Writing is rewriting.
So the popular, and unfortunately, all too true saying goes.
After working on the first draft my historical fiction trilogy for the better part of three years (with a long, six-year hiatus in between), I was ecstatic to finally get started on draft two of book #1 back in January of this year.
More than that, though, I was ecstatic to let people read a bit of my work; writer friends whose opinions I value, who would all praise me and tell me how brilliant a writer I am.
Yeah, that’s not what happened at all.
Rather, my esteemed writer friends told me my first chapter – which I’d already once rewritten from how it read in the first draft – had too much exposition, that the main character felt a bit flat, and that my sentences were too complex.
To the latter point especially, one person, whose opinion I particularly value, told me she couldn’t even make it to the end of the chapter.
The worst part was, they were right. Even without the telltale of three different people giving essentially the same feedback, when I objectively re-examined my chapter (as objectively as I was able), I could see a re-rewrite was clearly in order.
The following are my reflections on the process:
1) Someone’s got to do it
We’ve all heard the joke: Procrastinators of the world unite! Tomorrow.
In no aspect of my life, especially my writing life, do I put things off, instead generally following the opposite tack and scheduling everything to death.
But the gulf between thinking about fixing chapter one and actually doing the work was a spacious one indeed.
That is to say, I put the task off for nearly three-and-half months.
Part of this was because, in a moment of enlightened self-awareness, I realized some of the feedback I’d received applied not only to chapter one but chapters two and three as well.
Another part was that in the course of revising the first chapter most recently, I’d read through it so many times, I lost all perspective on it. It had become a track too well-worn in my mind to think beyond in order to move in a different direction.
Yet another part was the idea that I was supposed to be moving forward through my chapters, not backward. Plus, I’d just taken another short vacation and didn’t immediately feel strong enough mentally and creatively to charge straight into the thick of a re-rewrite.
But the further I continued moving ahead, the more I needed a functional first chapter. I needed to know which leads and threads I had to follow up on (as well as which I still needed to introduce) in subsequent chapters.
And so once I reached the end of chapter seven (the first division I made in my manuscript’s long, unwieldy Word document to improve its navigability), I went straight back to the beginning again.
2) Blind, but now I see
While reading my friends’ feedback on my chapter, cliché as it is to say, it truly did feel like a light suddenly switched on in my head.
Every problem they pointed out and every suggestion the offered as a solution made PERFECT SENSE to me. It was literally like, “Of course the main character feels flat”, as if I’d known it all along, even when I clearly didn’t or else I would have done something about it the first time.
I often find this to be the case in writing – that I know something is wrong with it, but I can only see it through the eyes of another person. I’ll understand the problem in theory, yet will have trouble recognizing the real-world application of it in my own writing.
Or maybe I actually do recognize the problem (at least on a subconscious level), but just try to sneak it past anyway, having convinced myself that it’s not so bad and no one will notice.
Maybe not only am I not a brilliant writer, I’m secretly a lazy one as well.
3) Diced vegetables
Regardless of whether I’m secretly lazy, I’m definitely impatient, both in real life and, evidently, in my writing.
While I managed to mostly avoid the dreaded infodump in my first chapter (mostly…), I still managed to overload the text with more backstory than was strictly necessary.
Why? Because I wanted to get it out of the way quickly so I could focus on the actual story.
But the more I thought about this motivation when it came time for re-rewriting, the more wrong it felt. My novel’s backstory is important. It’s the reason the front story is of any significance to the characters (and hence, the reader) at all.
But exposition isn’t something to just heap on the reader’s plate like a sloppy microwave dinner that’s still frozen in the center. Rather, it needs to be like mashed up vegetables hidden in the otherwise fun food you serve to a child.
It needs to be sliced and diced and served in bite-sized portions the precise moment the reader must consume it for the story to make sense. All of these food references being to say that backstory, when handled with subtlety, does enrich in a story greatly.
4) Give me a hint
The goal of the first chapter, I’ve come to realize through all of this, isn’t to make the reader know all there is to know about your main character, or even most of it.
Rather, the goal is to make something happen that the main character can use to hint at what there is to know about him/her. That’s it: just an incident or event that is exciting to read that involves main character acting and reacting in keeping with his/her personality.
It doesn’t have to reveal the full significance of the book’s central conflict, or even fully introduce it. It just has to hint at it – to make the reader ask questions that can only be answered by continuing to read.
5) Say it shorter
It occurred to me over the course of this exercise that I write in something of a stream of consciousness.
Not like James Joyce or anything, but to the extent that I regularly lose track of the beginning of my sentences the further along I progress in them.
As a result, I end up with sentences that take an eternity to end because I’ve forgotten how many other details – offset by numerous commas and dashes – I’ve already included in them.
(This is a consequence of the way I create outlines, both for fiction and nonfiction, which are even more stream-of-consciousness, generally featuring no narrative pause any stronger than a semicolon.)
I’ve always known this to be a problem of mine, but I never fully grasped just how much of a problem. Until one of my writer friends actually demonstrated it by marking up a sentence of mine. It contained, she concluded, 12 different pieces of information.
In my re-revision, I thus ripped my sentences apart at the seams and recreated almost every single one.
After composed each new sentence, I then reread it, told myself to try writing it shorter, whether it strictly needed it or not, and then took another crack at simplifying it.
As complex and convoluted sentences has been my natural bent for so long, “Write it shorter” has become my new grammatical mantra – one that I’m hoping continuous repetition will someday transform into instinctive action.
If I sound at all demoralized by this experience, I actually feel quite the opposite.
As I’ve expressed previously, giving my work to other writers to critique was an incredibly humbling and edifying experience that I believe has irrevocably changed me as a writer.
Best of all, I’m happy to report my re-rewritten chapter one was a hit. “Your changes have made the writing quite strong”, the writer who previously couldn’t get through the pages informed me.
This doesn’t mean I believe this version is perfect, or that the remainder of this draft won’t contain additional flaws. But I do feel like this process has set me on a definitive path I can follow for both the rest of the novel and many future chapter ones to come.
Do you struggle with first chapters? What tips do you have for making them more effective? Tell me about it in the comments.