Six impossible things

Fixing Chapter One: Why

On account of me being a bit disorganized and forgetting to load the blog post I had ready for today before I left for Chicago, you get a new and different blog post about fixing Chapter One, and the one I had planned (on the character piece) waits for Wednesday.

Actually, based on some of the comments I got on the last post, it occurred to me that there was one more thing to address: whether one ought to be revising Chapter One at all.

Well, why do you think it needs to be revised?

“It isn’t perfect” is seldom a good reason, especially if it is the only reason. Nothing is ever perfect, and trying to make it perfect is usually just an excuse to delay submitting the work and/or to keep from moving on to something new and stretchy. Even perfectionists sometimes use “It isn’t perfect” as more excuse than part of their obsession with getting every little thing right.

“It isn’t right,” on the other hand, is a reason that is often given by writers who are not terribly analytical, who are quite, quite sure that there is something off about Chapter One, but who have enormous difficulty pinpointing and/or articulating exactly what that something is. It is therefore actually one of the better reasons for revising something, even though it frustrates the heck out of spouses, beta readers, crit groups, and anyone else in a position to be asking the writer to explain why they are revising this old thing instead of dumping it in the mail and going on to the next thing.

“You always have to revise Chapter One” is another not-particularly-good reason, if that’s all you have. No matter how true the statement is, if you cannot see any problems in your Chapter One, then there is nothing to be gained (and much to be lost) by tinkering with it. It’s like trying to repair a piece of delicate electronic equipment that you think is working just fine…and you’re wearing a blindfold and oven mitts while you’re doing it. It won’t end well.

“There is a specific, identifiable problem with the characterization/plot/background/consistency” is an absolute no-brainer – of course you fix it. If you changed the main character’s name from “Betsy” to “Angela” in Chapter Two, you had better revise at least that much of Chapter One. If you moved her home town from Chicago to Sydney, Australia, ditto.

Similarly, but not always so easily identified, if the story you started writing took a sharp left turn somewhere and ended up being totally different, so that the Chapter One you have no longer fits, you need some changes (and possibly a completely new Chapter One). It’s usually clear when the turn is sharp enough, as when Chapter One starts off with Character A breaking into a museum to steal a priceless Egyptian artifact, but the real story ends up being about Characters B and C and their involvement in sending the first spaceship to Alpha Centauri, but if the shift is gradual enough, the mis-match may not be as clear (and any fixing may need to extend considerably further than Chapter One).

Somewhere in the middle are the judgement calls: there isn’t an obvious problem to be fixed, but you’ve finished an entire novel and your writing has improved so much that Chapter One looks crude compared to Chapter Twenty. Or you know so much more about the characters/plot/backstory by the end of the book than you did when you started that Chapter One looks thin and pallid. Or your writing process involves rolling revisions, and tinkering with Chapter One helps get you unstuck from wherever you’re stuck in the mid-book.

There are two basic approaches to these kinds of decisions: either you look at the chapter analytically and dissect it until you are clear on what the problems are and what needs to be done to fix them, or else you listen to your intuition (and sometimes, your intuition will be saying “I know it looks bad, and that bit with the python doesn’t seem to fit, but leave it alone”).

If the two are in conflict – if you can see that there are problems, but there’s a little voice saying “No, don’t!” – then you are usually better off listening to the little voice. Either the thing you thought was a problem will suddenly turn out to be a critical element in the final big scene, or else you will get to the end and realize that Chapter One was scaffolding and cut it, at which point fixing it would have been a waste of time.

The exception is if the problems with Chapter One are preying on your mind so much that you can’t make forward progress without fixing them, even if part of you is pretty sure you are going to end up cutting the chapter. However, this is also one of the places where the writer has to keep a careful eye on him/herself, and be ruthlessly honest (and sometimes just plain ruthless).

