Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oh, the pain!

I am trying to get the first chapter of my first novel - Finding Home - ready to submit to a first chapter competition and a few months ago I came to the painful realization that I had gone way too deep in describing my heroin's emotions rather than letting the story show her emotions.  I came across some great writing tips and have copied the section related to writing a first chapter below. These tips deeply resonated with me and so I painfully began the process of hacking my first chapter apart.

I faced two problems.  First: the first chapter did not contain a lot of dialogue or action - it was 4500 words filled with feelings, emotions and flash backs that while interesting and meaningful (especially to me as the author), much of it was not critical to the main story line.  Second: my second chapter is where the story explodes with great dialogue, conflict and plot.  So... what did I do?  I swallowed my pride, got my sharpest axe out, and began to iteratively chop away at hours and hours of literary prose.  My goal: to combine the first two chapters (8,451 words) into one super chapter without all the extras.  If you have not written a substantial text before where you believe it's all good and then been asked to cut it in half... I don't think you can begin to understand how hard this is.

I am happy to report that my 8,451 word chapter (combined first/second chapters) is now at a much healthier 4,503 words, and the bulk of cuts came from my original first chapter - almost 4000 words worth (don't worry - it's all stored in a safe place). The initial pain of going through this exercise has been extremely rewarding as I believe I now have a first chapter with legs to stand on.  The pace is much quicker, and rather than being told, the reader gets to experience what it is like to be dropped off at a home they've never seen before and to be stuck with a family that could not be more different than they are and told - "This is your new home."  And yes... I've still got some more hacking to do.


1. Make sure the first chapter starts with action.

2. Show, don't tell. This means you don't need a one paragraph description of a bedroom, a character's thoughts on everything, and for goodness sake don't put any backstory in the first chapter.

3. Keep it short. It doesn't have to be James Patterson short, but a ten page first chapter is better than a thirty page first chapter when it comes to grabbing attention.

4. Watch your POV... try to stick in one character's mind for the whole chapter.

5. Cut everything that doesn't move the action forward. EVERYTHING. If it moves the story forward, or gives us a better feel for the characters, put it in a later chapter, but not the first. Leave the reader wanting more, not knowing everything.

6. You probably don't need a prologue. Editors often cut them, and readers often skip them. Try to remove it and see if the story suffers. If you really believe you need one, don't make it longer than a few pages.

7. And this is the most important---trust yourself. You've been writing since you were four. You know how to craft a sentence. Not eveything needs to be rewritten---sometimes it comes out right the first time.