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.
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