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Read the first chapter of THE PUFFIN OF DEATH at


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

That Pesky First Chapter

Writing Chapter One can be hell. When beginning the first draft of a novel, Chapter One is almost always clumsy, confusing, vague, and written with all the expertise of a college freshman whose brain is fried on a combination of ganja and energy drinks. In fact, these first chapters are such miserable messes that most newbie writers feel compelled to fix them before they move on to Chapter Two.

Then Chapter Three, then Chapter Four, then…

“Oh, the hell with the thing!” the newbies wind up screaming before storming away from their manuscript, possibly forever. “This book just doesn’t work.”

To which I say, “Of course your book doesn’t work, because you didn’t write it. Instead, you wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote your first chapter until it died in your own hands. You were so obsessed with getting Chapter One ‘just right’ that you ignored your novel.”

And that’s a shame, because in the end, that first chapter will probably be cut anyway. It’s worth rephrasing. First chapters are usually cut from the finished manuscript.

Why? Because by the time the newbie writer has finished his manuscript, his book has taken on a shape and maturity he didn’t have when he was slaving away on Chapter One. The final chapters of his book are more universal in scope, deeper in tone, and more assured in craft than anything he could possibly have accomplished when he began his manuscript. Somewhere along the way, between page 50 and page 410, the writer grew up.

Am I speaking from experience? I sure am. My critique group has been operating for two decades now, and during all those years, I’ve watched attacks of Chapter One-itis kill many a newbie writer’s dreams. I’ve seen the same thing while teaching creative writing at various workshops across the country. Too many newbie novelists with truly great ideas just can’t move past Chapter One.

But it’s not only the newbies who fall victim to Chapter One-itis. It can happen to seasoned pros. In fact, it’s almost happened to me.

My 13th book -- The Llama of Death -- will be released on January 6, and I am here to tell you that all my first chapters were eventually cut from my final manuscript, including Llama. In my first chapter, I’m always flailing around, trying to find the novel’s “voice,” trying to clarify my ideas while at the same time introducing various characters. And my poor protagonist? In my first draft of Chapter One I find myself explaining over and over how my protagonist got to where she is, what her life was like before the book started, and why she feels compelled to solve crimes.

This clumsy flailing around is par for the course at the beginning of a first draft. At that point, I’m so insecure about my story that I tend to explain things to death. Therefore, Chapter One comes out overcrowded, over-described, stagnant, and dull. Nothing much happens in those pages – instead, it’s all cerebral in-the-head stuff, muddled and fatally passive. In short, Chapter One reeks.

No problem. I never try to “fix” Chapter One while writing the first draft of a novel. I leave the ugly thing to stew in its own juice while I move on to the first draft of Chapter Two. Then I write the first draft of Chapter Three. Then… You get the idea. I never look back. I don't “fix” the mess I left behind in Chapter One until I type THE END on the very last page of my manuscript’s first draft.

Once the first draft is completed, then, and only then, do I go back and address the problems in Chapter One. And what a surprise I find waiting for me! As it turns out, Chapter One no longer fits into my book. You see, once my story caught fire, it headed off in a different direction than I’d originally intended -- a better, more creative direction. Chapter One now looks like a donkey’s head stuck on a Thoroughbred.

So I just dump the nasty thing.

Then I write a brand new Chapter One. But while doing so, I often receive another surprise. I discover that what had originally been Chapter Two works even better as Chapter One, because Chapter Two has more action and less in-the-head stuff. I also learn that my later chapters handled most of the necessary explanations, so they weren’t necessary in Chapter One anyway. Therefore, my old Chapter Two – now evolved into Chapter One -- sizzles. All it needs is a light rewrite to start the book off with a bang, instead of the dull thud that my clunky old Chapter One delivered.

My point here is that you never know where your story will go, so why bother torturing yourself trying to perfect a chapter that will wind up in the trash anyway? Don’t let yourself succumb to Chapter One-itis. Write the darned thing fast and dirty, then move on to the rest of your book, because that’s where the magic is going to happen.

To reiterate: don’t try to fix that subpar Chapter One until you’ve finished the entire first draft of your manuscript. Then go back and write the wonderful Chapter One your book deserves.


P.S. If you found this helpful, continue on to the article about the Shadow Self.


Sabrina Devonshire said...

For me, Chapter 1 is the easiest part. I have an inspiration and I'm excited to sit down and run with it. I tend to get stuck in the middle. I try not to go back and rewrite until I get to that stuck place and then I find that ironing out earlier chapters and the details associated with that help me forge forward.

Betty Webb said...

You're lucky, Sabrina. For most writers, it's the getting started that's hard!

Kimiko&Mom said...

I often start with a Chapter One that I think is brilliant, but end up cutting it anyway, for the same reasons you mention, Betty! I try to just leave it and move on with that first draft, and by golly you're right; with a few fixes, Chapter Two makes a great Chapter One. Then there's that pile of Chapter(s) One in a file that never turned into anything; poor little orphans. I may take one of their first lines and enter it in the Bulwer-Lytton contest! Great blog, Betty, thank you! (Although I sometimes get a sag in the middle; I write through it, and usually when THE END is written, I know exactly how to perk up that sag) This deserves a read from both newbies and established writers. Thank you! Lori Orser

Betty Webb said...

Lori, I have that "orphan" file, too. It's made up of everything I've cut that I might need some day. A couple of times, I've actually used some of the material on later projects.

Suzanne said...

Betty -- yes!

You've cited some reasons why I insist that the purpose of a first draft is to get to The End.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Betty. In fact, on my book that comes out this January, I rewrote Ch 1 (2 & 3) so many times that I could have filled an Orphan file, and several others. In the end, you'll never guess... Yep. Cut. Lopped off.

Definitely a timely post as I struggle with my current Ch 1, which I've already gone back and changed, several times, even though I am way beyond it. I love the idea of letting it stew. Just leave it. Because you're right. It's gonna change again as that story morphs, and every time I go back and change it to fit, I am wasting forward momentum.

Now, I think I'll limit my changes to mere notes written at the top of the chapter, so I remember the ideas when I finally get back to that pesky beginning--after I right The End.

Anonymous said...

Er, that would be "write" not "right."

Sabrina Devonshire said...

Betty, I'm not all that lucky... I write dreadful first drafts and have to do a tremendous amount of restructuring and trimming unnecessary material later.

It's easy for me the write the first draft chapter one because I'm fired up, but then I usually redo it eight or nine times minimum...I just try not to look back when I'm trying to get my story out because once I get in editing mode, this blocks me from getting new writing done.

Connie Flynn said...

I feel your pain, Betty. That's exactly what happens to me with my first chapters. Since I added short stories to my writing, I've found it easier to cut out the boring stuff fairly soon after I write it. Notice, however, that I didn't say easy.

Betty Webb said...

Amazing how all we writers suffer through the same things in the same way, isn't it? Sure, we can fix them, but like Connie said, it's not easy.