What’s the “So what?” of your first chapter?

Dear Readers and Writers and Students and Friends and Looky-Loos and Potential Pals:

There are about a bazillion books available to help writers write.  Some that I highly recommend are Bird By Bird, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and Calvin and Hobbes- The Deluxe Edition. However, because of my vast experience of writing novels (ha ha- sarcasm) and because someone recently asked me how to go about writing novels, I thought I’d share with you my “approach” to beginning and revising a book- or, as I like to call it:  The “Oh, look at me. I’m writing a book. This is going to be so good. Wait. This is crap. Everyone said so at writing group.  I am doomed. I suck. Wait, maybe if I try it this way. No. That still sucks. Maybe this way?  Ok, this is better” Method.

I seem to write my first drafts (and 2nd and 3rd) as if my readers are totally willing to wait 50 pages for something interesting to happen.  If my character wants to talk about the customers at the Walgreens at the intersection of Campbell and Grant for four pages, by all means- I let them.  “It’s all good practice,” is what I’m told.  And it’s true. So I do a lot of good practice and fill my first drafts with word vomit consisting of long, tedious emotional descriptions, lengthy ponderings, and really cheesy metaphors.  And don’t edit that stuff out right away because that’s how I start to get to know my characters, figure out what they want out of life, and try to understand what their hopes and dreams are going to be.  I recently reread Bird By Bird by Anne Lammot and she reminded me that an important part of writing is getting out of the way so that your characters can tell their stories.  That part I’m good at, and I did that a lot in my first drafts of TYKWG.

So that’s how I start my first drafts.  Eventually, though, I gotta get the cleaning supplies out and really tidy up the book.  I’m talking bleach, scrubbing bubbles, AND Mr. Clean. For example, I started the second book in my YA series a long time ago, while I was waiting to get word from the editors and publishers looking at book one.  So, when I recently started working on it again, I kind of forgot what I wrote.  I had to read it all over again to get sense of where the characters were going.  What I found out was, I didn’t like where they were going.  So I tweaked the first chapter (for, like, the fourth time).  I really put some effort into it- practically rewrote the whole thing.  I was so pleased with myself!  Go me!  And then I took it to my writing group.  (FYI- Joining a writing group is the best thing you can do to help you 1. Write more, and 2. Get friendly reality checks about your writing that your spouse and bff are too sweet to share with you.)

I read this rewritten chapter to the group- fairly confident that they would totes heart it.  And the immediate feedback I got was great!  They loved the characters, the dialogue was spot on, the descriptions were unique.  But then, as my students say, “Sh%@ got real.”  After the compliments, Ellen spoke again: “So, yes,” she started. “This is good, but I’m wondering about something…is this just background and character development?  What’s the “so what” of this chapter? Every scene has to matter- has to move the character forward.  Where’s the tension here?” (I am paraphrasing here. She gives much more eloquent feedback.)  My first response was, “Darn it! I totally pulled a Britney Spears and did it again!”  Just like in my early drafts of TYKWG, I was taking FOREVER to get to the tension, the conflict, the something other than character development.  I then listed all the things that were going to happen later on, and as I spoke, what Ellen just said really sunk in.  She is right, why should my readers have to wait that long? There was absolutely no “so what” to be found in my first chapter. Sigh. Back to the laptop.

But here’s the thing- because of the honest feedback, I knew how to fix it.  So, I went back to work.  I looked closely at my first sixty pages, and you know what?  I couldn’t find a “so what” until chapter 4!!  Chapter 4, people!!  Holy macaroni.  That’s just embarrassing.  So here’s what I did- I printed the first four chapters, stapled them separately, and armed my hand with a highlighter (blue, if you care).  I highlighted the “so what” I finally found in chapter four, and highlighted the background pieces that I thought were absolutely necessary, and even highlighted a couple of funny lines that I just couldn’t part with (I have no shame).  Then I STARTED THE ENTIRE BOOK OVER!! Don’t get me wrong, I copy and pasted a couple of little sections from those first four chapters, but truth be told, I left most of it out.  Despite how fun it was to write and despite the fact that people enjoyed hearing me read it, so much of it wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand Abbey’s story.  And, so much of it was missing a “so what” that I couldn’t justify why it should stay.  And that is where I find myself today.  I’m rewriting the second You Know Who Girls novel and trying to remember to include a “so what” in every chapter. My readers deserve only the best and I will try to deliver!

Now I must leave this post and get back to the “so what” of my life- you know, the exciting part where I fry two eggs for breakfast, walk my dogs, and return the pillow that we bought yesterday.  Oooh….talk about tension and suspense! Will I get a store credit or full refund???

Hope to see you again soon.  And if you feel moved, feel free to add your approaches to starting or editing a book in the comments section of this post.  Sharing is caring.




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