Ask any writer how many times they’ve revised their first chapter they’ll probably shudder and then give out a number in the double digits (or if they’re counting slight revisions, possibly triple). This is because the first chapter is the one that you submit again and again and again. If the reader likes the first chapter then they ask for more. If they like that, then they’ll ask for the entire novel. So you get more criticism on the first chapter than you do on any other.
And it’s the one you work the hardest on, because let’s face it. If you don’t win them over on that first chapter they won’t read the second.
I don’t have an exact count of how many revisions I’ve done on Prana’s first chapter, but I do have an idea of the variations and why I went with them.
My first stab at the first chapter was all narrative. Even though I still laugh at some of the lines, and I remember how hard I worked at finding witchy metaphors, it was telling and not showing. Also, I tried to write it as if Beatrix had gotten a journal for her sixteenth birthday. Here’s how the first chapter was back then:
I never thought my mom was training me to be the next Shaman. Really, I thought all those times she had said stuff like, “Whenever you make a headache relief potion add a pinch of cucumber juice” I just thought she was doing what any mother does—teaches her daughter useful magic. You know, like when your mother nags you about washing your sacred knife after you’ve minced herbs or reminding you to put your flying branch in the closet and not in the middle of the floor like I usually leave it.
My second stab at the first chapter was better, but the plot changed so the first chapter changed also. I had been going with a heavy emphasis on how whatever you send out in the universe returns to you threefold. Here’s the first paragraph of that chapter:
There hasn't been any curse symptoms yet. My hair hasn't turned white, my skin isn't covered in boils, and my eyes aren't seeing spiders crawling over the walls, but it could still happen. I could wake up tomorrow morning and be covered in purple spots. I'm not joking. The universe has a way of dealing with witches who abuse magic. The magic you send out into the universe will return to you threefold. That was the first lesson I ever learned. I just wish it were a spec more clear.
Around this time I took a writing class at California State University Fullerton. I have a degree in English, but I felt like it was time I showed my work to other writers. There I was reminded to show people the world rather than tell them about it. Also, the advice “start in the middle” was reinforced. So once again, I got rid of my old first chapter. This time I wrote a few pages opening up the novel and then went right into the Beltane celebration. This would turn out to be a bad idea. Here’s the first paragraph:
I pushed open the front door, and was assaulted by the sounds of coughs and the scent of incense. I usually use the back door, but today I was simply too furious to think clearly. I waded through the living room, which right now my family would call the "waiting room." If we had guests over for tea and conversation, then it's the living room. If there are sick people wheezing or bleeding all over the place, well, then it's the waiting room. It was filled with couches and chairs so that people wouldn't get too irritable while they waited for my mother--Yongarti's great Shaman--to heal them.
I think there are a lot of good things about that paragraph, but does it make you want to read on? I’m not so sure. Plus, I’ve gotten quite a few people say that Beatrix came off as whiny or selfish in the first chapter as it was written then. I know she’s got a big heart, but the reader didn’t see that until later.
Sometimes you make things worse before you make them better. I decided to cut the three pages of setup completely and start right at the Beltane Celebration. This was also when I submitted my work for critique at the SCBWI-OC Agent’s Day. Here’s how it began:
My mother will ruin my life if I don’t do something to stop her.
“What time is it?” I asked Cullen.
“Exactly three minutes after the last time you asked me.”
Soon the Beltane feast would begin, and my life would be officially over.
Ugh. Many of the comments on the chapter showed the massive confusion the reader felt. She didn’t understand where the characters were or even what year it was. I proved that you really could start your novel too late. I also learned that not everyone will be enthusiastic about my work—and that’s okay. The agent who read it was courteous and gave me pointers, but it was quite clear that she didn’t connect with the story at all.
I attended the SCBWI-OC Retreat a couple of months later, and I reinstated the setup before Beltane. I also tightened up the chapter. This was the first time that the person who critiqued my work thought it held real promise. Her enthusiasm for my work really boosted my confidence. But once again the other attendees seemed to be confused about where and when the novel was taking place. I decided that I needed another chapter before Beltane. Plus, I needed to find a clever way of explaining how witches escaping from persecution during the Salem witch trials founded Prana.
A long while back I had toyed with a first chapter that had Beatrix and her friend Sonya fleeing the island on a boat. I took another look at it, dusted it off, and decided to give it a chance. I submitted it to my critique group, and based on their comments revised it again. And then I submitted it at other SCBWI events and revised it yet again. I decided to attend the Big Sur Writing Workshop and here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter as it was then:
I didn’t mean to steal my father’s fishing boat, or kidnap my best friend, or head out to sea to meet my Uncle Keith. It just sort of happened.
There I realized I was on the right track. Professionals seemed to really like my work! This was huge, so what did I do next? I revised, of course. Because even then it wasn’t perfect. Even though Beatrix and Sonya were supposed to be fleeing on a boat, it felt too slow. I thought about it, and came up with the idea that Beatrix’s navigation spell wasn’t working right so their boat was going every which way. This brought more tension (and comedy) to the beginning. I also had to revise the first line, because as an agent pointed out to me, the first line of your novel sets the expectations for what’s to come. And the fishing boat scene gets resolved in the second chapter.
I then submitted the revised version to the agent I’ve alluded to in various blogs (but I won’t say her name until I’m actually signed with her. I don’t want to jinx anything, or be unprofessional). Luckily, she really likes my first chapter. But . . . I’ve revised it again. The chapter focused too heavily on Beatrix’s apprenticeship.
This blog is much longer than I’d anticipated, and honestly I haven’t even covered every version of the first chapter. I also haven't touched on the different prologues and prefaces I wrote. But I think you can see how much a first chapter can evolve through time. And of course since the book hasn’t found a publisher yet, it’s quite possible that I’ll have to write an all-new first chapter. Sigh. But for now I’m working on the rest of the novel, so the following chapters can be as tight as the first.
4 hours ago