How to grab an editor’s attention in those first three chapters

I just finished book nine of my novel writing journey. Books four and five are coming out this year, and others are still in search of a home. One of the big keys to catching a publisher’s eye is a stellar first three chapters. In fiction, you can only send the first three chapters. You can’t skip to the chapters you feel are the best part of the book. Because if the beginning isn’t a page-turner, the reader will put the book down before they get there. If a pub board isn’t wowed by your writing sample, you will not get a contract no matter how stunning chapter seven is. They don’t have time to read the entire book.

The novella collection featuring Healing Hearts.

Clean chapters

Make sure there are no typos, or grammatical errors in those chapters. Ask a fellow-author or two or three to read through the chapters and red mark those areas. Even sentences that sound funny or word choices that seem weird or off-putting. It is not the publishers’ job to overlook these and just judge the story. These things will distract quicker than quick and paint you as someone who isn’t serious about your craft.

Strong first sentence

Here is the first sentence from my novella Healing Hearts from The Cowboys, a novella collection available on Amazon, (Shameless promo.)

If I only do one good thing in my life, I’m getting my brother home.

Does that make you want to read on and find out why Lonnie thinks this?  The first sentence draws the reader to ask who is this, what is happening and why. The where was established with a tag at the beginning of the chapter Kansas, 1866.  

This pic is what the twins looked like in my imagination.

First paragraph

The first paragraph needs to build that tension as it begins to introduce the characters through dialog and interaction. Setting descriptors should be sprinkled throughout as beats. Lonnie adjusts the blanket over their laps so his twin gets more because they are in an open wagon in a snowstorm. I show through actions rather than tell the reader what is going on..

First page

By now the reader should feel compelled to turn the page. Don’t waste a lot of time describing a building. Healing Hearts opens in a wagon traveling through snow. As the men travel, they shove their gloved hands under their arms, etc., to imply how cold it is. As Lonnie recalls his past failures, the snow makes it hard to see the path in front of them, a metaphor for his lack of hope. And the reader learns that Jed is the more positive of the two.

First chapter

The reader should have a good handle on setting and main characters by the end of the first chapter. In Healing Hearts, Lonnie Holt is traveling with his twin brother Jed to a ranch they inherited from their late uncle. Jed is recovering from ill health after being released from a Civil War prison camp. Lonnie blames himself for the loss of their family and ranch in Texas. Jed is all he has left of his family. The whole first chapter establishes their relationship and their dream of a thriving ranch. The chapter ends with the twins finding a woman in their cabin, the awkward way Lonnie handles the encounter, and the realization that she can’t leave anytime soon.

Lonnie let the fire’s heat chase the chill from his body while his mind fought to find his manners. A glance out the window at the thickening snowfall told him the scared filly would not be leaving anytime soon. It both irritated and intrigued him.

Chapters two and three

These chapters need to be as engaging as the first one. More of the who, what, where and why unfold. We get a better feeling for the setting and characters. By the end of chapter three, the editor has a sense of your writing style and your level of writing craft. It also tells them how engaging the book will be for the reader. Healing Hearts’ Lonnie is instantly attracted to Genny, but his physical and emotional scars build a wall around his heart. He is sharp and obnoxious toward her. But when she steps in to use her nursing skills to help Jed with a wretched cough, Lonnie softens.

Here is the last few lines of Healing Hearts’ chapter three.

He followed her to the door and spoke low. “Forgive me, ma’am, for being ornery and sharp with you earlier.”

“Home is where you hoped your brother would heal.” Her brown eyes lingered until he felt uncomfortable. “I forgive you.” She left the room, taking with her his momentary peace.

FYI: Every chapter ending should be intriguing enough to lead the reader to want to turn the page rather than stop and go on to other things. 

Concluding thought

 The editor has read the summary and knows how the story ends. And after reading the first three chapters, he has determined whether you can deliver your story in an exciting, well-written way.

And if the answer is yes for him, he will pitch it to the pub board. Hopefully, leading to a contract offer.

If you are interested in reading Healing Hearts, here is the link to The Cowboys. The other three authors, Jennifer Ulrich, Sandra Melville Hart, and Linda Yezak have excellent opening lines, too. I guarantee you won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

What is your favorite opening line?

