Writers have a tendency to spend more time and energy revising their first chapters than any other part of their novels. Why? Because in the publishing industry, first impressions matter. Whether you’re writing an agent query, the first paragraph of your novel, or introducing yourself—and your work—to an industry professional on Twitter, you only get one chance to make that first impression.
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward with your agent query and/or novel is to hire a freelance editor. Critique partners and beta readers are invaluable—and if you have a good CP in your life, you’re that much closer to perfecting your work. However, freelance editors—like agents and house editors—are industry professionals. Not only do we have a comprehensive understanding of what agents and editors are looking for, we also make our living based on our unique ability to read constructively and analytically, and to subsequently be able to communicate feedback, insight, and any outstanding or unresolved issues clearly and effectively. Our job is to not only help identify these issues, but also to help you find a way to resolve them.
One of my clients—let’s call him Tom—is a prolific writer. Before hiring me, Tom wrote dozens of novels—all of which he’d queried with agents, some of which had earned partial requests and one or two fulls, but none had ever garnered him an offer of representation. To hear him tell it, he resisted hiring a freelance editor for over a decade because it seemed to him a failing of sorts; hiring a freelance editor was an indication, in Tom’s mind, that he was not a good enough writer to succeed, period. He finally hired me out of sheer frustration—his most recent manuscript had received dozens of full manuscript requests from agents, all of whom he deeply admired, but each time, the novel was ultimately rejected.
Upon reading both his query letter and manuscript, I discovered two issues right away: the first was that the query letter and manuscript did not match one another. The query was quite well-written, but it did not accurately convey the tone and plot of his manuscript—a common error which most often results in precisely what Tom had recently experienced; agents loved the idea of the novel presented in the query, but the manuscript itself did not fulfill the expectations set forth in the query. The second problem was that the manuscript needed to be edited and revised. Though technically clean and grammatically correct, Tom’s manuscript contained several plot and consistency issues that needed to be resolved. Unfortunately, Tom had sent his manuscript out too soon and, based on that initial first impression, some of his most sought-after agents were no longer an option for him.
Over the next couple of months, I worked with Tom to revise his novel. Throughout the process, he often told me that he’d known some of the issues I pointed out existed in his work, but he hadn’t been able to put his finger on the root of the issue precisely enough to revise it effectively. And, though a few of his CPs had pointed out some of the issues as well, they hadn’t been able to help him figure out a way to change the story in a way that felt organic to Tom’s own personal writing and narrative style, while also resolving the problem. By the time we finished working together, Tom felt more confident about the quality of his work (and his promise as a writer in general) than he ever had before. Shortly after sending out his completed, polished manuscript, he received several requests for the full. This time, within a few short months, Tom had his first ever offer of representation.
I’m not saying that every writer who hires a freelance editor will come away from the experience with an agent and a book deal—although many have. Instead, I’ll stress that a good freelance editor can be an invaluable tool in helping you to identify, and fix, any extant problems in your novel, not to mention aiding you in perfecting story and craft on a line-by-line level. We are here to provide you with perspective, to make your novel the best version of itself it can be. Simply put, our job is to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward, that your writing makes the best possible first impression.
In the workshop I lead this past weekend, Hook Them with Your First Ten Pages, we discussed how to make an excellent first impression within the first ten pages of our novels. We discussed the importance of establishing the correct tone, capturing our reader’s attention, and ensuring the quality of our writing in those opening pages reflects the literary integrity exhibited throughout. Whether your goal is to pique the interest of your dream agent in a query letter, or to ensure your introductory chapters are engaging enough to keep your reader reading, the importance of making a good, impactful first impression is paramount in the publishing industry. And with a freelance editor’s help, you just may find that this ever-elusive, excellent first impression is finally and definitively within your grasp.