I’m a big fan of self-editing novels while I’m writing them. You can stop problems from snowballing, looking at previous stretches can spark new ideas that become useful later, and you ultimately have less work to do when you’re finished.
But there is one significant danger in re-reading your work in progress: every time you re-read a portion of your novel, it’s like wet cement that becomes just a bit more hardened and locked into place.
If you’re not careful, you’ll stop imagining that a new and better beginning is not only possible, but almost assuredly necessary.
Finding your voice
No matter how many books I’ve written, and I’m on my eighth, it still takes a while to find the voice and get into a rhythm. It takes time to get to know the characters. Even if the opening flows out of me and I write it quickly, it’s still rough.
Usually between page 50 to 75 I’ve gotten into a rhythm and the characters emerge as more fully-formed individuals, but before that things tend to be sort of like a steam locomotive lurching its way up to speed.
First drafts always suck. But the first 50 pages of your novel will especially suck.
When you’re revising, it’s crucial to at least go back to your opening and smooth it out so that the writing is as strong as the later stretches where you found your stride.
That’s really tricky to do if you’ve read your opening so many times you stop seeing it as something that not only can be changed, but must be changed.
Plan to change the opening
Knowing what I know now, I’ve resolved not to tinker with the first two chapters of my new novel until I’m finished with the first draft. They’re placeholders that I know I’ll change later. I’m not re-reading them so they don’t get locked into my mind.
Even if you have the perfect opening scene from the start, you’ll still need to smooth it out and polish it.
But more likely, you really can come up with an ideal opening later on, and you’re best-equipped to do that when you have more of your novel fleshed out.
I believe the opening is the most important part of your novel to get right. Everyone from agents to editors to readers will decide whether to read your novel in part based on how you start the story.
Don’t lock yourself into your first attempt. Make sure you can see it fresh.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Road With Trees in Rocky Mountain by Paul Cézanne
I get stuck on beginnings, but thinking of it as a placeholder, could make it easier to keep moving. I don’t have to get the first paragraph or page or chapter just right before I write the rest. Thank you! Now if I can put it into practice.
V.M. Sang says
Great post. I’ll try leaving the first couple of chapters without doing anything about them. Beginnings are the most difficult part, I find. Where do you start? Is this too far into the story or not far enough?. Questions that are difficult to answer, but perhaps leaving it until later will clarify it.
Ken Hughes says
A good thought. I always recommend not worrying too much about The Perfect First Line because you’ll have a whole book’s worth of insight later to rethink it. But that does apply to the whole first scene as well as the first line.
Of course it really applies to everything. But first scenes *are* important enough that we should fight to keep our minds open there. A new, better thought there can completely change the book’s prospects by getting the reader on board and lining the whole story up. If you get a good enough new idea, it’s worth the effort.
Linda Bethea says
I edit incessantly.
Raymond Walker says
Hmmm, I believe that you are right Nathan, many of my books start strong and then fade slightly in the next few chapters. I have (as you suggested) bought into those first few pages with an almost religious intensity, ignoring the fact; they set the stage for the rest of the book. Luckily it was was pointed out to me by someone just like you. Sensible and self assured. I am now quite happy to change the book where change is needed. Even the bedrock is unstable these days.