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The Killing Becomes Easier -- by John Berkowitz

You don’t need to call Homeland Security; I’m not talking about killing people. I’m talking about a writer killing one’s literary children – one’s work.

A while ago I wrote a lament about killing our babies, about finally coming to grips with the fact that we could no longer continue to patch and tuck and tweak our early chapters to make them better – we needed to let them die an honorable death and replace them with something new. And we did that. We wrote a new chapter one.

The problem was, we essentially wrote the same chapter all over again. We changed a lot of the details, tightened it up and made the whole thing flow better. But in the end it was the same chapter.

I recently got invited to join an exclusive group for writers of speculative fiction, and signed on to their summer critique marathon. Then I dutifully fed our shiny new chapter one into the machine and sat back to await the applause.

The great thing about this group is that some of those participating in the critique marathon are accomplished writers, regular slush readers and/or frequent judges for some of those Twitter pitch contests I keep failing to win. So the feedback is really important; it’s a huge step up from the casual readers who have given me feedback to this point.

They didn’t exactly applaud. In fact, they told us to do it over. Twice. The first time we fell back into our old habits and performed surgery on the chapter – basically just rearranging the order of the scenes and turning most of the chapter into a flashback. They liked this even less.

Geez, tough crowd.

But we finally got it. We needed to start with a blank screen and compose a whole new chapter one. The thing is, we could never have taken this step if we hadn’t taken all of the baby steps up to this point. Killing the baby the first time was really hard. But killing it the second time came much easier.

We quickly finished the first draft of the new chapter. We managed to:

  • completely change the motivation of my main character (which I was never satisfied with)
  • give her mom an actual believable reason to do what she does at the end of the chapter
  • define my main character more clearly and more in line with the rest of the book
  • give her an actual believable reason for accepting what Mom does at the end of the chapter
  • foreshadow more
  • spend MUCH less time on family and back story, and more time telling the actual story
  • create a much punchier and engaging first 250 words
  • cut 4 pages

Of course, this means we’ll need to amputate the first half of chapter two and write a completely new scene, and add a little of what we cut from chapter one to the beginning of chapter four. But these were the chapters we originally wrote by the seat of our pants and without any real direction. All of the set-up that is no longer needed and all of that stuff that never led to anything will be trimmed. I expect the book to lose a couple of thousand words.

And each one will be easier to cut than the last.


FOLLOW UP: We have since completed the revisions I spoke of to the second and fourth chapters and submitted this new manuscript to various agents.  We now have fulls out with 5 different agents, editors and publishers. One of them has enthusiastically asked for a revise and resubmit.  We had kill to get where we are today.  I regret nothing.

John Berkowitz is a father, a designer, the co-author author of the Fae-born Series, and possibly descended from trolls. He writes middle grade fantasy with his daughter.  Read more about their adventures of writing the middle grade novel and living to tell about it in John's weekly blog, Am I Doing This RIght?

Posted by John Berkowitz 15 Dec 2015 at 01:54
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Responses to this blog

Gypsywitch 15 Dec 2015 at 13:42  

Redwyvern 15 Dec 2015 at 15:33  
I'm truly impressed. With my novel, I had to literally rewrite the first chapter a lot of times. I think I have thirteen versions of Chapter 1 that I killed because either a. I didn't like it, b. somebody else didn't like it or c. it needed more work. My work is still a work in progress, but I'll make it someday.
Jaramsli 16 Dec 2015 at 10:28  
The trashcan is my friend. Smelly stuff decomposes in there and becomes dirt.
Dirt is healthy for flowers — thanks for the reminder.
Now I'm off to Projects/Stories/Abandoned/Trash/ to have a look

Luvrofinfo 16 Dec 2015 at 23:40  
Outstanding and congratulations! I have been trying to do the same to a first chapter of mine. Hope I can find some additional helpful hints on your blog!
Imjustdru 17 Dec 2015 at 01:49  
I recycled my novel into a comic book series after a hiatus from this group. Now I'm doing rewrites to the first issue of each series.
Atlanta 17 Dec 2015 at 11:18  
Makes me shudder to think about such a killing spree, but I can see that once the initial pain and shock has worn off the possibilities are endless. Sometimes those babies are hiding in plain sight. Gotta be ruthless!
Jberkowitz 17 Dec 2015 at 17:10  
We have to be bloodthirsty, like pirates! Like sociopathic zombie pirates bent on revenge. Hanging on to the stuff that isn't working because of sentimentality (and, admit it, laziness) is like fondly keeping a tumor. The good stuff can't flourish if the book is choked with weeds.

Hi, I'm John and I'm a metaphor-holic.
Atlanta 18 Dec 2015 at 00:20  
You're so right John. Great metaphors!! I'm off to get some pliers...
Kusterer 21 Dec 2015 at 15:36  
I was told long ago that writing Chapter One is the writer's equivalent of clearing your throat. You will always have to rewrite it. That's a given. In revising my present WIP, I threw it out and started the novel with the former Chapter Two. Big improvement. Probably not the last big improvement needed, but a good start.
Doozer 5 Jan 2016 at 00:25  
oh my... the photo in the background was enough to get me interested in this story. I love the Hellow Killy drawing in the background.

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