Tips on Plotting and Editing

by Sherry-Anne Jacobs


Part 1: Beginnings (from a how-to book by Sherry-Anne Jacobs, AKA Anna Jacobs)

This is the first of a 3-part mini-series by Sherry-Anne - in the next couple of weeks, look forward to tips on handling 'middles' and 'ends' as well!


It's a competitive market nowadays. Some say that too many novels are being published. For an economist, it would be a clear case of supply exceeding demand, as many more books are offered to publishers than can be published.

Today's more sophisticated readers can also pick and choose, not only among the books available in the shops, but among other sorts of diversions, like videos, computer games, television, CDs, DVDs, the Internet - to mention only a few.

So - how are you going to attract a reader or commissioning editor to your book? With your story's exciting beginning, of course. How do you personally select a book to buy? Think about that for a moment, before you read on ... The standard factors of reader attraction have been much analysed by publishers' marketing sections. They include the cover illustration, the author's name (you've read her/his books before and love them), the title, the blurb on the back cover - and you may even open up the book and read a bit to see if you like it, especially with an unknown author.

If you open the book, how much do you read? Five pages? Three pages? Half a page? More likely the latter. Ask your friends the same question. That'll give you some idea of your 'catching time' as a writer.

Editors usually read a longer sample of a manuscript than readers in a bookshop, say 20-30 pages, to see if they find the writing attractive. In fact, they give a writer a far better chance than a potential buyer will. But they won't usually read the whole novel if the first part bores, irritates or repulses them. And in fact, many publishers don't ask for the whole manuscript to be submitted in the first round, just the first two or three chapters and a synopsis. Which means that you, as a writer, must sweat blood over the beginning.

Without a compelling start, you'll get nowhere, either with the editor who buys manuscripts for a publishing house, or with the reading public.


It's common to start a novel at a crisis or turning point, an exciting or significant event that will have major repercussions for at least one of the main characters. Such an exciting event will attract a reader/editor and will also catapult you, the writer, into the thick of the action. You just can't afford to spend a whole chapter setting the scene. Any necessary information must be inserted 'on the run' as it were.

In the search for the best possible beginning, you should be prepared to change anything as you edit and revise your work - but don't be too daunted by this task, as you can start when and how you like the first time you write and change/polish things later, if necessary.

EXAMPLE: Look at what happened to some of the beginnings of my published novels:

* SALEM STREET originally began on page 14 (Hodder & Stoughton paperback edition)

* HALLAM SQUARE had no prologue when first written

* SPINNERS LAKE had a prologue which the editor removed, to give more immediacy

* QUEST began at Chapter 2

Perhaps I'm slow to learn, but it took me a while to realise how much more exciting I had to make my beginnings - and also to realise that as a writer I warmed up as I got further into the story, which was yet another reason in my case to rewrite the beginning. Even now, I'm always prepared to change things if my 'valued readers' feel something is lacking, or I'm prepared to listen if my editor suggests changes.

I want the best possible product. I have no pride about words, paragraphs or scenes, just about the whole finished product.

The chapter on 'Beginnings' continues under the headings of:

* Getting Started

* Who Are The First Stages Really For?

* What A First Chapter Might Contain

(c)copyright Sherry-Anne Jacobs 2002.

"Plotting and Editing" by Sherry-Anne Jacobs (AKA Anna Jacobs) is published by Training Publications, Western Australia, ISBN 0 7307 1400 4 - order from any bookshop or buy on line from Visit Sherry-Anne's website at  


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The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

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