The Chopping Block: Find your Beginning, Make it Pop

The Chopping Block is a multi-part series on how to lower your word count without losing everything. This is Part One of the series.

So you’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations! It’s 120,000 words long. You’re a monster, a marathoner! They call you Steelfingers, baby! 120k of blood, sweat and tears… and you know that as a brand new author you really ought to get it down to around 100k before you shop it. What to do? Do you start hacking away description and dialogue? Wait a minute, before you get out the axe.

Look at your story arc. What is the story really about? To figure that out, write your hook– your one line sentence that you’d put in a query or use for an elevator pitch. Yes, it’s a bear. Do it anyway. (You can read more about hooks here and here.) So, now that you know what your story is about, did you open in the right place?

Are you sure?

It’s pretty common for first draft stories to not really begin until the second or even third chapter. The first chapters are muddling around, setting things up, chock full of expository chunks that mean nothing to the reader. For example, my first draft of my first chapter involved my protagonist looking out the window at the moon and thinking about stuff while she waited for the right moment to make her play.

Looking out a window. Thinking. About Stuff. Yup. Cue the sad trombone.

I knew something was wrong, but I just couldn’t let go of my moon-musings. The reader needed all that information to understand my fantasy setting, dammit! So I trimmed and tinkered and farted about without ever losing the flat, passive feel of my opening. Finally I asked for help from someone who writes better than I do. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing)

“You’re starting in the wrong place. Start with her flight, her fear. Be visceral with your physical details, be brief when you explain the stakes. And then, once I am invested in her, do a jump cut and take me back.”

A jump cut. It never, in a million years, would have occurred to me to use a jump cut. I ended up killing the whole thing and rewriting it from scratch. Once I did this, I lost about 5 pages of flab and gained a dynamic opening.

So take a hard look at your opening chapters and find that moment of action, that moment where everything comes together (or starts falling apart). It might be page two, it might be page twenty. Cut everything that comes before it and drop it into it’s own document. Now you can fish from that new document to add in backstory later throughout the novel, you can use it as a jump cut, or you can get spartan and just close it without saving.

The last way really is best. After all there are thousands of words between you and the writer you were when you wrote those first sentences. You’re much, much better now. Thousands of words better, in fact. So don’t make a sacred cow of your opening. Chances are it’s more fat than meat anyway.

Next time on The Chopping Block, I’ll be talking about housekeeping scenes.