The first three chapters of a novel are very important. Apparently, they are all an agent or publisher need to decide if the novel is any good. It is certainly all they want to see in a submission.
Unfortunately, they are also the hardest chapters to write. Any new story needs exposition, introductions of characters and situations, descriptions of time and place. A writer creates a world and they want the reader to understand it. And yet pages and pages of exposition and explanations isn’t always the most interesting thing to read. It is a hard balance to provide just enough information so that the reader isn’t confused, at the same time as keeping the pace and narrative engaging. If you can’t do that in the first three chapters then it doesn’t matter if the rest of the novel is brilliant, it has already failed.
This was on mind as I preparing for my first submission. First of all, I had to decide which novel to submit. While I hope that an agent would be pleased to see that I have a portfolio of novels, they would be looking for which one would be the most successful as a first novel. Of all my work, After the Rain and The Most Beloved Boy are the most likely. Now, I love The Most Beloved Boy, but it is very long (yes, probably too long) and I know that would put potential publishers off. Besides that, it is quite difficult to classify. In comparison, After the Rain is much simpler and shorter. It has a more commercial appeal in its post-WWI setting, and it is easily identified as a love story. So it is the more obvious choice for a submission.
But the problem was that I knew the first three chapters weren’t good enough. I know this because I kept trying to find ways of including some later chapters that I felt would be more intriguing. But if there isn’t enough intrigue in the first three chapters, who could blame anybody for not wanting to read on. I truly believe that the rest of the novel is worth reading, which led me to the conclusion that there was only one thing to do – fix the first three chapters.
Actually, it was not that hard to do. I knew straight away what I had to do. I always try to avoid too much exposition, but I realised that by taking out even more of it, I could add intrigue. Why has this woman left her husband? What happened to the perfect marriage that was introduced in chapter 1? Setting up questions like this seemed to make a big improvement to the first three chapters. And there was something else I needed to do. One of the reasons for wanting to add a later chapter to a submission was to introduce another important character who doesn’t make an appearance until the end of chapter 4. But clearly, if he is that important, he needs to come in sooner. With a bit of rejigging, I found a way to bring him in at the end of chapter 3, with the added bonus of leaving it on a cliff-hanger. Sometimes the editor in me knows exactly what to do.
However, my inner-editor also insisted that the deleted exposition needed to be put back in later in the story so that the mysteries set up in the opening could be explained. I liked what this did to the plot, but it did mean some significant changes through-out the novel. Which meant, yes, you guessed it, a complete rewrite of the whole novel. Again. Since I first wrote this novel in 2001, this must be the fifth or sixth time I have done this. But the inner-editor is usually right, and I certainly felt that these changes were essential. So that is what I have been working on for the last two months. Some chapters barely changed at all, while others needed brand new material. None of the changes alter the story, but they do add a new element to the relationship between my two central characters which I am really pleased with. Here’s hoping that this fifth (or sixth) version of this novel is finally good enough. At least, I think the first three chapters are.
Oh, and I might change the name of it. But more about that next time!