The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written. — Joyce Carol Oates
When I educated my first postgraduate fiction workshop in 1994 at the University of New Mexico, I did as my teachers had done: I administered a docket, students signed off, and we agreed on a plan for distributing short stories or assemblies from novels-in-progress.
A Scandinavian woman in her early seventies got us started with the opening chapter of her novel-in-progress. It feed an immigrant family embarking on an ocean navigate to America. I originated my commentaries then invited others to offer their perspectives.
After students began speaking, I realise some of them were already acquainted–with each other as well as the period under discussion. Later, the author told me that she represented Chapter One each time she started a brand-new seminar, both to accustom class members with the narration and because she had yet to work out the cricks in her opening pages. Her purpose, she told me after class, was to publish at least this one novel in her lifetime.
I don’t know whether my student ever finished her volume and verified it to engrave because she was a community member , not person working toward a degree. But, all these years later, I recognize that my class was more likely a hurdle than a help to her. I say this because I know now that assemblies are a different animal than narrations. Whereas short floors stand alone, assemblies depend for their meaning on what comes before and after.
Like stones in a wall, periods are parts of something larger, so assessing them in isolation is at best a waste of time and at worst destructive to the work as a whole.
Remember that great Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”? In it, Frost describes the yearly task of restoring the wall, which amounts to restacking stones that have been dislodged. Some are “loaves” and some are “balls” and going them to fit together and stay in place is difficult.
We have to use a sorcery to procreate them balance :’ Stay where you are until our backs are turned! ’
It’s a balancing deed, with boulders and with periods, and we can only judge them after we introduced them in place and stand back to see whether the fit is a good one.
The Going-Back-to-the Beginning Syndrome
Because we are anxious and insecure, we tell ourselves that a better beginning will give us the momentum we need to reach the end. But it won’t. It doesn’t. In her journal The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, Martha Alderson lays out the four challenges writers face when they sit down to write. The first one she rosters is delay. The fourth is “The Going-Back-to-the-Beginning Syndrome.”
Alderson quotes various reasonableness( predict rationalizations) that scribes use for going back to the beginning instead of proceeding into the messy centre( also known as the rising action) or sidling up on the end. It’s comforting to return to the beginning, the status quo, when things weren’t falling apart. It’s harder to enter your house when you know the people inside are unhappy–liable to lose their furies and prostrate things. Some of us are conflict averse, and what we have to learn is that we aren’t precisely conflict averse in our real beings. We are also conflict averse in our fiction.
Fight or Flight
During the revision process of my first novel, my journalist Carla Riccio made an interesting observation: Every day your references get into an polemic, one of them leaves the room. We were on the phone, and I burst out chortling because I recognized their own problems immediately. Leaving is my firstly impulse in different situations I find painful: Hightail it. Make like a tree and leave. My husband the psychologist has hammered me on it countless occasions. Over the years, I have managed to better monitor and revise my behaviour. That said, I had no idea the problem had followed me onto the page.
You probably recognize the call “fight or flight.” It refers to the physiological response we humans have to saw threats, whether those be mastodons, marital disorients, or the messy middle of a manuscript. Regardless of the risk, some of us are more apt to fight than abscond. Others, like me, want to run away, back to the safety of the beginning. Fleeing doesn’t solve anything. Don’t go back to the comfort of the start; stay in the messy middle and crusaded.( And let your personas duke it out, too .)
Taking a Better Trip
So, why doesn’t a better beginning give you the momentum you need to sprint to the finish line? The rebut is simply that the beginning is speculative. It’s a guess. Writing a book-length fiction is a long journey into the unknown and even if you do all sorts of boost proposing, you cannot foresee all the escapades you have ahead of you.( If you were able to, taking the trip would not be all that much fun , now would it ?)
Last May, my husband and I went on a highly saw excursion to London. We prepared in all the usual highways, and by the time we compressed our bags, “weve had” checked weather outlook, consulted guidebooks, and picked the brains of better-traveled friends. My husband went the extra mile. He watched YouTube videos by Gen-Xers who have already managed to travel the world and are now sharing their top 10 indices: Things to fetch, things to see, things to avoid.
Writing the beginning of your story or novella is akin to packing your suitcase for an expensive and tedious errand to a far-away place. You haven’t been there hitherto, so you don’t know for sure what you’ll need. When you get back, when you unpack, you will know, for example, that the hiking boots( or the high heels) has only just been added weight. You never had a chance to hike. The umbrella did come in handy and so did the granola bars, though you ate those in your hotel bed and not on a footpath along the grey cliffs of Dover. The best-laid plans. The best-laid strategy. Chant it to yourself when you are imagine that repacking your case is somehow going to make a difference in a journey you haven’t yet taken.
If I could retrieve the many hours I devoted rewriting the first chapter of my first romance, days, weeks, even months would be pit again. At this extent in my writing live, I could and would use the time more profitably. Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of revision, both large-scale and small-scale revision. I’m also in favor of editing and proofreading. But the opening for revising the first assembly is after you have written the last one.
Given what I’ve time declared, it won’t surprise you to learn that the precious, carefully crafted first period of my first story never contacted publish. My editor waited until the book was about to go to press before cautioning me to write a completely new first chapter. Having altered the whole book seven terms and the first chapter dozens of epoches, I propelled it apart and very quickly wrote something entirely new and considerably better. It stands to reason. All these years later, I knew the story–and the characters. I too knew accurately how the romance dissolved and, hence, at long last, how it began.
Note from Jane: if you experienced this announce, check out Sharon’s brand-new volume Writing the Novella.
Read more: janefriedman.com