I evaluate fiction for a publisher, using the publisher's standard set of questions, with the last question being: thumbs up or down? It's a tough list of standards, and I see a pattern of common problems that keep manuscripts from being accepted. The most significant problems involve the bond between story and character. If you want an agent or editor to get past the first chapter of your story, here are 10 things to keep in mind:
1. Make your main character want something. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative. Characters who don’t want anything are rarely interesting.
2. Make your main character do something. Your story can start with a character who is the victim of circumstances, but afterward the character needs to move quickly into action. Readers like characters who take charge.
3. Let your readers know the story’s premise right away. If they get to the end of the first chapter and still can’t answer the question—what is the story about?—they probably won't keep reading.
4. Get conflict into the story early on. It doesn’t have to be all-out bickering or deception between characters, but let your readers know things will sticky.
5. Skip the omniscient POV. Let the reader experience as much of the story as possible through the eyes of your main character. This is how readers bond with protagonists. If you shift POVs, put in a line break.
6. Introduce characters one at a time with a little physical detail and a little background information for each. (Ella was five-eight, bone thin, and worked for IBM.) Too many characters all at once in the first few pages can be overwhelming.
7. It’s okay to tell sometimes, instead of show. Not every character reaction has to be described in gut-churning, eyebrow-lifting physical detail. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say, “Jessie panicked.”
8. Don’t over write. Nobody agrees on what constitutes good writing, so trying to make your writing stand out will probably work against you. The best writing doesn’t draw attention to itself; it just gets out of the way of the story.
9. Avoid word repetitions when you can. Read your story out loud. You’re much more likely to hear the repetitions than see them.
10. The components of a novel that readers (and publishers) care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, setting. If you have to sacrifice something, start at the end of list. Never sacrifice the story for anything else.