Thoughts on Revising My Novel’s First Chapter

One chapter down, 30 more to go (in this draft)

One chapter down, 30 more to go (in this draft)

For a while, I honestly thought this day would never come: the day I finally got to start revising my WIP.

I never set out to write a trilogy.  That’s a whole lot of writing for anyone, but for me, being such a slow writer to boot, it at times felt near-insurmountable.

I’m convinced the only thing that got me to THE END of the first draft was the iron-like strength of my discipline.  I may have many shortcomings as a writer, but showed up at the page is not one of them.

And my persistence paid off!  I’ve entered a whole new stage of my writing journey, one I’ve never before encountered for a work this long.

Revision.

In preparation for this, I read through my entire first draft and colour-coded each chapter (red, yellow, or green) based on the amount of fixing required.  Chapter one, unsurprisingly, earned a code red, so I’d be starting my revisionist career in full swing.

It took a whole week, but I did manage to get through it, and over the course of creating of chapter one – draft two, I had the following reflections:

1) A New Year for a new stage

I began my rewrite two days after New Year’s, prior to which I’d not done anything writing-related (either drafting or reading though) since mid-November.

In retrospect, such a lengthy break was not a good idea.  True, it gave the story a chance to cool in my mind.  But I’ve blogged before about how I struggle with my writing after I come back from a long vacation away from it.

This time, the situation was even worse: I wasn’t just drafting; now I was trying to make pre-existing writing better, all the while suffering a near-inability to string a compelling sentence together.

Literally, it made my brain hurt.

2) Word wars

I wrote my entire trilogy using WordPerfect.  I’ve been a loyal user of this program since 1996’s version 5.1, which was DOS-based and on screen produced white type on a dark blue background.

I like this program for its clean user interface, its relative lack of automation, and, in particular, the ability to save up to 200 Undo/Redo changes, which I find indispensable while creating a draft.

For revision, though, I wanted to track every change I made at a glance, and no program does this better than Microsoft Word.

However, Word isn’t without its faults as well.  Even with proper headings and bookmarks, navigating through a 400-page document in Word is an unwieldy mess.  As well, because the file was so large, spellcheck and autocorrect stopped working, plus the autosave backups took forever and seemed to dampen my computer’s performance in the process.

In the end, I was forced to break the manuscript up into three separate documents just to get full functionality back.

3) Four-year-old breadcrumbs

Back in 2012, when I’d just started writing again after having quit six years prior, I joined a writers’ social meetup group*.  During one of the meetups, everyone read a portion of their WIPs.  I chose to read the opening pages of book #1 because I was rather proud of them.

Chapter oneAt least, I was until I heard the consensus of feedback: too slow; nothing happened; fairly good writing and use of language, but far too much exposition.  I was devastated.  Until I realized it was true.  Then I became determined to make it better.

Except that proved much easier said than done.  For two agonizing weeks, I wrote and rewrote, attempting to fix my hook.  But other than a new opening line, nothing I tried seemed to work.  Eventually, I gave up in disgust and moved on to writing books #2 and #3.

However, because I save everything, I saved that thwarted effort from book #1 as well.  Reading it back again, it was just as rough as I remembered – so choppy and directionless, it practically dripped with the sweat of my fruitless exertions.

But the direction of my ideas was solid, and with my better understanding of both what my story is about and how it ends (because the first chapter is answered by the last chapter), I was able to repurpose almost all of the material into the new chapter one.

4) Read the change you want to be

At the same time that I was revising chapter one, I was reading a book I wasn’t enjoying.

I won’t bother to name and shame, but suffice it to say I found the narrative voice underwhelming, the pacing sluggish, and main character a bit flat.  Not only was I bored with this book, coupled with my post-holiday writing malaise, I felt like I was lapsing into many of the book’s same bad techniques.

