Hmm, losing a single chapter doesn’t sound like a very big hunk, does it? What if I told you that the offending chapter was twenty-four pages long? Yeah, twenty-four. Way too long for most chapters in most books, and nearly coma-inducing for the opening of a teen novel. And the thing is, I knew it wasn’t working almost from the moment I wrote it. Yet it took a while to reach the point where I could let go of it, allowing it to morph into what it needed to be.
Well, this morning, I finally let go.
The first chapter is arguably the most vital and most challenging for any writer, whether that writer is creating fiction or nonfiction, adult or YA. Chapter One has so many jobs: establish a unique and bewitching voice, introduce the characters, kick off the main plot, hint at the subplots, and just plain entertain enough to hook the reader. Go too heavy-handed on any of those aspects, and you’ve got a clunker of an opening. All this accounts for why a writer can get bogged down in writing, rewriting, refining, reworking those first few pages, we know what’s at stake.
A few years back, I tiptoed into a seminar by amazing author Richard Peck about fifteen minutes after it’d started. As I stumbled and tripped my way to the seat at the far end of the last row, I heard advice that has stuck with me since: When Richard is done with a manuscript, he goes back to the beginning of the manuscript, grabs hold of the first chapter, and then throws it unceremoniously into the trash. He doesn’t even look at it. His reasoning is that he didn’t know the characters or full story when he wrote that opening, so there’s no way it could be as good as a first chapter he’d write once the book was done and he knew how the thing ended. Richard has one Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor to give credibility his tactic. He probably knows what he’s talking about. (Plus he’s a really nice guy, but that’s beside the point.)
My problem with Teen Novel #3 has been that I haven’t ended the book yet. I’m only 90 pages into it. So no, I don’t know the full story yet. I’d tried to ignore the chapter, focusing on getting the first draft done. But the darn opening kept tormenting me, throbbing like a sore thumb even as I looked away. I knew it was bad. I knew it was too long. I knew it didn’t set the tone for the story I’m trying to tell. I knew it had to go. Yet there were many elements in it that I liked, and I’d established some key plot and character points therein. How could I just abandon it?
Then I went on vacation with my husband and no computer, and my brain cleared. I didn’t look at this manuscript at all, just read books for fun, enjoying their successful first chapters and, most importantly, getting inspired by the amazing openers I was reading. Then, on the airplane home, I pulled out a pen, turned to the first blank page of the paperback in my hand, and scratched out a whole new first page for Teen Novel #3. I barely had to think about it, the words seemed to pick me. It was a completely, totally, absolutely different opener, and I loved it. Oh, the release!
This morning I completed that scene I’d started on the plane. Chapter One of Teen Novel #3 is now a whopping three pages long–and I still love it.
So there you have it. After a year of stewing over my opening chapter, I finally lopped it off in one clean swipe. And there’s is no pain at all, not a drop of blood to show for it. I finally let go and allowed the story to tell me how it should begin.
Now I just wonder what the story will have to say when I finish the entire manuscript….