No More Crash and Burn

When I first began writing novels, my friends, I started each day this way: I would sit down at my computer and start all over, each time, at the first chapter, with the very first sentence. And scrutinize it, to see if it could be any better. If it could be, I would then make it so. Or at least try to. And then, and only then, move on to the second sentence. And repeat this procedure. And so on. And so on. And so on.

Each feather of my manuscript had to be carefully examined to see if it was properly aligned for flight. Of course, each day, the feathers somehow seemed to be all ruffled again. (How does that happen?) Which meant it often took me months to lose the coop of the first and second chapters. (There's nothing wrong with this, by the way. We write our first drafts--and our seconds and our thirds--in any way we choose. All in a rush, in three weeks. Or painstakingly, over three years. It's our work. It's our life. It's your business.)

The upside of my habit of course was that the openings of my manuscripts became more and more polished and vital as I went; the downside was that, the longer I went, the fewer new words I could add toward the hatching end of any story. Because by the time I got to where a new sentence needed to be added, I was exhausted. I would lay it down . . . or rather, I would simply drop it. And then I was done for the day. Time to go to sleep and then get up and do it all over again.

One day I realized that though I was certainly entitled to do as I pleased, this was an awfully cumbersome way to write books. So I made a new rule: every morning, I was not allowed to go back to the beginning. I had to start where I'd finished. Period. No peeking. No pecking. No polishing. How liberating! My fingers dashed new sentences off! I could go for days! Days! DAYS! Then a funny thing would happen. I'd start to descend. I'd start to lose the feel of the manuscript. I'd lose the weight, the voice, the sonar of what I'd already done. Crash. Burn. Give up. Go back to the beginning again.

Any of this sounding familiar?

I'm not sure when exactly I settled into my new routine. It was a few years ago. I'd crashed and burned somewhere in the middle of a draft. I'd gone back to the beginning, yet again. But all I did, for some reason, one day, was fiddle with the first chapter. That was it. When I had done that, when I was satisfied, when I had remembered why I began writing the story in the first place, what its polished voice sounded like, and held the first, round, fine stone of it in my hand--I set it down, hopped over all subsequent chapters, and went to the last chapter I'd been working on the day before. I didn't need all the words. I needed only their example. A talisman.

It's what I'm about to do, this morning.

Whatever works. Whatever works.



Joni Rodgers said…
So right on, Mylene. Amen to all of that.
Loved this piece, Mylene. Elegantly put, and so true!
Also, I've been meaning to thank you for recommending THE LIEUTENANT by Kate Grenville. What a beautifully-written, fascinating book! Plus, I love reading anything about the European settlement of Australia.
Mylène said…
Thanks, mates! Colleen, what did you think of the ending of The Lieutenant? I found it a bit strange, not entirely satisfying but not exactly unsatisfying either. Just . . . odd. As if the demands of truth superseded the demands of fiction.
I felt that she jumped the gun skipping all the way to the end and then circling back to fill in some (but not enough) detail. It was a bit of a lost opportunity, IMO, but still a lovely book.
Oh no, another book on my list! And I absolutely love this, particularly the parenthetical "It's your business." I think too many people forget that, and I love advice that allows for variation.

That said, one of the things I'm GLAD I did was write this novel straight through without stopping. I did absolutely no revision. It was rough and most of it didn't work, but it did lead me to my story.

That's why, when my dissertation director suggested me workshopping it, I was appalled. "You want me to workshop THIS?" I hated going into that class because I knew it would be creamed (it was), but I really do believe the novel is better because of it. And I have mixed feelings still about showing people stuff when it's that rough. Most of what was said ended up not even applying; I would have been better off workshopping Draft 2. That, and having a better outline.
Anonymous said…
LOVE this! It's part of the process I'm playing with right now!

Mylène said…
Kathryn, the thing most people don't realize is what DISCIPLINE it takes to write a draft straight through without revising--it sounds so easy, but it isn't. I'm awed you could do it.

Diane, hugs back at ya!
Ha, Mylene, the way I did it was to put each chapter in its own file and never look at it again, not even when I was tempted, and not even when I couldn't remember a detail. I "just" told myself that I could fix discrepancies later.

I still use that approach now, even in revision, because the sight of all those pages in the same file still terrifies me (remember my whale post). Once I've got it, then I put it all together again, and go through it as a whole. To be honest, from a practical perspective, it's probably not the best, but otherwise, I just get overwhelmed and can't move past my perfectionism.