Writing from the ending

From a post at Jane Friedman’s blog:

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.

I paused right there. That is a powerful statement. I think it is absolutely true. The author of this post — Sharon Oard Warner, and the post is an excerpt from her book  Writing the Novella — goes on:

In her book 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 lists is procrastination. The fourth is “The Going-Back-to-the-Beginning Syndrome.”

I can’t recall how many times I have seen or heard someone say something along the lines of, “I keep revising the beginning chapters; how do I make myself finish my novel?” Each time, I think, For heaven’s sake, leave the beginning ALONE and stop messing with it and just go FORWARD and FINISH THE NOVEL.

That actually reminds me of a particular student in English Comp I. She wasn’t writing a novel, of course, but some sort of ordinary essay. I finally handed this student a stopwatch and said, “You have 10 minutes to revise this paragraph and then this paragraph is finished. Do not look at it again, period. Go to the next paragraph and you have 10 minutes to write that paragraph. Go.”

That student was a very good writer, by the way. She just could not bring herself to leave anything alone once she had written it and therefore was having trouble turning in papers on time. The stopwatch method finally gave her a way to get moving forward and quit looking backward. She got an A in the class, I’m sure, though I don’t specifically remember.

Anyway, finishing the novel is the key. After that you can go back and revise the opening if you find it needs revision.

The author of the post adds:

 … 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 occasion for revising the first chapter is after you have written the last one.

Very true! Or at least MOSTLY very true! I mean, going over the beginning a bit is just fine. Spending a week revising the opening chapter is fine; going back a few weeks later and spending a day on it is fine; realizing you’ve made a mistake in the opening scenes and going back to spend another day or two fixing that mistake is fine; but spending month after month on the first scenes and getting stuck doing nothing but that is … I can’t think of a strong enough way to say totally pointless. In order to move forward, you have to move forward.

The author of this post finishes this way:

Having revised the whole book seven times and the first chapter dozens of times, I threw it away and very quickly wrote something entirely new and much better. It stands to reason. All these years later, I knew the story—and the characters. I also knew precisely how the novel ended and, therefore, at long last, how it began.

I won’t go so far as to say it’s generally a good idea to throw away your first chapter and write a new one. I sort of think I might have done that once … no, thinking again, I believe I just moved the previous chapter one into the novel a bit farther and wrote a new chapter one to go in front of it. In general, the first chapter I write is in fact the the real first chapter. Normally I find beginnings easy, then the beginning of the middle difficult, then the slide toward the climax pretty okay, the climax itself difficult, and the denouement a great pleasure to write — my favorite part is almost always the denouement. All of that is personal. The only thing that seems really typical for most writers, as far as I can tell, is that the middle is a slog. But to get to the point where you’re slogging through the middle, you do have to finish the beginning.

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4 thoughts on “Writing from the ending”

  1. This is… definitely my problem. A hard lesson I need to learn!

    Writing fanfic has helped a bit, especially posting one chapter at a time: I can’t go back and revise the earlier bits, so there’s nowhere to go but forward! I wonder if serial novelists back in Ye Olde Days found that beneficial as well.

  2. Mary Beth, it sure seems like posting a chapter MUST be a way to get it out of the way.

    I can see that a writer might then wind up needing to contort a bit to justify something in the early chapters that, oops, doesn’t really match up with the ending but can’t be changed. But on the other hand, practically anything CAN be justified if you contort sufficiently, whereas not letting the first chapters be finished means it’s impossible to get to the ending.

  3. Some of us can go back to put in stuff. I often go back when I realize that “I need this character to have met an old friend in chapter 2,” but I do manage to go on.

  4. Yep; if it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem. I don’t usually go back very much, but if I need to, then sure, I go tweak details. As long as the writer can also make forward progress according to some reasonable schedule, it’s all fine!

    As I get closer to the end, I resist going backward for anything. But sometimes I know very well that I’m going to have to completely replace chapter five or combine two characters or whatever, and that knowledge bugs me so much I have to pause and go back and do that. I think it’s surely easier if you have a well-defined change you want to make. Then you can go back and make that change and at once move forward again.

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