Several years ago, I heard literary agent, Cherry Weiner, give a talk at a writing group. Among the many things she shared with us that day were these wisdomous words:
‘When you’ve finished your story,
go back and rewrite the beginning.’
Up until then, I’d always written in a linear fashion. I’d start with (what I hoped was) a killer opening, then work my way through the middle to the (again hoped for) thrilling and/or satisfying conclusion at the end, after which I’d get down to the editing. The idea of wantonly discarding the first few pages of a story, or worse, the first chapter or two of a novel, seemed counter-productive. Why write a beginning at all if you’re just going to throw it out later?
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Despite our best intentions, stories quite often head off in a different direction from the one we originally intended. Even if, like me, you use outlines, planned ideas and sub-plots get changed, added and/or abandoned as we get to know the characters and plot better during the first draft process. Besides, who hasn’t had a critique containing a big red line several pages in, along with the words ‘I think your story starts here’? Personally, I’ve found rewriting the opening almost always leads to a better fit with the rest of the story.
There’s another positive effect from knowing you’ll rewrite the beginning from the outset, at least for writers like me. I understand the benefits to be had from getting the first draft over with as fast as possible. I want to work that way, but I fight a constant battle with my inner editor during the first draft process. When you know from the outset that whatever beginning you write will (almost definitely) get thrown out anyway, it’s easier to resist the temptation to go back and polish up what you’ve already got.
How about you?
Where do you end your first drafts?
Born in England, Jon Gibbs now lives in New Jersey, where he’s ‘Author in Residence’ at Lakehurst Elementary School. A member of several writing groups, including SCBWI, he’s the founder of NJAuthorsNetwork.com and FindAWritingGroup.com. His blog, An Englishman in New Jersey (http://jongibbs.livejournal.com), is read in over thirty countries.
Jon’s debut novel, Fur-Face (Echelon Press) a middle grade fantasy about unusual friendships, unlikely alliances, and wanting to fit in, was nominated for a Crystal Kite Award. Watch out for the sequel, Barnum’s Revenge, coming in 2012.
When he’s not chasing around after his children, Jon can usually be found hunched over the computer in his basement office. One day he hopes to figure out how to switch it on.
This is very timely to me. I am writing a first draft of my novel on http://www.WordsFallFromMyEyes.wordpress.com at the same time as making a video diary of me booting alcohol – http://www.VodkaWasMyMuse.wordpress.com. This comment isn’t a plug for those, but to say that the vodka blog started halfway through the novel in first draft blog, as THINGS HAPPENED, WERE REALISED in the writing of my first draft of novel/my first blog.
I am indeed, intending to change my beginning. And I thought it was an okay beginning (didn’t think it was enormous) but I have a much, much better suited beginning. It’s just a bit weird though to write the novel daily but also edit the beginning same time.
This was a great post – thank you.
I am new to writing. My first book was a haphazard effort and written with emotion and passion with very little thought for structure or process. I have since then learnt and I do exactly as you say – rewrite the beginning after completing the book. Makes so much more sense!
As a short story writer, I have problems with starting the story in the wrong place…often. I find the better the story works, the better the opening. I wish I’d get the right open first all the time, but it just doesn’t happen that way for some reason.
‘…I wish I’d get the right open first all the time, but it just doesn’t happen that way for some reason.’
On the bright side, I suspect most writers won’t accept their story/novel might work better with a different opening, which means less competition in the slush pile.
Thanks for reading, Pat 🙂
I have to concur with Ms. Weiner (and Joyce Carol Oates for that matter): the beginning is the last thing that gets written. Or more precisely, every story has two beginnings. The one you wrote to get you engaged and running. And the one that the story requires once you’ve gotten to the end and can see the full scope of the story. Rejecting this advice means you’re most likely going to begin with a lot of roundabout noodling that you did to get yourself into the story–often a biographical profile of your character (whom you’re discovering) or an indigestible chunk of exposition while you told yourself the story, or the background to the story, or the situation…none of which belongs there.
The beginning is the most critical part of any story. Trust me, I used to read the slush pile submissions for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and if the story didn’t work from the very first sentence, it didn’t get read past about paragraph two–because in any given week, I had 200 other stories to read, too. That’s publishing reality. Do not stand on hubris and think that, just because you wrote it, it’s now untouchable. That’s how amateurs think.
‘…if the story didn’t work from the very first sentence, it didn’t get read past about paragraph two–because in any given week, I had 200 other stories to read’
I remember you saying this very thing when you gave a talk at the GSHW a couple of years back. I’ve often quoted you.
Thanks for the input, Greg 🙂
I end the draft when I feel the story stops nagging me. While working on my last WIP, I kept getting an inner nudge that there was a final scene to write. Felt gratuitous at first, but now I the closure I wanted as a reader seems to be there. Great post! Thanks!
Sometimes, I think my inner voice is way smarter than me 🙂
Everything I write is subject to change until it’s printed and bound and sitting on a bookshelf. That includes the beginning, the ending, and everything in between.
Also, I like the word “wisdomous.” 😀
Hi Jenn, Do you draw an ‘official’ line between the end of first draft stage and the start of revisions?
