ways: it could entice new male readers of that age group, it could fall flat, and it could be enjoyed by the majority female audience as well. You just never know how it’s going to do until you try it. And if it falls flat, get busy on writing another book. Just keep marketing that one the best you can–make it as good as you can get it, and keep promoting.
In closing, pay attention to your first chapter. Introduce the main character and let us get to know them. Show us a little of their “normal” so when the inciting incident comes, we understand what a big deal and major change it will be for them. If the inciting incident isn’t in the first chapter, get to it by about 5% of the way through the book. In this chapter that we read, there was an incident, but it wasn’t the inciting incident because it wasn’t something that changed the main character’s life. It wasn’t an event that catapults the story into unfolding. The inciting incident is that thing that makes the main character suddenly unable to go on with their normal anymore. If this event with the beaten woman were to affect Perry so much that he refuses to be the Holy State of Borea’s puppet anymore and decides to find a way out of here for good, then it would be the inciting incident. Am I making sense? I’ve read chapter two and I know this isn’t the case because Perry goes on with his normal for another chapter. But soon, something should shake up Perry’s routine and set him on an unstoppable course that will be the story.
That’s it for our featured first chapter. Please only leave positive critique for the author. If any of you need someone to look over your query submission materials, I can do that. And if you’d like a critique of your first chapter, I will also do that. And if you need an edit to fine tune, and polish, or just check to make sure you’re ready to self-publish, I am going to be starting in February with some freelance editing.
I’ll be back next week. Keep writing. They say “Write drunk, edit sober.” I’m not telling you to abuse any substances, but put your creative hat on however you do it, and write it all out. Write until the whole mess is out of your head and on the page. THEN go back and edit that piece of trash–because all first drafts are. It’s okay. It’s completely fine and normal to have a crappy first draft. That’s why it’s a first draft. The work is done AFTER the story is on the page. and then you edit, and have readers (this is important!), and you have someone who knows more about it than you take a look and see if you’ve arrived, or if you need a few more passes. So keep writing! Just keep writing…