When you reach the end of your revision – revise the beginning again

When you see the light at the end, go back to the beginning

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

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  1. #1 by Indigo on February 6, 2011 - 8:19 pm

    Wise advise! I’ve already revised my first chapters twice and I’ll probably do it once more before querying.

    I think the fact those first few chapters will either entice or put off an agent, makes the task all that more daunting. (Hugs)Indigo

    • #2 by rozmorris on February 6, 2011 - 8:29 pm

      Thanks, Indigo! It is daunting,isn’t it? And agents aren’t the only people who judge by the first chapters. Readers do too. No pressure…

  2. #3 by Carol Riggs on February 6, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    Great advice! I’m writing the final 3-4 scenes of my WiP, and when I get done, I plan to read it all as a whole. Yup, especially the first few chapters, because as you said, it’s easier to see now where I’m going and what I need to emphasize (or delete). 🙂

    • #4 by rozmorris on February 6, 2011 - 9:50 pm

      Phew, Carol – exciting time, isn’t it? I can’t wait to do those final adjustments. It seems to have been a very long tunnel.

  3. #5 by Jill on February 6, 2011 - 10:45 pm

    I learning this more & more. Stopping by from the red dress club weekend link up!

    • #6 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 12:39 am

      Thanks, Jill – red visitors very welcome here!

  4. #7 by erikamarks on February 7, 2011 - 12:41 am

    Roz–such a great post! I am there just now, within a few pages of my first draft’s ending and all I can think about is how strange my beginning will likely read when I return to it–and that’s okay! Not to mention how disjointed my characters will seem–again, I’m okay with that. For me, that is part of the fleshing out prcoess. I can’t imagine refining chapters in a vacuum, but I do know how a partial request can expedite that process…

    • #8 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 1:16 am

      Erika, I’m squeaking with recognition here! Yes, the characters will seem shaky, as though it was all written by someone who didn’t know them all well enough. Phew, won’t it be nice when it’s done?

      • #9 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 9:26 am

        And Erika, you make a good point about partial requests… yes, sometimes we have to fling a bit of the book out before the end is ready. But we shouldn’t be flirting with agents if we suspect, like my friend, that the first chapters are not as good as the later ones. It is, doh, a sign they shouldn’t be sent out!

  5. #10 by souldipper on February 7, 2011 - 12:45 am

    Roz, I appreciate your willingness to pass on sage advice and solid experience. I do this with short stories and have wondered if I’m navel gazing or fussing too much. This validates my instincts. As a reader, I love diving right into a story and, after I come up for air, discovering what’s around.

    • #11 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 1:17 am

      Souldipper, you must be as mad as the rest of us.🙂

  6. #12 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 7, 2011 - 12:50 am

    “when you reach the end, revise the beginning again”

    There.

    Now, I get to go do it 🙂

    Even though I’ve already done it about three times plus been reading chapters to a group in Second Life.

    I highly recommend reading a tightly-revised piece of work to other people!!

    • #13 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 1:19 am

      Alexander, you’re right, it seems endless. My first idea to illustrate this post was a picture of the Forth Bridge.

      • #14 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 7, 2011 - 1:26 am

        “Forth Bridge”??

        • #15 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 9:30 am

          Massive rail and road bridge in Scotland. It takes so long to paint that by the time maintenance workers finish they have to go back to the beginning and start again. Or so says popular mythology.

        • #16 by Alexander M Zoltai on February 7, 2011 - 6:45 pm

          Thanks for that bit of info, Roz. In America, it would be the San Francisco Bay bridge🙂

  7. #17 by Reena Jacobs on February 7, 2011 - 1:21 am

    Excellent advice. Sounds similar to my method of writing these days. I write the first draft using the current outline. For some reason, changes always seem to occur to me as I’m going through, or I find I’m neglecting a story arc. Once done with the first draft, I go back and outline my current version then add/subtract scenes as needed to help the current storyline flow better.

    Sometimes what originally sounds great in the head doesn’t quite translate as well on paper.🙂

    • #18 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 1:28 am

      Reena, your last line could be a T-shirt – ‘what sounds great in the head doesn’t translate as well on paper’.

  8. #19 by tahliaN on February 7, 2011 - 2:17 am

    Oh, I do agree. I rewrote the first 5 chapters of Lethal Inheritance about 10 times. At least 7 of them complete rewrites. If I hadn’t gone back again and again, my agent wouldn’t have looked past the first page.

    • #20 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 9:31 am

      At least the more of it we do, the easier we’ll find it on subsequent novels. We hope…

  9. #21 by Laura Pauling on February 7, 2011 - 2:01 pm

    Wonderful advice and so true. We must always revisit those beginning pages, with every draft. They are what sells the book.

    • #22 by rozmorris on February 7, 2011 - 2:50 pm

      Yep! So no throat-clearing, hesitation, deviation, repetition…

  10. #23 by India Drummond on February 10, 2011 - 11:54 am

    This is really good advice. Before I got my first book accepted by a publisher, I really had no concept of how many times it would be gone over again and again. By the time I sent it out, I only THOUGHT I was sick of looking at it. You’re right. It’s important not to rush.

    • #24 by rozmorris on February 10, 2011 - 1:26 pm

      Thanks, India! I well remember the time when I thought the first draft was it. Then that the revision was it. I sent it out and agents had comments, so it was back to work again. And again, time after time.

  11. #25 by Sally on February 10, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    Very informative post. The only downside with revision is, it’ll never be done. It applies to non-fiction too. I had a non-fiction book published some time ago and till today everytime I pick it up and look at it I think it could do with some more work!🙂

    • #26 by rozmorris on February 11, 2011 - 12:43 am

      Know what you mean, Sally! Actors often say they never watch themselves on screen. I know why.

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