I am a new writer, but I seem to have gone by what I learned in school. Nothing is ever ready until you’ve completed your first draft. I tend to agree….I see the phases as:
1) Get big, hairy mess of a story on to paper (real or electronic).
2) Correct for flow, consistency and story construction.
3) Grammar, punctuation, fact checking, etc.
Then the final phase:
4) Submission to large collective of disinterested publishers who have not recognized my literary genius…..yet. 🙂
Sounds like a plan to me 🙂
I was super resistant to this at first too! I think there’s a sort of nostalgia for the pages where we, as authors, first meet our protagonists and begin to establish them. But I had to bite the bullet and listen to my editor when she suggested drastic cuts to the beginning of my first novel. Now I’m starting to edit my 2nd novel and see that the opening for that will need a rewrite also. So while it’s hard, I can finally agree there is merit to that advice 🙂
Drastic cuts = 😦
Just read it…I know people who keep endlessly tweaking things to the point where they never actually submit anything to a publisher…fortunately, I don’t have that problem…
I’m glad to hear it 🙂
…So that explains why my “big novel” has gone through so many prologue changes! This is a really neat post; it put a lot of things in perspective for me.
I’m glad you found it useful. Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Now this, I found really useful. Thank you for this idea. I’m looking forward to trying it.
You’re welcome, Mieke 🙂
I can’t say I have any particular system. I write some. Read. Edit. Write the next scene/chapter. I read in a how-to book a few years back that if your first chapter doesn’t go anywhere replace it with your second. I think i did that once. From that point on I was more conscience of what I was writing in the first chapter and never had to do it again. Funny how the mind works.
The more you plan out a story, the less likely you are to have to cut big chunks out after the first draft, but only because you already cut them out in the outline phase – at least, that’s how it goes with me 😉
By the way, did you know that most ‘How to’ books on writing contain secret information, which only reveals itself on the second (or subsequent) reading?
No, I didn’t! Good tip.
I never thought about the beginning in that matter and in fact, I’ve already changed the beginning of the novel I’m working on now. I guess my inner editor wins sometimes. 🙂
Our inner editors are way smarter than we give them credit for 🙂
Definitely great advice! It seems that no matter how clear my ending is in my head, it is only when I can see the story as a whole, with all the pieces in place that I can best visualize where it should start.
I’ll probably end up cutting the first three chapters of my current WIP …
‘I’ll probably end up cutting the first three chapters of my current WIP ‘
Ouch! Perhaps you can use those three chapters (or the meat of them) elsewhere. If you can’t, they helped you get your story to where it needed to go, so even if they never see the llight of day, they served a purpose, right?
Just got back from a couple of fun writing events, so I apologize for the delayed response. Thank you everyone who read and/or commented. It\’s comforting to know I\’m not alone in having to fight the urge to rewrite and revise too soon
I’m trying so hard not to tweak. I even recently posted the first chapter of my story and I know it’s not perfect grammar wise or possibly even story wise, but wanted to get thoughts on the beginning itself and it’s killing me! HAHA! But I can understand how when you’re finished to go back and fix the top. I would want my story to be strong throughout and once I know how it ends, I can better understand a proper beginning. Always enjoy reading these posts, thanks!
I think tweaking is okay, but it’s so easy to get sucked in to a long edit. the next thing you know, you’ve used up all your ‘writing time’ and haven’t actually written anything new.
Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Yep, I’ve been there. Painful as it was, eventually I saw the benefit of redoing the opening. Great post.
Thank you. I’m glad you liked it 🙂
The very first opening chapter I wrote in my first novel got the chop. That was painful—very much killing the darlings. But the story works better without it. I’ll certainly edit during first drafts, but I try not to do too much. That’s really what revisions are for.
Deleting an entire chapter hurts, but you can usually relocate the best parts elsewhere (even if you put them in another book or story. It’s so tempting to edit during the first draft, mine are filled with stuff like ‘[INSERT: witty line here]’ ‘[INSERT brilliant simile]’or ‘[INSERT fact check]’.
On the other hand, rewrites/revisions are great fun 🙂
I learned this the hard way and have now learned to do as you suggest. Write the first draft and then go back and perfect the opening, rather than obsessing over it from the start.
Lol, All the way through the first draft I still obsess over the opening, but it sure saves time to put that particular job off until the initial draft is finished.
Thanks for reading 🙂
we have to fight with our inner editors to get past the first line, don’t we
And the little blighters know all the sneaky tactics 😦
I think we should send them to Greenland so they will leave us alone
I definitely have this problem! I’m constantly going back and tweaking what I’ve previously written, doing fine polishing rather than leaving it, finishing the story, then going back with my meat cleaver and sorting out the problems, and then doing the polishing.
But I’m trying the old write-through-it technique at the moment, and I can definitely see where my first chapters will need the cleaver now. So I’m leaving it, enjoying the rest of the draft, and I’m going to go back when I’ve reached The End and not a moment before!
But it sure takes a lot of discipline …
I think it’s a ‘comfort zone’ thing. Mind you, I find it helps to reread a couple of pages before settling down to write the next section, I just have to make sure I’m in ‘read only’ mode, not ‘edit and prune’.
Thanks for stopping by 🙂