Monday, September 19, 2016


In A STORY IS A PROMISE, Bill Johnson examines the right way to open a story. And that’s important information to have. But as a PitchWars mentor, I’ve read hundreds of opening chapters and find that the same kinds of mistakes show up time and time again. With that in mind, I’ve put together a handy checklist of several ways to avoid writing the wrong opening. Ready? Let’s go!

The story starts in the wrong place
Occasionally, the story starts too late. When this occurs, the reader doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening and/or they don’t have enough information to care about the main character. Most often, stories start too early, burdening the reader with pages and pages of material that don’t signal where the story is going or drive it forward in a meaningful way. (The best way to know if you’ve started in the right place? Share your work with critique partners and beta readers.)

The story lacks emotional resonance
There may be all sorts of exciting, dangerous, or even sad things happening in your story. But if we don’t know how these plot points impact the main character on a personal level, it makes it hard for us to buy into their journey. Give us a reason to care.

The story lacks tension
It’s easy to mistake tension for drama or action. Consequently, readers who are writing quiet (character-driven) stories sometimes mistakenly believe that their stories don’t need tension. But tension is what drives a story. Tension doesn’t have to mean running from bad guys or a storm brewing on the horizon. Tension means that there is some type of conflict—which can be internal, external, or both––driving the story forward. Otherwise, there is no reason for the reader to keep turning the pages.

The writer tries to play coy
Writers often try to hook the reader by dangling a carrot in front of them—referring to an incident that they assume will pique the reader’s curiosity and make them want to continue turning the pages. But often, these carrots confuse the reader and they end up setting the book aside. The line between hooking the reader and confusing them can be a very difficult one to walk, and CPs and beta readers play a crucial role in helping the writer get it right.

Too much backstory
If you’ve followed the PitchWars hashtag for any length of time, this is one that you’ve undoubtedly seen come up again and again. Don’t make the mistake of bogging down your opening pages with tons of information that the reader “has to have” to understand the story—if they really, truly have to have all of that information, then you’ve probably opened your story in the wrong place. But the chances are, the reader doesn’t need nearly all the information you’ve stuffed into your opening. Cut most of it, and leave only that which the reader absolutely cannot move forward without. (How do you know if you have the right balance? CPs and beta readers, of course. Noticing a theme here?)

First Day of School Syndrome
Stories that open on the first day of school are extremely common. As such, it’s exceptionally difficult to write a scene that feels fresh and engaging. The same goes for opening with dreams (in addition to signaling that you are a new writer, this technique causes the reader to feel like the writer has pulled a bait and switch, and they lose trust in the writer. Don’t take that risk). Another opening mistake along these lines—having the character gaze into a mirror. Find a more original way to convey the MC’s appearance.

Make sure your story doesn’t fall into any of the common opening traps, and you’ll be several steps closer to writing a solid opening that delivers on its promise to the reader. (Hopefully you’ve also walked away from this with a sense of how important critique partners are to the writing process. More about that here.)

Happy writing!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis
A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at

Friday, September 16, 2016


by Kim Long

I love hearing from my critique partners (CPs) or beta readers on a new manuscript. But I confess after the initial reaction of, "Yay, feedback!" is some dread, "How am I going to handle all of this?" It really can be overwhelming, especially when I receive feedback from several readers within a few days. That's a lot of information to take in all at once. In an effort to decrease my anxiety as much as possible, I focus on breaking things down.

First, usually, before I hand off a manuscript, I'll have an idea of a few potential issues. On my current manuscript, I worried about too much info-dump in the first chapter, whether chapter 4 was too early for a flashback, and if my MC played a big enough role in the ultimate conflict resolution. These weren't the only things, mind you. Let's face it, I knew I was going to be getting a bunch of, "What's she feeling here? Show some emotion!" comments because, yeah, that's par for the course. But those are small things. I leave the small things for the end. The first thing I want to know is whether my concerns on the bigger things match at all with my CP's concerns.

In this case, one CP totally thought too much info-dump, one CP thought it was "perfect," and one thought it might be too much, but she wasn't sure how to fix it. With that feedback, I knew chapter one was going to have to change. Got it.

The chapter 4 flashback wasn't a problem with anyone. In fact, two of the three CPs LOVED where it was in the book. WOO HOO!

The MC's role was called out by everyone. Not surprising. But, the great news was that one CP particularly had an idea changing something else in the story could work to fix that problem. Taking that suggestion, I brainstormed and developed a new sub-plot that will put my MC front and center.

Now that I had an idea what to do with the three main issues, I looked to see if any of the CPs had other, "major" issues that would call for more substantial revisions. I didn't really have any this time around, but in a previous manuscript I had a CP raise an idea I really liked that I thought could help the manuscript. I note those bigger things--things that will require writing new scenes/deleting scenes--for the next stage.

For my current manuscript, once I had my CPs' answers on the issues that I had and know their main plot/character issues, I tackled the opening first, working to reduce the info-dump. Good thing is the CP who also thought it was a problem had a couple suggestions on how to make it work.

Once I revised the first chapter and got it in a good place, I opened one CP's edits and looked for the first edit/comment. If I thought the CP's suggestion worked, I revised in my document. I did this through the entire manuscript, looking at each comment in chronological order and then editing my manuscript as I saw fit. When I reached a point that I had to make substantive revisions based on my plan to add the new sub-plot, I revised accordingly. (And in my last manuscript, this is the time where I wrote new scenes/deleted scenes to make the other substantive plot changes.) Then I returned to the CP's version and continued on my way. By the time I reached the end of my manuscript and the CP's notes, I had a revised version with the new beginning and the new sub-plot. YAY!

But I'm not done yet, of course. Next, I opened the second CP's line edits. I repeated the same process--reading each comment in order and deciding whether to revise in my manuscript. The good thing is that some of the second CP's suggestions were already taken care of through the first revision. And, if the second CP mentioned something was an issue, I had the luxury of referring back to the first CP's comments to see how that scene played with them.

I essentially repeated this process for each CP. Usually, I have only three CPs at a time. If a beta reader has overall comments, I'll read those as soon as I get them and note substantive changes I want to make.

Overall, I find the above process works well for me. I don't get overwhelmed by trying to incorporate every suggestion every CP makes at one time. Also, by focusing on a single CP's edits at one time, I can get a better idea of that CP's thoughts as they read the manuscript.

As for how many comments/suggestion I take and how many I don't, it depends on the CP, but overall I think I probably consider and make at least some kind of minor change over 80% of the time. If a CP wants a bit of emotion, fine, it probably needs it. Lol. If a CP thinks a line can be cut to better the pace, why not? If a CP is confused about something, why wouldn't I add a phrase to clarify in case that CP wouldn't be the only one confused?

Basically, I don't enter revisions with the thought of revising as little as possible. Instead, I want to make changes. I'm dying to make changes! The worst is getting something back with no feedback and no comments!  (Luckily, I have a great group of CPs where that is not a problem!)

What are your tricks or tips for handling feedback? Let us know in the comments!