If you haven’t read The Cowboys there is a link under the picture.

Taming the west—one heart at a time.

Healing Heart

Lonnie Holt’s external scars remind him of his failures, his internal scars torment him. Genny Collins seeks safety at the ranch once owned by Lonnie’s uncle. When Lonnie and his brother arrive, sparks fly and distrust abounds. While Lonnie and Genny fight the love growing between them, his past haunts him, and her past pays them a visit.

Becoming Brave

When Coy Whittaker stumbles upon a grisly scene littered with bodies, he wants nothing more than to get his boss’s cattle out of Indian Territory. But when a bloodstained Aimee Kaplan draws down on him, his plans—and his heart—screech to a halt.

Trail’s End

Wade Chadwick has no money until his boss’s cattle sell, so he takes a kitchen job at Abby’s Home Cooking. The beautiful and prickly owner adds spice to his workday. Abby Cox hires the down-and-out cowboy even though the word cowboy leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Just as she’s ready to trust Wade with her heart, money starts to disappear … and so does her brother.

Loving a Harvey Girl

Eva Knowles can’t imagine why the local preacher doesn’t like Harvey Girls—women who work serving tables instead of finding a husband and falling in love. But if Eva can get the handsome and wayward cowboy Cal Stephens to join her in church, maybe the reverend will accept the girls. Or maybe she’ll forfeit her job for a husband, hearth, and home!

There are twins in Healing Hearts and I wanted to give Jed his own happily-ever-after. Rescuing Her Heart is available for preorder in paperback and e-book. It releases July 6th.

As her husband’s evil deeds haunt a mail-order bride from the grave, can she learn to trust again and open her heart to true love? 

On visitation rounds as a lay preacher, the last thing rancher Jed Holt expects is to be shot at from the barn next to a burned-down homestead. But the soot-covered woman hiding inside needs protecting, and Jed is the man to do it whether she likes it or not. Delilah James’s nightmares began when she came to Kansas as a mail-order bride. Her husband was nothing like his letters. Now that he is dead, she can’t shake his abuse from her heart. Trusting men tops her never-again list and taking a job on the Holt ranch as a housekeeper is a means to save money and bring her parents west. But her attraction to the compassionate former chaplain both angers and confuses her. 

Jed has his own nightmares from a POW camp and understands Delilah better than she knows. Can two broken people form a forever bond?

Time Saver: Make A Proposal Template

Proposal cloudI’m done. I finished my proposal for the sequel to my Historical Romance Secrets & Charades. This is the fourth book I’ve written a proposal for, but probably the twentieth proposal I’ve completed.  Every publisher has specific things they want to see in a proposal. So, when I submitted S & C I had to rewrite my proposal a few different ways. Now that I have an agent, I need to write a longer proposal. He can then cut and paste the components for each publisher he pitches to on my behalf, meeting their requirements.

I saved a lot of time by creating a generic proposal template. Back in the day when we made paper submissions, compiling a proposal required more time to put the information in the correct sequential order. Now I can open my template and cut and paste my personal info and other unchanging portions, It still takes time and may require some reformatting. But that is minutes rather than hours.

The basic components of every proposal are the cover sheet, author bio, back cover copy, comparables, marketing strategy, endorsements, synopsis and writing sample.

First two sections are easy to adjust without recreating

The cover sheet has information the publisher needs. My contact information is in the upper left. It includes my address, phone, email, genre and word count. The lower right has all my agents contact information and the center is where the words Book Proposal, the title and my byline go. Some publishers want a tagline just under the byline. Others want it before the synopsis in the body of your proposal. The cover sheet has a particular format for spacing. Once I created one all I need to do is change a few things for the next book proposal. I don’t have to go back and double check what the format should be for each new proposal.

The table of content is the next page it lists all the components by page number. Some publishers don’t want a table of content. I adjust the page numbers accordingly with each new book. And if they want less information, I delete those items from the table of content.

The body of the proposal

Next you would have the tagline, synopsis and back cover copy. (These would be new with each new book but once you’ve written them they stay the same for every submission for that book.) Synopsis is a summary of your story. I’ll explain more later.

