Friday, November 5, 2010

The Fretful First Chapter

I've been pondering first chapters a lot lately.

I've read some great blog posts by others about them. I've paid close attention to them in every book I've read recently. And every once in a while, I revisit my own first chapter. I stare at and reconfigure the words. I cut something. I add something. I scratch my head and try to figure out how to make it convey exactly the right tone, the right level of intrigue, the right ... everything.

Revisions are hard (I think I say that in every blog post) and first chapter revisions are hardest. I'm working on the third draft of my novel right now, which means my first chapter has already had two major overhauls.
And there'll be a third.

I know this largely because of the feedback I got from an agent last month. She liked my idea, she liked my writing style, but she didn't dig the pacing my first chapter set for the book. And I definitely see her point. I'm well past the first chapter right now in revisions, but I'm such a chronological writer and editor that I doubt I'll go back and tackle chapter 1 again until I've finished this round of revisions.

Seriously. I write and edit from start to finish. It's kind of a problem.

But even though I'm not working on my first chapter right now, I keep pondering it. I know I've got to lose some of my MC's copious internal monologue and get to the action quicker. How to do it, now there's the dilemma. I read a post yesterday on Writer Unboxed about structural editing, and I really relate to the way the author of that post works. I edit as I go. I reread and edit a chapter or a few pages ahead of my actual starting point almost every time I sit down to write. It helps draw me into the story.

And it leads to a clean draft. But that doesn't make editing any easier. Honestly, it makes it harder, because tight transitions and clean writing are difficult to cut. I know that from years of editing and being edited as a journalist.

The first chapter is hardest of all, in part because it has such a big job to do - hook the reader, set the tone, establish the characters - but mainly because the way it's structured affects the structure of the rest of the book.

So basically, it's always on my mind. Even when I'm working in chapter 14. Even when I'm working in chapter 30. When I'm eating. When I'm sleeping. When I'm driving.

I might even dream about it.

I think I need a vacation.


  1. I agree--I just spent ALL SUMMER rewriting my opening chapter. I think I have it memorized at this point.

  2. Cheryl, I know exactly what you mean. There are parts of my book I could recite - including each version of my first chapter. ;-)