A Book Editor Speaks: The Challenge of the First Chapters

by | Dec 2, 2011

by David Carr

David Carr is an experienced book editor and friend from the San Francisco Bay Area here in California. His first article for TheBookDesigner was The No-Stress Way for Writers to Outline. Today he tackles the thorny issue of dealing with the first chapters in a book.

When a writer asks for help with a completed manuscript, I ask to look at the first chapter and one other—preferably one they feel needs the most work. The first chapter should orient me to the content, so that when I look at the later chapter, I have some idea of the context and information I need for understanding it.

Usually, later chapters are more coherent and better written than the first. Many writers have their inspiring idea and set about writing toward it—whether fiction or non. Unless they are experienced, it takes a while for them to fall into a rhythm with the writing—the thread or story line gets clearer, the amount of detail comes into balance, they find the right “voice” for languaging the content—either something distinct to this piece of writing, or a voice appropriate to the audience they hope to reach.

Once they come to the end, they give their manuscript a read-through, perhaps create a full second draft. Then they show it to friends, get some positive feedback and are ready to find an agent.

Back to the Beginning

Yet the first chapter remains basically what it was when they began—before they fell into the rhythm, before the text fully took shape. Fiction suffers more, in general, than non-fiction. A non-fiction writer usually frames the context for the likely audience and uses the opening to provide a map of where the text will lead and benefit the reader will gain.

In fiction, there’s a tendency to want to introduce the main characters (or at least point to them), describe the setting, and start the action to “hook” the reader (an agent term). Finding the balance of all three is a subtle and challenging process—especially when the writer has a completed manuscript ready to put out in public. It may be difficult to see how these three aspects are dancing together in the opening.

This is where the right freelance editor will help your manuscript grab readers’ and agents’ attention and put it in balance. Editors are practiced at reading text as if for the first time (even if they’ve been round with your text a dozen).

The Editor’s Role

Once they’ve seen the whole manuscript—or at least a detailed synopsis (which I often ask for, and is worth doing anyway, since it is often requested by agents), editors can see what is relevant to readers and what will overwhelm readers before they’ve fully committed to reading your book.

I’m able to talk about this from both sides of the experience. My first fiction piece started spontaneously—the character had a voice far more complex than the children’s book I had envisioned, and he wasn’t going to give me the reins till I had transcribed more than half the text he was dictating.

But he abandoned me to my trade when I started to go through the completed first draft. I’m sure it took at least twenty bouts with the first chapter to pare it down to what was essential for orienting readers—without drowning them in the backstory and motivation he wanted them to have before he took off on his adventure.

I confess that he started dictating so fast that I had no idea that the book was about his wandering toward embracing his death. That ought to be a significant concept to have in mind before making it the center of a story, but we hadn’t conceived it that far—he was just antsy to get on the road, while I was insisting we needed to know where he was leaving from and why. In the end, I wrote half a chapter to precede his opening idea—and found places deeper in the story to patch in what was torn out of the first chapter to give it better balance.

Some Recommendations

Having confessed that, I advise against working that way. I could pull it off because his story is a Don Quixote series of encounters in which the order doesn’t much matter, as long as the terrain changes in a rational progression and he dies in the end, rather than sooner.

But if you are developing character, tension and mystery, I recommend making a really good map (that subject is reserved for another blog) or you’ll be paying an editor to extricate you from a snakepit before you’ve reached the dénouement—the story’s, and probably your own as well. (It’s a challenge to work with either a manuscript or a writer that/who has come unknotted, arriving on my doorstep as a tangle of overcooked spaghetti.)

For non-fiction, I recommend a finely articulated outline, which I wrote about in a previous post. General advice for non-fiction books: Write the introduction last if you are not absolutely clear about where the text is going to wander.

Until next time, delight in the process.

And one way to do that is by reading the open paragraphs of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee (published in England with a much more appropriate title: The Other Hand). Click this link: Little Bee, then hover your mouse pointer over the book cover. In the popup menu, click “First pages” – then buy the book (not necessarily from Amazon) for a fabulous read – unless you have your own manuscript to complete first.

David-Carr-editorDavid Colin Carr (davidcolincarr.com) has been editing fiction and non-fiction since 1988 with writers as far flung as China and Thailand, as well as with doctoral students in the Bay Area and New York. He works collaboratively with clients to activate their passion and vision – with clarity, coherence, and in their distinctive voice. David is dedicated to projects that value, expand, and connect our human hearts – offering his own heart, counseling experience, and creativity to bring forth the brilliance of both the writing and the collaborative relationship. He is associate editor with Volcano Press.

Photo by TheCreativePenn.

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  1. Jennie Coughlin

    Great post, David. My critique group has been going through the opening chapters of our respective novels the past several weeks and we’ve discovered exactly what you said — balancing all the elements in that first chapter has been the biggest challenge. We also all have flagged each other for info-dumping backstory at one point or another. Weaving in just enough to keep reading without so much that we get it before we care about it is a huge challenge, but so essential to a really good beginning.

    • David Carr

      Thanks Jennie – in the cyberworld, it’s nice to have confirmation that someone is reading – and actually finding useful – the words that are floating out there.

  2. Michael A. Robson

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks, I’ll take my time to read through this. What a kick-ass site. I’m a fledgling writer too ;)

    • David Colin Carr

      Thanks, Michael. I appreciate the appreciation. Joel’s site is indeed kick-ass – it’s the best casual source of info on every aspect of self-publishing. Check my posting a few weeks back on Outlining, too. My postings all are based on common conversations I have with clients or observations about patterns I find in their work when I’m editing. If I can keep people from falling in the familiar holes, there’ll be a lot more good books for me to read.

  3. Marla Markman

    Thank you for another interesting article, David. I definitely see what you mean about the intro chapter–there are times when I’ve told authors to go back and rewrite the intro after we’ve gone through our manuscript revisions because the book has changed form and purpose by that time. On the other hand, when I assess manuscripts for a potential editing client, while I do ask them for the intro so I can get a sense of the book, I also ask them for a chapter deep in the interior. I find the writing is much better in the intro because they often write that first. In the beginning of their book project, they have a lot of enthusiasm and spend a lot of time perfecting their writing, but in the latter chapters, they frequently lose that gusto, and their writing suffers. Asking for both chapters gives me a better picture of what I’m in for.

  4. David Colin Carr

    Great photo to add to the lead, Joel. In fact, I have a bulletin board over my desk with several pages that look like that from various major projects I’ve edited. I usually send a couple of them to the authors as well in the hope that they frame them as a reminder of what a long and miraculous journey the writing, the refining and the editing/collaborating processes carry us along. Very much like my novel’s journey toward death – a creek in the mountains where the writer has to climb over boulders and slip on moss to a stream in the forest with a lot of underbrush to a river passing smoothly through plains out, finally, to the ocean where …. (well, you’ll have to read Where Flows the Creek to find out – which is in process of cascading through waterfalls on its way into print. Quite another journey.)

    A note on the photo: it indicates that Joanna Penn is more decisive than I if she marks up hard copy in ink. I use pencil because a few pages later I might realize that I misunderstood a subtlety in the writer’s intention. With pencil I can go back and change my notes. (I consume erasers as fast as pencils.)



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