Tinkering Vs. Progress

I had a great phone call with a coaching client a few weeks ago, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years. He was really passionate about his first five chapters, the ones he’d already drafted. He had a strong goal to finish his manuscript, but no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t progressing. Why? He was fixating on revising those completed chapters!

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

What you’ve already written is a known. It’s there already, and you can begin to work on it. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar?

In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive. But we may also miss the forest for the trees. Because while you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, tinkering can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What do I recommend to writers who are getting caught up in their early pages at the expense of finishing a draft? Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. So those first chapters that you’re polishing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes.

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying in the long run.

6 Replies to “Tinkering Vs. Progress”

  1. A lot of tinkering I’ve done is either because I don’t know what the next scene will be (your outlining idea helps!) or I have ideas to include in a previous scene that I don’t want to forget.

    For the first problem, taking a break from writing to brainstorm helps a lot, just for ideas for the upcoming scenes. And I don’t really outline more than the major plot points to keep the structure solid, so I don’t feel the pressure of having to figure it all out. I just do headlight outlining, ie I know where I’m going for the next couple scenes.

    For the second issue, if I have ideas I want to include, I just go to the end of the manuscript and jot down ideas or dialogue or whatever I want to include when I revise. It’s a way of not forgetting while I continue writing, but the notes are rough enough not to distract from actually writing and moving plot forward.

    Lovely post! thank you 🙂

  2. I do love that rush, though, of starting a new WiP with tons of energy and ideas. When I get into a rut and can’t seem to move past a chapter, I force myself to put that file away and open a blank file to continue (so I’m not tempted to look back). Otherwise, I may never finish the draft.

    Once I write the end of the story, those first chapters are the ones that need the most revision. Maybe I started in the wrong place, or maybe there’s a better way to show the character arc. In fact, I normally don’t start the MC’s character arc “low” enough to make it matter until I come back and revise.

    Good points here. Thanks.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I learned this the hard way, and spent way too much time polishing early chapters that in draft four are little or nothing like the original rough draft. Many were dropped or significantly altered. Once the novel was complete, I realized so many things about the story which changed those opening chapters.

    Fantastic post, and great advice!

  4. Your comments are so true. Unfortunately, I learned it the hard way while writing my first novel. Your points also apply to revising, I’ve found.

    I am starting another novel in the new year and will re-read your post DAILY if needed! Thanks so much.

  5. You caught me… I am doing this! OK, time to finish writing those last few middle chapters and get this thing put together. Thanks for the call out!

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