A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my third novel. It was a rough old thing, scribbled with question marks, tenses kept switching and there was an occasional foray into first person even though I’m writing in third. My first chapter, though, was pristine. I had spent many hours gazing at it, tucking in its saggy bits, titivating it until it was so tight, it could hardly move.
It had taken me a long time to complete this first draft – not just because of the day job, but because every time I opened the draft, I’d re-read that first chapter and edit it some more. I was all but whispering ‘my precious,’ at it. Certainly I had begun to view it through a vaseline lens. ‘God, this is good,’ I thought. And then I’d get to tidying it some more.
Of course, a first chapter is important. It’s your chance to hook your reader into your story, so it should contain some suggestion of the action that’s about to unfold in your novel; perhaps it’ll show some central dilemma. My first chapter did just that.
The problem was I’d become stranded there. Instead of moving on and finishing the first draft by which time I would have come to know my characters and the way they speak, I wasted time re-reading my first chapter and marvelling over its supposed perfection. What a deluded procrastinator I was.
When I was about 10,000 words into this first draft, I gave it to a couple of people to read and they both agreed it was ‘overwritten’. I wasn’t letting loose enough; it was a bit staid.
That’s because I had no idea who the character was; I had not found the character’s true voice. Despite drama and a few clever sentences, the pages were pretty much empty.
As soon as I finished my first draft, I started to write my second draft, and the first thing to be booted out was that first chapter. I retained some of the essence of it, but there was a new voice, new thoughts – it now feels much freer and more authentic.
So step away from that first chapter. Don’t waste time editing it to within an inch of its life. And a warning: the addiction clearly runs deep because even though I’m well into my second draft, the pull to keep re-reading that first chapter remains strong.