Killing Darlings: First Chapters

on Tuesday, December 6, 2011
You gonna die. 

As any follower of my blog is probably aware, my biggest difficulty with editing is my attachment to the original manuscript. Often times I'm fully aware a manuscript has problems, but my sort of fervent devotion to what is obviously crap makes editing more obnoxious than it should be.

This blog post doesn't really have much to do with that. It has to do with awful first chapters.

Brandon Sanderson on Writing Excuses has frequently pointed out that the first chapters are what tend to go through the most rewrites. As a discovery writer, I can echo this sentiment whole-heartedly. First chapters are often considered the most important part of book with regard to hooking readers. After all, if you can't get 'em in the first 10 odd pages, a reader will probably set a book down for something more interesting. So as authors we sort of get attached to our first chapters, wanting to be certain they are the best ever, and so when we produce something that seems to fit the bill we latch on.

When, in truth, we should kill it.

I can honestly say that every book I've ever written has an awful first chapter, and some of those extend to first scenes or entire first parts. For me, I swear this issue seems compounded with the discovery writer issue: when I'm starting a new novel, I usually don't have either the flow of the book or the flow of the main character down when I start. That's something I have to figure out by writing it. How will this character's voice play out? How will he/she react? While I have the general sense of a character's motives, personality, etc. it hasn't really been tested.

Which means my first chapters usually end up like this:

1. The main character (and whatever side characters are around him/her) is completely two-dimensional, acting off my basic idea of how he/she should act. This makes everything they say completely predictable and utterly boring.

2. People act completely off the wall randomly because I've realized #1 and am trying my damndest to not let it happen again HOW IS THIS HAPPENING IN ANOTHER BOOK I'M GOING TO HAVE TO SCRAP ALL THESE CHAPTERS ARGH.

3. Usually the actual plot is fine and interesting, because I need my "hook," but the writing style, pacing, and characters are completely wrong.

4. They all slowly get refined down until a chapter or so (or more, if the book is particularly bad) in, until we finally hit the final product and everything is great for the rest of the book.

So...what does this mean for me? Well, it means I have some editing to do.

I have Gears with an alpha reader currently, and she is very good at pointing out the inconsistencies with Cevan (and everybody else's) character during the first portion of the book. This is also the only part of the book Writing Group 2.3 got through (pity, since I swear it gets better) and the reaction was similar: I had no idea what I was doing. There's plot there, it's interesting, but what the heck is going on with the characters? Who knows.

I'm also suffering this problem with Death's Aria, so much so that, even only five chapters in, I know that I'm going to have to change a good portion of the beginning. While I still refuse to go back and edit until a book is finished, it's like a looming dread over the rest of the book. The first part of a novel is so important and also really exciting. You meet these characters, who will be taken on crazy journeys only a few chapters later. You are introduced to clever subtleties of the world and get really excited to see where things are going. These really have to be good, or else your novel will suffer.

Like mine do. So watch out Gears, Death's Aria, and the rest of you. You may be safe for now, but we are going to "cut a bit off the top" at my next available opportunity. It might take one rewrite or it might take ten, but you are going to behave and you will like it!


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