Chapter One

I’ve just finished editing chapter one of my novel, with much guidance from my incredible writing mentor. (Awarded by the New Zealand Society of Authors and supported by Creative New Zealand)

For a first-time aspiring author like myself, the tools, direction and perspectives from my mentor have been beyond valuable. I am grateful for this opportunity to bring my novel to a much higher level of quality and readability.

The experience has been enriching, challenging and exciting. I’ve enjoyed being pushed to discover my potential as a writer.

I’ve never been happy with my first few chapters, mainly because I wrote them first so they were a kind of brain dump for the characters and setting. They were nice, but not engaging. Fortunately, we started by working on chapter one. I reworked it a few times over. Each revision was a huge improvement. The story remained the same, but I made a lot of changes. Here’s what I did.

Deleting the first 12,000+ words

Yep, that happened. Goodbye to the first section of my book. Chapter one is now dropping in a few years later when the action starts to kick in. Goodbye backstory and character development. Instead, I’ve had to be cleverer about how I introduce the characters and their dynamics, and ensure the details serve the overall storyline. For example, I didn’t need to demonstrate the happy times to contrast with the challenging times. Small details can infer that the current events are not usual or expected.

I’m very happy to let go of so much of the beginning of my novel. It served its purpose, in helping me to get to know my characters. I’ve been able to pick bits from it and drop them in at appropriate times to help flesh out the setting. But losing a chunk of the book feels like a great weight off my shoulders.

Chapter structure

I’ve lengthened the chapters, so they are longer and fewer. Therefore each chapter is better structured and has a more engaging opening, and a stronger finish to propel the reader to the next chapter.

RIP adverbs

I love adverbs because they are like little flourishes in my writing. Adverbs are a direct way of conveying a mood or a character’s expression. But they can easily be overdone and it’s a lazy way of ‘telling’ versus ‘showing’. Great writing expresses a feeling through actions and interactions. If characters and scenes have been built well, the reader will already have an impression of the general vibe.

I had been considering my overabundance of adverbs after reading Stephen King’s On Writing, where he states (emphatically): “The adverb is not your friend.”

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (…) but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses the difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, (…) but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Excerpt from On Writing by Stephen King

Although I’ve read a majority of Stephen King’s novels, I had never noticed the absence of adverbs. Since then, I’ve been considering how I can illustrate a scene without using adverbs as a crutch.

Here’s another example.

Examine these three sentences.

“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones and most readers will see why immediately.

Excerpt from On Writing by Stephen King

My writing mentor picked up on the excess adverbs in chapter one. Some of them were great words, yet they served little purpose. I either rephrased the sentence, added a minor detail, or just (ruthlessly) chopped them out. I’ll move through the rest of the chapters with consistency.

Getting to know my main character

I have dedicated to an entire notebook to my character. I’ve brainstormed about his character arc, likes and dislikes, what drives him and what scares him. I’m also exploring his dreams and goals, and the stakes and obstacles. All of this helps me to ensure the storyline stays on the right path, and his choices, behaviour and reactions are authentic.

Next steps

I’ve almost finished chapter two as well. The foundations of chapters three and four are there but need to be revised in keeping with chapter one.

Everything I’ve learnt so far, in the process of editing the first chapter, can be applied to the following chapters. My writing has improved enormously through minor tweaks and trusted techniques.

The feedback, corrections and suggestions are what I want and need the most, but the occasional praise is a great boost too.

I’m more certain than ever that I want to be a writer, and I have all the resources I need to get there. I’m excited by where this editing process will take my book, and can’t wait to share the final product with you all!