Yesterday I handed my latest revision to my agent. Because I got it to her two weeks later than expected, hitting “send” wasn’t as thrilling as I’d expected it to be. Still, I think I did a good job of it, and I know I am a better writer and editor because of it.
In the course of my edit, two quotations served as guiding lights.
The first, from Richard Peck: “The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”
When he’s done writing a first draft, Peck throws the first chapter away without rereading it, and writes what needs to go at the beginning as the very last thing. I didn’t take such a bold tack, but I did take his words to heart.
At one point in my process, my husband asked me whether it was normal to spend so much time on the first few chapters. Normal? I don’t know, but I sure needed it. I rewrote my first chapter three times, trying to find just the right moment to launch into my story. Once I did, I eventually realized the next nine chapters were in the wrong order. The first third of the book underwent an overhaul, and I think it’s made a big difference in the state it’s in now.
Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid of bold moves when editing!
And the second quote, from Hemingway:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
This balance is extremely difficult to strike. It’s why having strong readers is important and why it’s crucial to take a considerable chunk of time off between one edit and the next.
I spent a lot of time on the first third, knowing how important it is to capture the reader up front. But what’s the point, if there’s nothing worthwhile to follow up with?
In the first couple drafts of my manuscript, I definitely had “hollow places” where I didn’t know a character well enough or didn’t want to bother writing out a scene. I tried to fight it and push through, but I couldn’t always see where I needed more.
As I worked through it and through it, I filled in (most of) those holes. When I went through this last time in hard copy, I found a whole lot of instances—especially in the last third—where I landed on the other side of the spectrum and said a good deal more than I needed to. For example, too often characters paused in the middle of dialogue or thought “for a moment” before taking action. CTRL + F was my best friend in this stage of the edit.
Initially, I thought this revision was largely about typos and making sure the plot shifts I’d made in the first hundred pages aligned with the rest of the story. It turns out, there was a lot of adding and deleting to do, to remedy the problems suggested in Hemingway’s advice. I think I’ve got the balance of information closer to where it needs to be. At the end of it all, the manuscript is ten pages shorter, and the writing that much tighter.