When I critique the first chapter of a novel for a critique partner, I like to start with a Quik Crit of the first 500 words. My focus is on the protagonist, the story question, and the hook. If those particular elements aren’t up to snuff, chances are an agent/editor won’t read past the 501st word.
Story trumps all, and since the protagonist carries the story it’s important to see how the protag is introduced. First I check for specific character qualities. I list them for the author and ask her, is this the impression she intends the protag to make on the reader? I’ve been surprised by how often a protag is introduced in a totally negative light. As in whiny, sullen, arrogant, resentful—in a word, a loser with nothing to make her/him attractive to the reader. In a recent crit, I pointed out how the protag was pictured as short, morose, weird, and punishing himself for something not explained to the reader. Imagine my surprise when in Chapter 2 he showed up as a tall, gorgeous hunk who was charming, confident, and striding toward his goal. Huh? The author was equally surprised at my first impression—until she examined what she’d actually put on the page. Secondly, I look at the action. Is the character moving the story forward? It doesn’t need to be at a gallop, but it needs to be more than simply milling around displaying character qualities.
I recently read an intro scene that was deliciously written. The protag was appealing, and I loved the author’s voice. But there was no story question worked into all those fabulous words. No hint of a flaw or a dilemma or where the story was headed. The character was simply… introduced, period. It was like being handed a train ticket with a lovely, young companion to sit next to, but without a destination to orient me. The train ticket is the author’s promise to tell a good tale, and the tale needs to begin with not just the intro of the protagonist, but with the big bump in the road—er, tracks—that makes it into a story.
We hear a lot about hooks—that chunk o’ chocolate that entices the reader to stick with the story long enough to get the train rolling. Fortunately the options are many and varied, and an author can be successful with a tried-and-true technique or come up with her own. The point is, by the 500th word, is the reader captivated enough to read on?
There are other story elements that can be looked at in the first 500 words, but the profit of the Quik Crit lies in evaluating what the reader’s first impression of the book might be. Are the most important elements there? The Quik Crit can also be used in a small gathering of authors (such as a “cluster” group) who would like their openings evaluated. Is the group on board with what the author intended, or did she unintentionally put the readers on the wrong train?
by Steph Prichard