J.K. Rowling to the rescue! (Or more specifically, her mystery-writing alter ego, Robert Galbraith.)  Rowling is an author I’m very fond of, particularly her adult fiction: I find her narrative voice incredibly strong, her use of figurative language vivid and original, and the details she chooses to include so insightful and clever.

Starting to read the latest Galbraith title, Career of Evil, was like a renaissance, reminding me what good writing sounds like, even in something as simple as describing a building:

It was half past one before she reached the forecourt of Wollaston Close, the Strata building looming over the shabby old flats like an emissary from the future. (p. 382)

I’ve written before about how I like to read while writing – about how a well-written book doesn’t discourage my writing but instead inspires it.  Clearly such will be the case with my revision as well.

5) (Don’t) Sing, sing a song

I love to listen to music while … doing pretty much anything.  Writing is no exception to this so long as it’s music I know well, to the point that it almost disappears in my mind.

I have plenty of music that serves this function, both with lyrics and instrumental.  However while rewriting chapter one (as opposed to while I’m drafting), I couldn’t stand to hear a single song with lyrics.

For whatever reason, I found the presence of extra words in my head – even well-known ones that were just passing through – incredibly distracting.

6) All in (good time)

After having spent so very long just writing my first draft(s), with my answer to the infernal question of how my book was going forever being, “I’m still writing”, I was thrilled to finally be able to tell people something different.

“I’m revising!” I could now declare triumphantly.

Colour-coded chapters. All 31 of them.

Colour-coded chapters. All 31 of them.

Because of this, when I started rewriting chapter one, I was super gung-ho about it.  I mean, I went all in, working on it for days in a row and hours at a time.  I stayed up far too late every night and continued fussing over what I’d written the following (weary) morning before work.

I worked on it like I was near the end of the revision, not the very start of it.

The result of this at the end of the week was twofold:

  • Draft 2 of chapter one was complete
  • I was so burned out from my rigorous pace, I couldn’t do any more revising for the next four days.

The lesson I learned is that I need to slow the hell down and figure out how to work sustainably.  Because that was just chapter one.  My WIP is 31 chapters long.

7) This really might take five drafts (or, All in (good time) – part 2)

I never used to understand how some writers take four or five drafts to perfect their novels until I started dealing with my own.

I realize now that I can only do so much fixing in a single pass.  I have the unique misfortune of having written the first draft of my trilogy’s first novel in the wrong genre, so just correcting the story content is one pass right there.

I’ve previously mentioned that I have a wee little problem (read: a massive, perpetual problem) with complex, run-on sentences.

I actually thought I was doing a decent job with paring those down while rewriting chapter one, but two writer friends who gave it a cursory read say otherwise.  So working on that will take another pass –realistically probably more than one if I’m truly as bad as all that.

And then I still need beta readers to help me ensure the story actually works, and more drafts to incorporate their feedback.

All of which is to say that although I’ve finished draft two of chapter one, I’ve really barely gotten anywhere at all.

~

A/N: I now run the writers’ social meetup group.  For some reason, it felt important that I share that.

What have been your revision tales of woe?  What advice can you offer on what I’ve done wrong thus far?  Let me know in the comments.

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

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17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Revising My Novel’s First Chapter

  1. Hurray and congratulations on moving to the next stage. You’re very dedicated! And systematic.^_^ As for your invitation questions at the end of the post: A really good way to catch run-on sentences is to use a program to have your verbiage read back to you. There’s nothing like a flat computer type voice to highlight a run on sentence! Also, as hard as revising the first time can be, it does become easier. I’m betting between your first book in the trilogy and the last, your process will change and you’ll be traveling more smoothly.

    You say you like Word Perfect. I’ve never used it, but I would suggest for handling large projects, Scrivener really, really helps. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that before. It’s much more powerful than any other writing software I’ve ever handled.

    As for action and not liking your own story sometimes, what gets you excited for the story? What points of action are the reason you wrote to start with?

