Let’s Write a YA Novel – Part 2 (The First Few Chapters)

Are you a planner or a pantser? No, don’t answer right away. I want you to really stop and think about it for a minute. It’s not just about how you write – it’s who you are. Is the impulse toward pantsing embedded deep within your very soul, aching to be release in a glorious burst of creativity? If you lived in some sort of high-tech futuristic city with poorly-defined borders and no discernible culture would the annual Sorting Ceremony mark you eternally as a member of the Planner class? I’m telling you, this is serious business.

For those not well-versed in the cutesy terminology of online writing communities, ‘pantsing’ (as in ‘seat-of-your-pants’) refers to the act of starting your novel without a definite outline in place. ‘Planning’, as you might expect, is the opposite.

I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that you can reduce all writers to two broad ‘types’, but whether you want to meticulously outline the beginning of a novel or just wing it is something you should probably decide before you start. Unless you’re writing something that actually requires a great deal of planning before going in (like a lot of non-fiction), it’s probably more a matter of choice than anything else.

I jumped in to Castor with only a rough sketch of a concept (low-technology SF story on a not-entirely-habitable planet) and a few ideas for a plot. If you had asked me what I hoped the finished book might ‘feel’ like I could probably give you a fairly good description, but there were enormous tracts of my mental map of the book that were completely blank when I started writing it.

The standard advice, which I think is mostly accurate, is not to worry too much about those first few thousand words. They will almost certainly be heavily revised at a later point, if not excised from from the manuscript entirely, and if you agonise over them too much you risk never making it past the opening chapters.

My only concern with this line of thinking is that it treats a manuscript as a singular entity that exists only in one location at a time, whether that be a file on your hard drive or a notebook in a drawer. But that’s not the case at all. Your book is a composite of the words you’ve written, the words you plan to write at any given moment (whether you actually write them or not), the ideas still gestating in the back of your mind, the character outlines and scraps of dialogue you return to at quiet moments during the day — all the stuff, basically, that goes into the writing of a story.

In an ideal situation, the words you’ve written would have little bearing on the ones that exist only in your mind. They could be decoupled, such that starting down one path in a first draft wouldn’t constrain how the story’s mental image continues to evolve over time. Unfortunately, we are not perfectly rational writing machines (not that you’d necessarily want to be one). I may be able to tell myself that those initial chapters are temporary, that I can delete them at any time and start again if I decide that they simply don’t fit with what I want the book to be, but there’s an insidious habit a lot of writers have to privilege words on the page with words in the mind. The written words are more ‘real’, somehow, even if you secretly start to think that maybe you don’t even like them all that much.

I don’t want to get too prescriptive here, because whether you identify with any of what I’m saying will depend largely on how you view the act of writing itself. Maybe it makes perfect sense to you that written words – completed work, essentially – should dictate how you spend your limited writing time in the future.

The one thing I’d advise against is writing five or ten thousand words and then sanctifying them to such a degree that you force the rest of your manuscript to accommodate them. I remember having some relatively strong ideas on how I wanted Castor to start, a lot of which had to do with rebelling against the notion that a story had to start with ‘action’ if you wanted to have any hope of hooking readers.

Actually, let’s go off on a tangent for a second, because it illustrates what I’m talking about and also gives me an excuse to cover something I really should have gone over in the first post in this series. The mainstream path to publication for a writer of genre novels (i.e. not literary fiction and not non-fiction) goes something like this:

Write a book (the easy part) –> Send manuscript to literary agents –> Get represented by a literary agent –> Agent sends book to editors (at which point you are ‘on submission’) –> Editor buys book –> Retire to the Bahamas Repeat as necessary

It should be obvious that the first gatekeeper an aspiring author is likely to encounter is a literary agent (or, more realistically, their intern) rather than an editor. Consequently, writers put a lot of effort into working how to avoid getting instantly rejected, which is what happens to something like 95% or more of manuscripts received by agents.

(That’s not hyperbole, by the way. Many agents release their acceptance rates online, and the numbers are universally dismal from the perspective of a hopeful first-time author.)

(Don’t worry, though – you’ll be the exception.)

