A friend of mine who is querying his first novel had a reply from an agent the other day. The agent said his writing was very good, he clearly had talent – but the first chapters had major problems. My poor friend replied: ‘Yes, it’s a pity those are the chapters I had to send. I revised them first. The ones I’m working on now are much better.’
You don’t need me to tell you your first chapters have to sell your book. But they’re usually the first chapters you revise, and by the time you’ve got to the end a whole chunk of time has gone by. Not only that, you’ve lived with your novel more, played with its scenes, discovered new levels and resonances, understood the characters and the problems of the world.
But when you revised your beginning – or wrote it for the first time – you didn’t know any of this.
I’m doing deep edits of Life Form 3. It’s been a long journey but finally, I can see the light at the end. I’m now far sharper about what is important in the story, what’s irrelevant, what I want to emphasise and what I can ditch.
I last looked at the opening three months ago. Yes, I hammered and pummelled it as hard as I could at the time. I hacked, slashed, tweaked and twiddled for several weeks, in fact. Once I moved on it couldn’t have been tighter, more resonant, or more tantalising. Now though, I can see it’s not quite doing the job.
While I’m at it, I’m going to skip through the whole first half again. There are scenes that need a slightly different accent. Thematic swirls I now know are clutter. There are slightly more natural places to explain background or history. But most of all, that beginning is going back on the workbench.
Don’t be in a hurry
I know we’re all keen to get our books out to finally meet readers. I can’t wait to let Life Form 3 punch its way into the world; for more than a year it’s had only me to talk to. But it’s a mistake to let any of it out if it’s not right. It’s especially a mistake to send out the meet-and-greet chapters before you’ve even finished the revised draft. Because in order to know what the beginning should be you have to understand all the rest, to the tips of your toes. As my friend found.
Repeat after me: when you reach the end, revise the beginning again