Winning Hearts with Your Opening Chapters

Tug-of-war showing green teamWhen you send your work off to a literary agent or a publishing house, you will not be not alone. In fact, will more likely than not be competing with hundreds of similar authors for the attention of the readers who will evaluate your piece. These readers, like the audience you hope to one day reach, will largely judge your work on the quality of its opening chapters. If you hope to be published, you had better make sure that these opening chapters do their jobs flawlessly.

Grabbing your reader’s attention is the most important task that your opening chapter will accomplish. Different writers find that different techniques work best for gripping the reader right from the start. Some writers start with a piece of interesting dialogue, while others prefer to use powerful language to describe the scene and set the mood. Studying your favorite authors – or maybe some terrible authors that you read anyway because the opening was so good – can help you pick up some of the techniques that draw the reader into the story right from the beginning.

In addition to getting your readers interested, your story’s opening needs to get them oriented. The first few chapters shouldn’t give the reader a crystal ball into the plot ahead, but they should get the reader familiar with the logical premises of the plot. Make sure that your readers don’t leave the first three chapters without all of the information they need to make sense of your setting and your story.

If your story’s opening fails to grab your reader’s attention or get them adequately prepared for the narrative, then you risk losing your reader before you’ve even gotten to the good part. However, an interesting and informative opening chapter can get even the most jaded editor enthralled with your story.

How Well Do You Know Your Genre?

Autumn colours in persimmon leaves, reducedWriting stories is like sewing clothing. While we all aspire to bring something new and original to our pieces, there are certain conventions we must follow if we don’t want to produce an odd-looking piece that doesn’t fit in with anybody’s tastes. Just as people look for pants, dresses, shirts, and jackets when they’re out shopping for clothes, they look for romances, thrillers, fantasy stories, and historical dramas when they’re seeking a good book.

Learning the conventions of a genre is essential to being able to write a story that fits well into that genre. The best way to do this is to read five or six (or a dozen, or three dozen) stories in the genre you want to write. As you read, ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What kinds of settings do writers use in this genre? To what extent is the genre defined by the setting?
  • What character traits are common to most of the protagonists? What traits do most antagonists share?
  • Is there generally a generous cast of characters, or do only two or three named individuals have roles in the stories?
  • What kind of events get the plot started? What kind of events create important twists and turns in the plot?
  • Is the story driven more by what the characters are doing or how the characters are feeling?
  • How do the stories generally end in this genre? What kind of denouement do we see after the climax of the action?

Write down your answers to these questions as you read (perhaps in your commonplace book). Before you know it, you’ll have a set of fairly extensive notes on the conventions of the genre you have chosen. Just as a pattern guides us through the process of sewing a pencil skirt for the first time, these notes will guide you as you craft a work of genre fiction.

Free copy of our how to ‘Become a commercial writer’ guide

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Become a commercial writer – a free guide to download!

Becoming a commercial writer is one way that authors can ‘keep the home fires burning’ while waiting for that novel deal to come rolling in. Whether it be by writing articles, ghost-writing a book for someone else or through producing complex corporate training manuals, there’s always something there to be done.

Unfortunately every man and his dog has got wise to this and the market’s saturated with would-be commercial writers who both give the business a bad name (in many cases) and who have also driven the rates down – sometimes below subsistence level.

This free guide sets out how to present yourself in the best possible light, how to structure your bid, how to decide where to focus your efforts (which clients are timewasters or worse from those which are bona fide) and how to put together your price. In plain English, it’s all you need to know to get your career as a commercial writer started … and it’s FREE!

Written by an experienced commercial writer with an irrefutable pedigree for taking on the more challenging of projects and completing them both on time and to the approval of his clients, this guide really is all you need.

In downloading this COMPLETELY FREE PDF, you agree to be added to our weekly newsletter list (from which you can unsubscribe at any time). The newsletter contains more useful information such as ‘post of the week’, voucher codes for books and services (which will save you money) and writing-related articles that will inspire and guide you further in your career as a writer.


