Killing Chapter 1

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My decision to cut the entire first chapter for The Muse came when I realized I had started my novel with just about every single thing most agents hate to see in an opening chapter. After reading multiple articles and long lists of tweets from agents, a definitive list of things agents hate in an opening chapter began to emerge:

  • Too much backstory
  • Describing the weather
  • Describing the sky
  • Main character waking up
  • Prologues

It’s funny how you think you are not doing these things as you write, re-write, and edit. Even after multiple rejections, I still believed I had a strong opening. However, once I compared the list to my novel, I realized I had committed every novel sin except for the prologue.

Then, I visited the YA section of my bookshelf and started scanning through all the first chapters of my favorite books. Keeping the list in mind, it was easy to see what they were doing right and what I was doing wrong. A change needed to be made and it needed to be big.

editwars2 I pulled up my manuscript on my Kindle Fire and read the first chapter multiple times. The biggest issues were backstory and weather description. Luckily, the solution for backstory was easy. I could track each segment of backstory to another section of the novel, so I truly did not need it in the first chapter.

As for weather description, the foreshadowing was nice, but not entirely necessary. With these two elements eliminated, there wasn’t much left of Chapter 1. Hmmmm . . . that got me thinking,  why don’t I just delete the whole thing?

Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as just hitting the delete button. When I scrolled down into Chapter 2, it was promising in that as the new start, the reader is dropped right into the story. However, Chapter 2 begins with the main character waking up. Ahhhh! Another thing on the hate list. Two paragraphs down, a sky description shows up! Yet, another thing on the hate list!

Before total panic set in, it became clear that both issues can be easily fixed. A sentence here and a slight deletion there should clear up the hate list issues, while also transitioning Chapter 2 as the new beginning to The Muse.

I guess we’ll see how it goes!

– – –

c.b.w. 2015

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25 thoughts on “Killing Chapter 1

  1. That’s a very interesting list of agent’s hates. I went and checked out a couple of my railway related short stories and weather does creep into one of them quite early but as they’re short (very) stories I don’t think they fell into any of the other traps… My characters were definitely awake! My Sci-fi ones on the other hand definitely had the waking up issue 😉 If I ever get around to writing a book I know what to avoid.

    I hope your reworking is successful and may the agents look favourably upon you 🙂

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  2. Drives me crazy that they think they know what is best for readers. You know me… I like description so I want to know the weather in the setting. Sometimes without enough back story it makes reading the rest of the book confusing. One book I read, I didn’t even know the character was female ! While publishing is the ultimate goal, I wouldn’t change something you think is best just to please someone else. I had an instructor who demanded I take out a sentence on distance from Wisconsin to each Ocean because she thought it wasn’t important. To me it sure was important when you are specifically talking about the midwest compared to the coasts. So if you have an argument for your writing, stick to it.

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    • I like rich descriptions and slow burns in some novels, but not YA. For that genre it needs to move quickly, especially when it’s urban fantasy (like my novel). However, there is something to be said for being concise in written language – sometimes there really isn’t a need for so many words. As for backstory, it’s a fine art. Writers that “clump” all the backstory in one spot break the momentum of the story. It can kill a beginning!
      As a reader, I do find it annoying when an author relies on cliched techniques (and I admittedly fell into those same cliches). It’s more interesting if a writer finds a fresh way to tell a story. 🙂

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  3. That first chapter is one of the hardest things to write. (Which means I’m very appreciative of that list of what not to do! Though setting up a fantasy world without backstory definitely isn’t easy.) I’m so glad you’ve found what you need to make Chapter 2 into the perfect Chapter 1. Good luck on this part of the adventure! 🙂

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    • I think my first chapter went through more drafts than any other section. And now here I am again, changing it!

      Backstory is necessary, but the timing and pacing of it is a fine art. I’m still finding my footing in the process, though I feel like I’m a step closer to figuring out the magic formula!

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  4. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, and especially thanks for the bullet list! It’s indeed interesting what agents hate.

    I could add to that bullet list. The first submission I sent to an agent (they wanted the book though!), I got a response that had me reeling and re-editing practically the whole book. Absolutely everything I had written, was criticized. Including the names (unpronounceable, they should have been “Jane” and “Ben”), and the name of the ship. Seeing that there was absolutely no way I was going to change the protagonists’ (and everyone else’s) names, I tried changing at least the name of the ship… it didn’t work, I had the poor crew staggering around on a foreign ship unable to find anything, for two weeks before I scrapped that idea.

    Essentially, the hero in “Kafka on the Shore” wakes up a few times. I’m sure Frodo wakes up numerous times in “Lord of the Rings”. Heroes in films wake up in the most entertaining ways. There is always a purpose for them waking up.

    In fact it would be a cool blog game to set a challenge of writing a 60-word or so passage about spectacular wake-ups. Don’t you think?

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    • I can honestly say as a reader, hard-to-pronounce names are sometimes a deal breaker when I’m looking for a new book to read. It sucks that you had to go back in and change them, but I can see why an agent might request the changes.

      Waking up has it’s place, but I’m inclined to agree that it shouldn’t be in the opening pages. It’s been done so many times!

      Hmmm . . . that does sound like a fun challenge. We may have to work something out! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • We should always listen to our agents, and our agents sometimes advise us to change something about our book*. But – what? – when an agent tells us, “Change the title, the names, the beginning and the ending… oh yes, and the middle!” I would say what we have there isn’t an agent but a censor. If they don’t like the book but do like the idea, and they tell you that in an email or a letter saying they won’t represent you, that’s an entirely a different matter.

      *Ahem. Publishers often ask you to change stuff too, by the way. 🙂

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      • Of course they do! But you’re totally right. The funny thing was, it sent me into a complete tailspin. Guess I have more experience in the publishing world by now…

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      • I think there’s a fine line of balance. I believe in having freedom to tell the story how I want to tell it, but I also realize I am still on a learning curve. There are things I like in books and things I don’t. When I spot something in mine that falls in the “don’t like” category, then it’s got to go. If an agent proposed changing something that fundamentally felt wrong to me, I’d say it’s time to find a different agent.

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  5. No no, leave it all in if it WORKS! Only take it out if it DOESN’T work. Break as many rules as you can get away with. After all, they aren’t rules, just ‘rules’.

    I am currently writing a patchwork of a novel where the protagonist is an amnesiac, and it HAS to begin with her waking up! Not an original idea (Umberto Eco used the device in ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’) but how else could an amnesiac narrator begin her awareness of the world except by ‘waking up’?

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    • Believe me, I’d leave it in if I felt it was working. However, when I tried to establish strong arguments for keeping it as is, I realized I couldn’t justify the old beginning. I believe it was working for so long, because I wanted it to, not because it was strong enough.

      I think original waking up scenes are okay, but not the mundane scenes that have been said and done a million times!

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      • On that note, Mozart once sent his famous “Dissonances” quartet to a music publisher in Italy. (I believe, anonymously.) The manuscript came back: “Sorry, we can’t publish this – it’s full of mistakes.” 😀

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  6. Thank you for sharing. A great example of taking time off from something to see it in a different light. I love how you study and think and apply what you learn. A good example for everyone.

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