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that almost no agents accept complete manuscripts unsolicited. Instead you send a ‘partial’, consisting of, usually, a short synopsis and the first 5-10 pages. If you get past this stage (which, again, the vast majority of people don’t) you then send your full manuscript off to be rejected.

This means that you need to hook an agent’s attention within the first five pages at the very soonest. Conventional wisdom states that they need to be utterly enthralled much earlier than that – by the end of page one, if possible. Maybe even after the first paragraph. Maybe even after the first sentence.

And look, I can see why this happens. No agency, not even one with an entire army of unpaid interns from expensive universities at its disposal, has the time to read through any significant portion of all of the manuscripts they receive. Seek out those statistics I mentioned, but instead of going straight for the acceptance rates take a look at the raw numbers. The sheer volume of crap any legitimate agency receives in a month is staggering. And make no mistake, most of it probably is crap, the kind of crap you can safely reject after glancing at the first paragraph.

But what about the borderline cases? What about the manuscripts that merely show promise? Those generally seem to get rejected as well, for the same reason. Accordingly, if you want even a remote possibility of getting a request for a full manuscript, let alone an offer of representation, your opening paragraphs need to achieve a ridiculously large set of objectives, some of which appear to contradictory at first glance.

You need to establish setting. Characters (plural). Voice. Tone. Genre, to a certain extent at least. Plot. (Plot, you might be thinking, in the first few pages? Seriously? Alas, it’s true – most readers have a fairly reasonable expectation that the first chapter of a book will give them at least some insight into the plot they’ve signed up for.) Most of all, you will be told, it needs to have ‘action’.

This is where I feel there may be some slight miscommunication between agents and writers. A lot of people, particularly writers of genre fiction, see the word ‘action’ and take it to mean action in the Hollywood sense – fighting, car chases, dramatic gunshots aimed at ambiguous targets. You know, action. If you’ve ever wondered why so many draft manuscripts online start with literal explosions in the first few sentences, this is why. What could be more action-packed than an explosion?

In reality, of course, when agents say ‘action’ they generally mean ‘stuff happening’. And this is good advice! You should want stuff to happen in the beginning of your book. It’s a sure sign that stuff will continue to happen throughout, which I’m told is what most readers are looking for.

The problem arises when you compile a massively overinflated list of events, references and literary objectives and then try to cram them all into the first five pages just so an agent will keep reading. Clearly, a literary agent skimming their way through their gigantic submission pile is not going to treat a book the same way as an ordinary reader who picks up a book at a store or online, and catering to one audience isn’t necessarily going to endear you to the other.

When I started writing Castor (yes, there was a point to all of this) I decided to be Mr. Special and write an opening that was, if not outright slow, at least pedestrian in terms of pacing. I was fairly adamant about not reversing course on this decision until several people who know more about writing than me pointed out that I was being stupid and my opening chapters were full of useless padding.

I don’t know for sure that the rest of the book would have been ruined if I had let those initial draft chapters dictate the rest of its pace, but I know that a shot of adrenaline ended up being exactly what the story needed. It was only when I revised my first five ten or so pages (with agents in mind, of course) that I realised the story as I wanted to tell it wasn’t entirely suited to the kind of methodical tempo I had in mind. The words on the page had come to dominate the words in my mind, and I had to change the former before I’d let myself change the latter.

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A summary of advice from this instalment of Let’s Write a YA Novel:

  • You will probably revise your opening chapters a whole bunch of times, so don’t worry too much about them.
  • Getting an agent is almost impossible, but opening with some sort of action is a good idea even if nobody offers to represent you.
  • We desperately need a moratorium on words like ‘pantsing’.
  • Have I mentioned that it helps to have writer friends who can read your stuff early on? I’m probably going to keep saying that.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Write a YA Novel – Part 2 (The First Few Chapters)”

  1. You make me feel like such an amateur 🙂 You’ve actually thought about all of this, and have come to conclusions. I’m still happily making it up as I go along. I’m probably doing one or two things right, but trust me when I say that’s all down to luck rather than wisdom. I’ll be following these posts with interests. I’m learning stuff.

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