Today, I realised that I need to rewrite my first chapter. Again. And I mean rewrite it. Not edit it, or rearrange it. No, I need to scrap 80% of it and start from scratch.
If you had said this to me a couple of weeks ago I would probably have cried, and slammed my laptop lid and stalked off into a corner, feeling hard done by and wondering, ‘What’s the point?’ Because I’ve already done a major rewrite, which involved shifting the entire location of the protagonist’s home from England to a make believe city in a make believe world. And after that major rewrite there were tweakings and re-tweakings. And I thought I was done (at least until the first draft is complete and the proper editing stage begins).
However, today the idea of rewriting doesn’t make me feel angry or sad or hard-done-by. Actually, it makes me feel excited - so why is that? What has changed between now and a few weeks ago?
Well, mainly, I was never completely happy with the beginning of my story. A couple of things niggled at me: firstly, I felt that when the fantasy element of the novel was introduced, it jarred with the opening of the story, which felt more dystopian than fantasy. Secondly, I felt as though I did too much telling with a flashback sequence rather than showing. But I didn’t know how to fix these things.
Then, as I was listening to the audiobook of How to Structure Your Novel on my way to work this morning, it just hit me. POW. And I knew how to make it better. I also realised that, although we might love our first chapter in the beginning, it is the one element of our story that is destined to be re-hashed the most. So, here are three reasons why rewriting your first chapter is inevitable and invigorating:
1. You are not the same now, as you were when you started.
Most writers begin at the beginning. So it’s likely that your first chapter is the very first thing you wrote. Even if you’re only a few thousand words along in your writing journey, your writing style will already be developing. You will be more confident, more aware of what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve been reading about the craft of writing alongside working on your word count, which I sincerely hope you have been, you will be learning more about the essential elements of plot, structure and character development. And all of these things will highlight minor tweaks, or major changes, that need to be made.
2. You have written things that you didn’t plan on writing
Whether you started your writing journey with a detailed plan, a rough outline or absolutely no idea whatsoever of where your story was heading - I’m almost certain that, by now, you will have written things that never even entered into your head back when you were drafting your first chapter.
Writing is an organic process and, as you write, you will find that ideas and plot twists spring from your fingers onto the page and you’re left thinking, Wow, where did that come from?! This is part of the magic of writing, but it also means it’s inevitable that you will have to go back and retrospectively add details later on. This might mean editing smallish details, like adding a line that says, ‘Harry grabbed his backpack as he rushed out of the door,’ so that in Chapter 2, Harry has a means of carrying the wad of banknotes he finds behind the cistern of the public toilet (a bit of a crass example, but you get the gist). Or, it might mean rewriting an entire scene - adding a character, deleting a character, changing the setting, etc. Either way, congratulations, because this is what writing is about!
3. Your characters are growing up
Just as you are developing as a writer, your protagonist is developing as a character. This is particularly true, I think, if you’re writing in the first person - which I am. Because as you write, your character’s voice will start to shine through. This means when you look back at your first chapter you might find yourself saying things like, ‘Pfft Harry doesn’t talk like that!’
Your characters’ relationships are also developing. You might have planned for your protagonist to vehemently dislike another character, only to discover a romance blossoming between them later on, so then you have to go back and hint to your reader that, underneath the dislike, there’s the chance of something else.
All three of these things should be embraced, welcomed, even celebrated - because they indicate that you’ve progressed from someone who just dabbles in story telling to an actual, serious, writer.
When you start to rewrite, redraft and redo, it is because you are committed to making your work better. And that's something you should be proud of.
Also, you should remember - and this is very important - that nothing you write is wasted. Even if you have to delete something, its existence was not pointless and it shouldn’t be disheartening, because that scene or piece of dialogue helped your story to become what it is now; it still informed your plot in some way, even if it’s not physically present in the final draft.
As always, do share your thoughts with me @CaraThurlbourn. And if you enjoyed this post, next time I’ll be exploring the question, ‘In order to be writing, do you have to write?’!