Monday, September 21, 2015


This year, 2015, I’m an MG Pitch Wars mentor. I’m having a ball! From writing my ‘Why choose me?’ blog post, to receiving 64 submissions, to the headache of picking my mentee, to the surprise thrills of being able to pick two mentees, to now working with my gorgeous new friends for life (Stacey and Judy) on revising their manuscripts ready for the agent round in November. Major fun. And I can only thank Brenda Drake over and over for inviting me to join the gang. I’m privileged, and will work my socks and knickers off to ensure my mentees receive a bunch of agent hugs in just over a month’s time.

But, having read through all the first chapters sent to me by an incredibly talented group of writers­, there was a recurring issue that appeared time and again. And the same problem I see come up in the manuscripts I edit in my day job. It all boils down to the book starting in the wrong place, which of course affects that all important hook, the pull, the magnetism that makes a reader want to keep going, turning the pages and finding out what’s going to happen. I’m not kidding here when I add, this problem is so easily fixed.

Honestly, more often than not, in my Pitch Wars submissions, simply deleting the first two or three pages, and sometimes the first few paragraphs, was really all the author needed to do. It is an issue all writers have, not just newbies, but seasoned writers too, and you only need to check out posts and articles littering the internet to know how true this is. We, the story tellers, want our readers to understand the whys of our characters, and to do that we’re convinced we need to get the back story across as soon as possible.

Wrong. We don’t.

Most readers want in first; they want a taste of the action, of the tension; they want subtlety and clues; they want to be intrigued; they want to be thrown bam! straight into that life-changing moment of the main character, and the whole point of us, the authors, writing the story.

Back story is important and needs to be included, but not in paragraph after paragraph of distant narrative, or a character unrealistically and far too conveniently thinking about their lives to date. I’m afraid it’s downright boring. If you have books on shelves or a manuscript in the slush piles, boring isn’t a faux pas you can afford.

And this goes for the rest of the book, not just the first chapter. It’s absolutely fine to do this in earlier drafts, in fact, as an editor and writer, I would encourage you do to this. For one, it gets it out of your brain and allows you, the creator of this character’s past, to ‘see’ it and iron out any inconsistencies, rather than have it cooped up in your mind. I also encourage authors to complete biographies or character profile sheets for everyone in the book for the same reason. Plus, this is a separate document you can refer to as you write.

Once that first draft is finished, work through your manuscript with a brightly coloured pen (real or virtual) and highlight the back story. Then decide if it really really needs to be there. If it does, don’t just tell the reader or have the character once again conveniently consider it, blend something in subtly. A clue, a snippet, a cheeky insight. Don’t put the whole chocolate mud cake in front of the reader on page one, just smear a little ganache here and there. Make their eyes light up, make them lick their lips, make them drool. ‘Ooo, chocolate cake. Must turn page. Must find cake.’

Get the picture?

Example? OK.



‘Just two years’ ago, John’s heart had been broken. Carol, his girlfriend of five years, his childhood sweetheart, had dumped him. Packed her bags and left for a younger model. He knew it was coming, but was too nervous to mention it. He didn’t want to lose her. He didn’t want to be alone.

John spent many weeks and months afterwards staring at the TV screen, neither watching whatever was on nor thinking of anything in particular. He’d been emptied out of all thought, all emotion.

So when he met Liz, six months’ ago, he was wary. Cautious. Afraid to ever feel that way again.’



‘John breathed in deeply, trying to push aside the tightening of his stomach. This was all a bit too familiar. The iPhone in her hand. The stupid grin on her face. Only this time it was Liz, not Carol.

He released the breath slowly through his nostrils. Should he say something? Or sit there, on the same couch just like last time, and wait for the break up to happen? Could he deal with that pain again? Probably not.

John opened his mouth, but all that came out was a strange squeak that he quickly disguised as a cough.

Liz looked up and frowned. John smiled and averted his gaze quickly back to the TV screen.’


The second excerpt puts the reader in the scene. They see John, his shyness, his nerves, his worry. They’re introduced to his previous heartbreak. In the first, they’re being told this through a back story dumping, unable to engage fully with any action. I know which I prefer, and I know which would make me keep reading. The second. Is Liz about to dump him? Will John build up the confidence to ask who she’s texting? Let’s keep reading and find out.
Be subtle. Blend. Intrigue. Show, don’t tell.

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