    For example, and this is my own editing tale of woe, I had one draft years ago, where I ended up chopping large portions of the beginning off and just going straight to the action because even I didn’t want to read the intro. Hated doing it, but it made the book better. Actually, and this sounds horrible, I dropped one of my main characters entirely and moved him three books down the planned series just to tighten up the action. That was painful! Just to note, this is a series I haven’t released yet. Since then, I make sure that something is happening at all times. The motto is, “If it’s not moving, it’s dead.” Took me at least ten drafts over several projects to get that!

    All the best!

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    • A favourite author of mine once stated that there comes a time when one has to play to his/her strengths rather than fight them. I am organized to a fault in all areas of my life, so by God, I’m going to find a way to game that for the good of my writing!

      Thanks for the advice. I know a lot of writers love Scrivener, but I also hear it has a steep learning curve. At this point, I feel like I’m too far in with my current MS to switch programs now, but I’ll definitely check it out for my next project. (No promises though: there are certain seemingly insignificant functions like the ability to save 200 Undo/Redo’s or to turn off the word counter that I’m really partial to.) It helps that Scrivener’s not too costly either; Microsoft Office is crazy expensive.

      I really like the idea of having a program read my work out loud. Adobe Acrobat Reader does that. I like that idea better than reading it out myself, because I feel like I would cheat and alter my cadence to make it seem less run-on than it is. Plus, if the computer is reading it for me, I can follow along and mark up the text on the fly.

      I love your tale of woe and can definitely relate to having parts I don’t want to read. As I mentioned before when I read through the entire first draft, you know you’re in trouble when you want to skip pages in your own book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t know Adobe Acrobat Reader did that! Thanks. As for reading out loud, I would cheat to! I can’t read my work to myself. All the best and looking forward to your next post when it comes!

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  2. You’re better than me! You finished your first draft! Well done. I can’t speak to character and plot, but I found if I read my writing out loud I can usually pick up poor syntax. I did about 5 drafts of my thesis, and planning a monograph which requires a whole rewrite of the original text. The thing I got used to was active prose. Not often used in academic writing but should be. My favourite type of writing; the text becomes tauter, more immediate and all the purple prose is superfluous.

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    • Good for you for finishing your thesis and with plans to publish part of it. That’s awesome!

      Active prose is so important, and I noticed a funny thing while working on my chapter one: after having spent so much time away from writing, my early return attempts were fraught with passive voice. It was as if that part of my brain started up first and took off down the road while the part involved in more active, stylistic prose didn’t fire up until a few days later. I wonder if there is any brain science to explain that experience, or if it’s just my own unique major malfunction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think there’s probably some evidence of cognitive conditioning in your writing habits that neuroscience research has mapped. Sounds like new neural networks being formed after a break. Why do we go passive voice first, though? There’ll be a learning process that was reinforced from childhood writing perhaps and that native English speakers naturally use? Think about it. Do you use active voice or passive voice in everyday speech? When I was transcribing interviews there was a preponderance of passive voice being used by the speakers.

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      • there was a preponderance of passive voice being used by the speakers
        There it is right there. 🙂 But it makes one wonder: if so much of what people speak (and by association, hear) is passive, why the obsession with active voice in writing? It’s obviously something we’ve been trained into wanting and liking.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done for getting so far in the process, Janna. I love writing but hate editing and I know what it’s like to have a long story and the spell check in Word decides it’s all too much and stops working! Yikes. Reading the entire thing out loud is the only way to really pick up any mistakes or flow problems from this point on. Best of luck with it 🙂

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    • Thanks, Dianne. Yeah, that’s weird with Word and the spell check crapping out, isn’t it. As a word processing program, I’d have thought it would be more robust.

      Rather than reading my MS out myself, I think I’m going to try Ciara’s suggestion and use a computer program that will read it for me. That way, I can follow along and make corrections instead of constantly switching between reading and fixing.

      Liked by 1 person

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