• Melissa Olson

Revising Pains & Epiphanies


At writing conferences and workshops over the years, I kept hearing the same thing over and over: be sure your story begins where it’s supposed to. I was told that most writers eventually end up trashing their original first chapters. It was a bit concerning since I kind of liked my first chapter and, I hoped, my novel was different.

The opening line of my novel came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up around 4 a.m. and ‘saw’ a young girl standing there, dressed in early 20th century garb. I remember her hair was in two side braids. She said, “I always thought I might know who it was that killed my Mama.”

I immediately went to the computer and when I started typing, Hannah kept talking. I spent the next 18 months writing my novel, The Life-Dividing Days. That precious time, when you’re essentially living in two worlds, is magical. It felt so right, even joyous. And that opening line felt like a gift.

That’s probably why I had a hard time swallowing what I kept hearing about first chapters. I also had some evidence against it – with that first chapter, I was awarded a merit scholarship to Bear River Writer’s Workshop and honorable mention in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s First Pages Contest.

Here’s the thing, though, they were right! I had started my novel in the wrong spot. You know the first step to solving any issue, even an editorial one, really is to admit there’s a problem, lol.

In my initial drafts, the first chapter started a few weeks after Hannah’s mother dies in a tragic barn fire. It took me a long time to finally admit that the story’s true start is the night of the fire and what Hannah witnessed during those awful moments.

All of my stubborn clinging to what it was, even if it did feel right, was preventing the story from evolving into something potentially better. I kept my first line, the one that echoed through my head for a year and a half, but I moved or completely pitched the rest of the original first chapter.

The amazing thing is, that act freed me to make other major revisions. So, next week, I’m going to blog about the fun in killing off characters you don’t really need and other revising revelations that helped me cut my novel from 160,000 to 95,000 words. Hope you check back and, if you have any writing revelations, PLEASE share!


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