Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is Your Motor Running?

"Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, if it's of book length be sure that its motor
is running in the first three pages. The first three paragraphs would be even better.
By 'motor running,' I mean piquing the reader's curiosity about what comes next
so that he won't want to put the book down." --Sol Stein

Over the course of time that I've worked on my book, I've gone to a number of conferences, attended writer's workshops, and been privileged to have sample pages critiqued. I've kept a log of comments, from which--in each subsequent revision--I've drawn from to make improvements to my writing. Here's a sample of what's been said:

  • "Get them hooked then feed them later."
  • "Keep them turning the pages."
  • "Give main characters an entrance--let the reader know someone important has entered."
  • "Start the story with a bang--you must catch an editor's eye before you can do so for a child."
  • "Don't 'information dump' on the first page."
  • "Keep the action moving at the beginning."
  • "The first chapter is a bit slow and not much happens. I'd start (pointing to second chapterhere."
I've learned (I hope) when I've started slow, stalled the motor, boxed in the car of the story, lost my way. How about you? Is your story's motor running? What's some good advice you've gotten that helped you improve your work?

*photo courtesy of


  1. I was recently reworking my first chapter. I decided to gather a smattering of books by good writers and read only the first chapter. It's true! Seasoned writers who are successful really use that first chapter. The interesting part for me was they all did it differently. Some were action packed. Some fed little morsels that make you want more. It's a good exercise! Thanks for visiting my blog and guest post, Kenda!

  2. I really like the idea of a main character having an important entrance. It reminds me of my drama days...I loved having a lead role because they had the coolest entrances!

  3. What great advice. I agree with Carla -- I love the idea of giving a main character a great entrance. Another good tip I recently picked up is to read the first and last sentence of each chapter to make sure you've baited the hook!

  4. The same jewels you've mentioned here are some of the things I've heard as well. I'm going to my first conference critique session this September and I can't wait to hear what I learn from my pages and everyone else's too!

  5. This topic has been on top of my mind -- I just revised my first chapter to submit for a critique at the SCBWI summer conference.

    I agree, giving the main character a grand entrance is a wonderful idea. If you visualize your story like a movie, it can help bump up the dramatic impact of your writing.

    Thanks, Kenda. Happy to find your blog.

  6. Thanks for a timely post and a great reminder for me as I revise my current WIP. My critique group thinks the WIP is strong, but the recurring problem has been slow-starting early chapters (something I'm in the middle of correcting) and consequently a slow-starting book. I particularly like the point that important characters need "entrances".

  7. Such fun hearing from everyone--thanks for weighing in :-)

    Rebecca--I've been collecting first sentences and favorite book titles, but now I think I'll collect first chapters, too. Great idea :-)

    Carla--you're heads up on me, I was never in a school play although I did help the makeup crew once! But I can see how being involved in drama--including studying scriptwriting--would be helpful in writing opening scenes...

    Jen--I like your idea about first and last sentences of chapters. Another great idea--gotta' start another collection :-)

    Jess--a conference is a fantastic opportunity for feedback. And you'll find that those doing the critiquing of your pages will be very helpful. One thing about this business, most are very supportive and want to see each other succeed.

    Megan--thanks for stopping in, and best of luck on your critique! "Visualizing" our stories is so important, and something I'm trying to get better at as I get to know the characters of my next WIP, and learn their story...

    Elizabeth--I wish I'd joined a critique group earlier than I did in my writing process. Maybe then it wouldn't have taken me so long to get my first chapter moving quicker :-) But I have great partners now and appreciate their advice tremendously. Good luck on your revisions!

  8. A few books back, I finally got that about the opening--and when I did-- what a difference! Yes, I work really hard on getting my character up and off the first page!

  9. Seems like this is a topic everyone finds interesting! I liked all your quotes, Kenda. I remember a similar one, that the whole book is contained on the first page. I must admit, I'm struggling a bit with that one. But it's a worthy goal. Maybe I'll try the main character entrance instead. That seems more do-able to me.