Start with the Second

‘Every second chapter goes’. Thus spake the late literary agent and editor Vlaka Vrod, not only one of the toughest critics I have ever met, but a much neglected influence on modern european fiction.

They used to call her the ‘diamond polisher’: certainly it cannot be denied that her fierce yet wise counsel saved us all from a deluge of rough-edged manuscripts. The truth, however, is that she was rather more clinical than this. She took to final drafts not with a polishing cloth, but with a pair of hefty sheers. Chopping was her game. She was a veritable book butcher. Nothing pleased her more than to lopwhole chapters off texts. On more than one occasion she turned a full-length novel into a short story with her judicious cuts.

Her favourite method, though, was to insist that ‘every second chapter goes’ – or, alternatively, ‘every second sentence’. Writers repeat themselves so much, she thought, that no one would notice the disappearance of half a book.

On top of this, she almost always advised that cuts should start at the very beginning. If every second chapter was to go, it would start with the first. ‘I have never met  a writer who can write a first chapter straight off,’ she claimed in a 1987 interview, ‘but most of them write perfect second chapters that will work just as well’.

Unsurprisingly, this method irked many, not least Casimir Löepchitz, who tried more than fifteen times to get a first chapter past Vrod. Her response was always negative. ‘You amble, you dither, you snake,’ she wrote in reply: ‘you are altogether too self-conscious at the start. Your first chapter must go, as always. But don’t ever neglect to write it. It is always worth you writing your first chapter, to get going, but it will never be worth publishing. The reader, as ever, must start with the second’.

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