Writing under a pen name

There are a few reasons for wanting to write under a name (a nom de plume as it’s otherwise called) that is different to your own. Maybe you share your given name with a writer who is already well known or you want to branch out into another genre, but don’t want your new work to be associated with your previously published fiction, articles or otherwise.


Spend some time thinking about your nom-de-plume

Regardless of the reason, choosing a pen name can be harder than it sounds. Here are some tips on finding a name that is right for you.

  1. Don’t use an anagram or wordplay, on your real name. This might seem like a fun thing to do, but people will suss you out; especially if you have a very distinctive writing style.
  2. Choose a name that means something to you. I chose the pseudonym under which I write erotica by combining the names of two characters from different films I like. Have fun with it.
  3. Come up with several different names. Don’t frustrate yourself by sitting down and trying to think up that one perfect name – instead, make a list of many, both forenames and surnames, that you like. Mix them up and put different ones together. You’ll soon find something that you think sounds perfect.
  4. Be sure that this is the name you want. You can’t suddenly decide to change it, so make sure this is a name that is really right for you and not one that you’ll be bored with in a week.
  5. Pick a name that is reasonably short (as it will need to be visible on a thumbnail of your cover) and which is memorable.

Writing under a pseudonym can be fun and even a chance to create an alter ego. It is important to choose a pen name that is not only appropriate, but also that is meaningful to you.

Being a commerical writer

So, you want to become a commercial writer?

That means you’ll need to be prepared to write about just about anything and everything that comes along. If your attitude’s ‘I write romance’ or ‘I write Sci-Fi’, you’re going to be facing a life along the same lines as a certain ‘Old Mother Hubbard’. On the other hand if it’s “I’m sure I can do it – what is it you want?”, then you’ve got chances.

That doesn’t mean that it’s OK to write rubbish as long as you get to the relevant word count. Absolutely not. Apart from it degrading yourself, you will also incur the wrath of your client who was expecting a quality guide/blog post/brochure/sales letter/article etc. A client’s wrath means bad reviews and no pay.

You see, unlike creative writing, you have but one client for one piece of work and, if he or she ain’t pleased, they will tell you so in no uncertain terms. There’s no hiding behind one lousy review and ten good ones with commercial writing.

Pocket watch

Deadlines must be met in the world of the commercial writer

Writer’s Block is another thing that you may have to overcome. You have 10,000 words to produce this week – produce them. If not, you will surely be for the high jump. You’ll need to learn to think on your feet and to adapt to the demands of your clients and the work that you are doing for them. If you can manage that, you’ll have chances.

I’ve been doing commercial writing for years and I’ve really enjoyed it. My specialism has been to take on the most difficult jobs and the most demanding clients. Not only are these easier to win for someone with a track record of proving themselves competent when it comes to delivering such work, the jobs also pay better. That said, notice the use of the phrase ‘track record’ – that’s something that comes with time. If you’re just setting out down this road, start with less lucrative but more straightforward projects.

Never think ‘Is this me?’, think ‘How can I do this one?’.

Commercial writing


Getting it right first time is the only option

Commercial writing is a world apart from creative writing. While authors will often wait nervously for reviews to start appearing, a commercial writer will know his or her fate pretty much immediately. Submit a substandard piece of work and, not only will you be barracked for it, you’ll also end up not getting paid.

It’s not for everyone – writing to order. A client wants their articles, blog posts, press release, leaflet text by a given date and that’s what they must have. Claiming writer’s block and a need to lie down in a dark place will not cut it and the job you sweated blood to get will simply be passed on to a keener and more amenable freelancer. All writing takes discipline, of course, but commercial writers need it in spades.

Another key difference is that, in most cases, the freelance commercial writer will be told what to write. While, in many ways, this makes it easier – you’ve not got to fret about plot-holes, character development etc – in other ways, it’s more difficult. The client has a fixed idea of what you should be delivering and they may not have communicated it to you in the clearest of manners. The fact that they were a bit muddle-headed in their briefing is still going to end up being your problem – you should have clarified it.

Language is also different. Elisions, abbreviations, slang, colloquialisms etc are not welcome in formal writing and there is a convention to be learnt when writing commercial pieces.

We’ll look at bid preparation, syntax and freelancing sites in future blogs.