In my last post, I looked at six ways to make sure that your writing will stand out from the flood of submissions that an editor receives. Here are five more ways that you can make sure an editor pays attention to your story. And as before, they’re also great ways to command any reader’s attention.
1. Consider starting in the middle of the story
It’s sometimes tempting to start a story at the earliest possible point — with the birth of your main character, for instance. But instead, consider starting closer to the middle of your story’s action. Look for the day or the moment when everything changes for your character, or a scene that captures some tensions at the heart of the story, and begin there. That way you avoid bogging the reader down with backstory, and start them off on the dramatic arc that they’ll (hopefully) follow for the rest of the book.
2. Use caution when starting with action
On the flip side, I also see a tendency for authors to want to start their stories in the midst of some dramatic, fast-paced physical action. This certainly can work, but it can be tricky. Unless readers care about your character, they’re not likely to care where the action goes and what happens to that character. It’s easy for the heart of your story to get lost in a lot of flash and noise that feels irrelevant to the reader. Instead, consider how you can use action as a vehicle for making the reader fall in love with your character.
3. Include some mystery
One of the best ways to engage readers and make them want to keep reading is to use the opening of your story to set up some mysteries. There are lots of different kind of mystery, of course: What is this world like? Why is this character so angry? Will this character get what they want? There should be enough mystery in your opening to intrigue your reader, but not so much that you leave the reader feeling confused. You can create this effect by including just a few well-chosen details. If you avoid telling the reader everything about your character, their world, and their motivation right away, your reader will have a reason to keep reading.
4. Surprise the reader
To really engage a reader, your story has to offer something that they haven’t seen before. I don’t mean that you should use gimmicks; don’t do surprising things just for the sake of being shocking. But do be original in ways that are still deeply appropriate to your story. And avoid clichés, especially commonly used openings like “My name is . . . ” or “So-and-so was born . . . ” Again, your goal here is to intrigue the reader enough to keep them reading. Offer them something startling and fresh that only you could have written.
5. Take time to make your beginning perfect
You’ll notice that I’ve spent most of this post focusing issues relating to a story’s beginning. There’s a reason for this: if a reader (or an editor) doesn’t fall in love with your story on page one, they’ll never make it to page ten. Make sure, then, that you invest the time in polishing and rewriting the opening of your story, giving it as much time and care as you can. Ask yourself: Have you captured the tone of the story? Have you introduced a distinct voice that the reader wants to hear more of? Have you written a character that the reader will find compelling? Have you cut out all the unnecessary action or details, leaving only what is necessary to intrigue the reader? Have you figured out what’s at the heart of your story, and given the reader just enough sense of that that they’ll follow you the rest of the way?
If you can hone the beginning of your manuscript so that it does all of these things, you’ll be well on your way to making sure that your story will catch the attention of both editors and readers.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.