If you know that you are the sort of writer who gets trapped in Endless Revision Syndrome (rewriting the first few chapters over and over, so that forward progress is minimal or non-existent), then be very, very clear about whether you really need to do this revising now, or whether you just want to avoid writing whatever comes next and are using the “needed” revising as an excuse. If you know that you lack self-confidence and/or that you are afraid of rejection or highly risk-averse, then you need to be very sure that revising Chapter One isn’t just a way of postponing the dreadful day when you put it in the mail and risk getting a “Sorry, no thanks” letter. There is a point where “good enough” is good enough. It is a really bad idea to do too much polishing, and suck all the life and joy right out of the chapter even as the sentences or characterization or whatever gets prettier.

(Hint: If you are on your sixth revision of Chapter One – or any other part of the book – and you think it will still need another two or three rounds after this one is done…think really hard about whether it’s necessary. I’ve known writers who needed that many rounds on their first books, but not many, and I don’t think I’ve ever met one who know while they were working on revision four or five that it was going to need another one. The point of revising is usually to fix everything you know is wrong, so that you don’t have to do it again. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work, but one generally discovers it after one is finished with a revision pass.)

To sum up: If there is something obviously and specifically wrong with Chapter One, then one equally obviously fixes it. If there isn’t anything obviously wrong, but you think the chapter can be improved, it becomes more of a judgement call. If one knows there is something wrong, if the chapter doesn’t fit the story, but one can’t quite see what the problem is…it is time to dig into the various possible parts of the chapter and see if analysis will tell you anything useful. (Sometimes it doesn’t, especially if you are a highly intuitive and/or non-analytical type. In that case, the specific suggestions in the next few posts may not be much help, but they may also be of use in focusing your intuition on different areas until it triggers that moment when you know exactly what you have to do, even if you still don’t know why.)

  1. I usually have to revise chapter one because my novel has taken a turn somewhere in the middle and I need to fix things at the beginning to match it up. Sometimes you don’t know the story you’re going to write until it happens!

    With that said though, I try to get the first chapter pretty solid before moving on, because that builds a better foundation, and that way I’ll have less to change as I move on.

  2. “I don’t think I’ve ever met one who know while they were working on revision four or five that it was going to need another one. “

    My daughter actually did something very like this. She decided she needed a new viewpoint character for revision five, and so was inserting a LOT of new material, and she confided rather dolefully that she knew it would need to be fixed, because it was new material and her writing skills were still at the point where new material needed fixing. She didn’t actually know what the problems were.

    I don’t think she’s just putting off, because I’ve been kibitzing with her on the process, and she does seem to be actually doing valid changes. . I think it’s just that she started it as a young teen, and it’s taken this long to figure out how the story actually needs to work. (It took her about four revisions to figure out what the central plot problem was.) If she keeps revising after the current fixes to the new bits revision, I will have a stern talk with her about how moving on is sometimes the only way to move forward. 🙂

    “Sometimes it doesn’t, especially if you are a highly intuitive and/or non-analytical type.”
    I think I’m an analytical sort of person, so it took me forever to figure out that analytical or no, I write very intuitively. But I’ve never figured out how to revise intuitively (beyond the little feeling that says “no, don’t change that!”) So I’m finding this small insight into an intuitive revision process fascinating. 🙂

    • I’m doing something a bit like what your daughter is doing. The second draft of my WIP (currently in progress) involves adding a great deal of new material, and once I’m done with that I plan to go back over the new sections and tidy them up where necessary.

  3. For me, Chapter One is always a bookend with the last chapter, so any revision will have to wait until the very end for details, but the story is set in concrete, with pilings driven down into the subsoil before the plotting is finished (I know – extreme plotter), so the beginning and end are anchors. Small stylistic changes – I handle pov somewhat differently than when I began – and other changes I’ve made as I go get stored in a file – at the end I’ll do a couple of passes to make sure the style is consistent.

    I like having the anchors – the chain of the rest of the events can flail about and get twisted and tangled, but the extremes are secure, and the is only one possible end. Then I can write without fearing I’ll have to dump much material. I’m one of those people who need that security.

    Some people don’t – and begin the journey with little idea of where they’re going and how they’re going to get there, at least in the first drafts. We’re all different.

  4. It sounds like it’s more useful to ask when you should go back and fix Chapter 1. The answer often seems to be “wait until after you’ve finished the first draft” but it sometimes can be “when you’re in the middle of the first draft” or even occasionally “before you start Chapter 2.” Or “never.”

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