“I have become Death, Destroyer of First Chapters”

“I have become Death, Destroyer of First Chapters”

Having written five novels beyond at least the first draft stage, I’ve noticed a trend. In each of them, with a single exception, the original first chapter either got cut, moved to another berth in the novel, or got re-tooled so extensively that it was no longer recognizable.

I didn’t set out in any of these cases to follow the adage about “cutting the first three chapters.” I find most writing maxims and sayings cute slices of wit, occasionally instructive, but disposable on a case-by-case basis. But I seem to have followed this one with lock-step dedication without even thinking about it. Most other writers I’ve talked to have noticed a similar machete-wielding brutality toward their early chapters when the time comes to dig into the second draft.

Why does this seem to happen so often? After all, first chapters usually are the section of the book that writers have the most solidly defined in their heads before they sit down to pound out that first draft. Even if the writer doesn’t work from an outline (I do, but that’s a subject for another post) he or she often has the full “move clip” version of that awesome opening all queued up and ready to play. “I’ve got this terrific opening,” the writer likes to say to friends. “I’ve even composed the perfect first line.” Some people hatch an entire novel from thinking of one single eye-grabbing opening sentence.

And yet, this first chapter often ends up scrapped, re-located, refurbished, or replaced with a Winnie-the-Pooh ride.

I’ve thought over this phenomenon while revising my current book for National Novel Editing Month. I loved the idea I first devised: I wanted to try a “source material” opening where a series of news clippings start off the story. I liked the dry, journalistic voice, and a number of favorite novels of mine use this device effectively. I imagined that it would make a great intro for this particular story. After a few pages of world-setting through the voices of the world itself, I would transition into the head of the protagonist for the first chapter of “the rest of the book.”

I liked what I produced during that first draft. I still liked it when I did quick read-over of those first few pages after I finished the draft.

Two months later, I read the whole novel. My first decision: cut the first fifteen pages of news clipping, and move an idea mentioned briefly in Chapter Six to the beginning and expand it into an entirely new chapter from the POV of one of the main characters.

The specific reasons for this change were that the “source material” opening provided raw data but no drama, it didn’t feature any characters who would appear later, and the new concept would draw the reader more deeply into the center of the story when it arrived. Out went fifteen pages, and I wrote a new chapter almost from scratch. So far, the novel flows tremendously better because of this change.

As for my earlier books, one had its opening chapter retained—but it changed into Chapter Eight, and a re-vamped Chapter Eight took its place as Chapter One. Another book had a framing device I outright killed. Suddenly, the opening of Chapter Two, never intended as the “hook” to grab the reader on the first page, was the first sentence of the book. And it turned out to be a great hook… probably because I never intended it to serve that function.

In fact, of all my novel projects, only one still had the same opening line… and that after four drafts. It surprises me that it has survived, but I haven’t come up with any reason to change it, or the idea of the chapter that follows it. But that’s an exception.

I’ve come up with a few reasons why my first chapters have all undergone this; I imagine most writers will give similar reasons for the sacrifice of Chapter One.

First, the nature of developing a story. How the story starts, and sometimes how it ends, are often what I think of first. Some people get fixated on the ending first, but I tend toward having an amorphous ending during the early novel development stages. Either way, a large stretch of the middle often is terra incognito. Even with my most detailed outlines, which can run 15,000 words, middle areas will have questionable spots where I’m not sure I know where I’ll go. As the story goes down on paper for the first time, surprises happen, things change, and the section that gets affected the most is the beginning. By the time that exciting ending rolls up, that “stunning” opening no longer looks so great, or it doesn’t make sense. It no longer seems like it belongs with the rest of the novel.

Second, great first scenes serve as warm-up exercises. They get my fingers ready to fly over the keyboard with the thrill of writing them. They make my mind race. They give me the momentum to hop right in and start writing because they are such a blast to write. That’s the job they do: not getting the story started, but getting me started. Once they’ve done this task, they often don’t look like such great ideas on their own. In the case of my current book, this is exactly what happened. I loved writing in that journalistic voice for the opening, and it made the first two days of the draft fly past and keep me going. Thanks fellas. Now get out.

Last, there is the dreaded over-explanation. Writers in science fiction and fantasy all know the fear that The Reader Will Not Understand What I Am Talking About. Hell, do I understand it? Okay, let’s find out. I’ll write a lot about my world for the readers’ benefits, hit ‘em with mounds of data, make sure everybody is on the same page with me, the setting is firmly established, and I’ll have no worries that the audience will know what’s black and what’s white for the rest of the book. I know it isn’t an infodump because, well, it’s just not. I know better than that, of course. Except that I don’t. And when I read over the first draft, I’ll realize I just gave a lecture on a dry-erase board and the whole class fell asleep. But that’s why Odin gave us second drafts. So—out it goes.

I now imagine a student in a writing class raising her hand and asking me, hypothetical creative writing instructor: “So Mr. Harvey, why don’t we just not write that first chapter? Why don’t we plan it, but then skip ahead and go to the next chapter, and not waste the time?”

Hypothetical Mr. Harvey answers: “Because then that second chapter would become your first chapter, and you’ll go right back to square one. Embrace that first chapter, even though it has few chances of surviving. If it gets you to write, it has done its job, even if nobody else ever sees it. Even if you have to move it into the last three hundred pages, where it has a completely different meaning. Even if you re-write it so drastically that all those killer lines you originally planned to end up as juicy quotes on the trailer for the film version end up in the digital trashcan. You only know what to do with a first chapter if you’ve written it.”

I will now go back and cut out of the first paragraph of this post.

Hey, that’s a lot better!

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