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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?