A tagline is a sentence that grabs the reader. For my contemporary romance New Duet coming out May 1st with Clean Reads (Shameless promotion. LOL) I wrote: “Love is never needing to be someone you’re not.” It took several tries to come up with one that grabbed the theme. The tagline often appears on your book’s cover.

Your biography comes next. Submission guidelines may have a word count for that. Now that I have a novel in print and another coming out I needed to tweak my bio. Additional awards or speaking platforms might need to be added in the future. Keep your bio current. The one in the proposal may be different from what goes on your book cover or any other published work.

Next comes writing credentials. Post your most recent at the top and descend to older things. List any awards, degrees and writing classes completed. Be sure to mention organization memberships. This is especially important if you are an unpublished writer. By organizations I mean writer groups or something that relates to the topic of your novel or non-fiction book. Being part of a writing organization shows you are serious about the craft. And if you are, for example, a lawyer proposing a legal thriller that information would be important.

The next portion is endorsements. You may already have individuals and authors willing to endorse your book. These endorsers need to have credentials. Your mother or friend (unless they are an author or an expert in their field relating to your novel) are not the endorsers you want. You can list all those who are willing to endorse or you are willing to ask for an endorse. Because I know a lot of authors I listed all of them as potential endorsers in my first two novel proposals. It was a long list. This showed the editor that I had people willing to support me I got seven endorsements for my first book. I didn’t actually ask everyone on my list because some authors don’t write in my genre. A recommendation from a Sci-fi author for a historical romance isn’t that impressive. Those who endorse you often promote you on their social media. So be sure the people you ask fit the genre you write. Endorsers don’t have to be fiction writers. A friend is writing a novel that addresses human trafficking; she plans on getting endorsements from organization that rescues these people. Once you have your list of endorsers, you can pick those that relate to the novel you’re proposing and don’t have to recreate the list every time. If you have a written endorsement from someone who read your draft, add it here. This shows you’re a go-getter. List all the social media you actively use.

Marketing Strategy is a tough one whether you are published or not. My first proposal listed things I was willing to do. Be honest in what you know others have done that you feel comfortable doing. Authors must help market. Even traditionally published authors market. Now I merely tweak my list adding what worked for me and deleting things that didn’t.

Parts that are new

Your target market may change if you change genres. This is the readers you are focusing on. Do not say everyone. Those words show you have not done your research. Be more specific. Teens are not the target market for my historical romance. Teen girls might read it because their mom bought the book. And some men read romance. Statistically women over 30 read historical romance. While millennials often read fantasy, dystopic and sci-fi. Know your market. Don’t assume because family and friends of all ages read your draft and loved it that this is your market.  You are not a marketing expert. Trust the experts.

The back-cover copy, and synopsis will be fresh copy. The back copy is a short couple of paragraphs describing the story. A marketing tool to get the readers’ interest. Don’t explain it all. Leave the reader hungry.

The synopsis is retelling the entire story with all the twists in 6 pages or less. Focus on the main character’s story. The editor must know the surprise bits and who-done it.

Some publishers want character descriptions. The two main characters are usually enough. But if you have created a fantasy world, then introducing each character is expected. Some authors include drawings of characters and maps of their world.

Unless a full manuscript is requested, you send the first three chapters and only the first three chapters. Make those first three chapters your very best work. Even if your think chapter five is the most exciting, send the first three. Only non-fiction submissions allow you to send chapters out of order. A few publishers may not require a writing sample if they know your work. Again, follow guidelines.

Proposals can be as short as ten pages or up to 50. (excluding full manuscript). Each of the basics I mentioned previously can be broken down into sub categories. Be sure to read the submission guidelines.

The proposal is how you sell your story idea. For me it is a painful process. I’d rather be crafting a story. Having a template of the basic information saves me time and reduces the pain to the synopsis and back cover copy. So, take extra time to make each section shine. If your proposal doesn’t grab the editors they will relegate your submission to the circular file.

What tips do you have for making proposal creation less painful?

Don’t forget if you enjoy my blog please subscribe.