Writing Process: The First Chapter and the First Draft Grind

First chapters are the worst.  There are so many things to establish that it’s easy to let them get bogged down with exposition, and striking the right balance of information flow, dialogue, and action is tedious and exhausting.  It always takes me ten times as long to write the first chapter as it does to write anything else in the book.  This means that while I’m working on it, I’m always dead sure this draft is going to take me the rest of my life to write.  If every chapter takes this long, I will think, then it’s going to be years before I finish this book.  And while I’ve done this many times, I can never really believe that the rate at which I write the first chapter will be different than the rate of the rest of the book.

So first chapters are my enemy.

Eventually I will get a draft of that chapter written, and when I have, I’ll grind through the rest of the book.  I’ll still jump around out of order, writing things as they excite me, but when nothing particularly jumps out at me, I’ll go to the next thing that needs to be written to continue from the beginning, and write it.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the draft pieces itself together.

In truth, this process can take as few as four weeks.  A long drafting process for me is about four months.  The difference between a fast book and a slow book is usually the number of characters involved and the complexity of the internal character arcs.  (More characters means more character introductions and more relationships to balance; it always takes me longer to get an internal conflict down than it does for a more external one.)

Even four months isn’t a long time.  But it will feel like an eternity.  Right up until the last few days, I will feel like the process will never end.  I will never put the words down fast enough to get to the end.  And then, one day, I will actually finish, in a mad rush of underwritten ending.

I don’t like the grind part of drafting.  After waiting, it’s probably my least favorite part of the process.  This is because drafts are bad.  A novel is a complex thing, with lots of pieces that have to all work together to form a story.  I often think of revision as running a magnet over a pile of iron shavings to get all the bits to point in the same direction.  If that’s so, then drafting is the part where I have to generate all those shavings, and they always come out as a bit of a mess.

This doesn’t mean that I draft lazily.  I do my very best to get the book down in the best shape I can.  But even at my personal best, my first attempt is far from publishable.  It’s not really even fit for anyone to read but me.  For years I thought that it would be easier to write a new book than to revise these messes I had just made, but I discovered through sad experience that each new first draft is just as bad as the last.  They all need revision, and lots of it.