Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Don't Spend So Much Time Polishing Your Beginning...

...until you've written the whole story.

I'm seeing a trend where writers post their beginning chapter(s) for critique, get feedback, revise, resubmit for critique, get feedback, revise--over and over, you get the idea. What's wrong with that? The beginning is crucial to get right.

I'll tell you what's wrong and this comes from personal experience. If you haven't written down the entire story your polished beginning stands a good chance of getting blown up when you finally have the whole story figured out.

Write the entire draft first. Even better, revise the entire manuscript a couple of times. Then get in and start polishing and seeking feedback. Don't submit an unfinished manuscripts for critique. It's a waste of beta readers' time and a waste of your time. Sure you can learn a lot, but you're story is incomplete. Changes will happen when you finish the rest of it. The voice may change, characters may change, even the entire plot may change. You may find you need to insert foreshadowing in those beginning chapters. Maybe you're world building ideas turn out horribly and you come up with something better by the time you get to the middle of the book. Maybe you've devoted too much effort into a beginning and then find you've run out of word count space for the rest of the book, or you developed polished tangents that have nothing to do with the main thread of the story.

Another danger is that if you do polish up your beginning, you're less likely to want to change it. This can cause a huge struggle with writing the rest. Stories have a tendency to evolve into something different from your first perfect conception. I've seen writers fight the natural flow of their story tooth and nail in order to preserve their precious beginning from needing another overhaul.

And another danger is that if you are submitting an unfinished manuscript over and over to readers to get that beginning just right for agent eyes, you'll wear out your readers. You'll have fewer to turn to when you need help with the middle and ending (which are very important parts too.)  By writing and revising the entire manuscript a few times, you'll learn editing skills and catch things on your own before anyone else sees it. You won't catch everything and will still need beta readers at some point, but you'll have fewer mistakes for them to find. The story will flow better from beginning to end and will make more sense for readers.

I know many may ignore this advice. It's too tempting to see if readers like our beginning. We want that gratification of wowing readers. Too soon, my friends. A beautifully crafted beginning is pointless if the rest of  the book doesn't have the polished guts to follow. Trust me when I say I'm the voice of experience here (minus the submitting the beginning over and over to readers, in that instance I'm speaking from the position of a beta reader.) Unless you have a complete story down and figured out, it's blowing smoke into a headwind to worry so much over your beginning. So save yourselves some stress, gag that inner need for recognition, and get your whole story written and revised a few times first.


  1. *holding up glass* cheers to that. I couldn't agree more! Get the entire MS done as much as the writer feels it is done, then start passing it out to critique partners. I know the temptation of doing it too early. I have to admit on doing this mistake myself, but I'm learning.

  2. I see it all the time too. I think it's a form of writer's dicipline to keep writing until it's done, but it explains why so many new writers say they've been working on the same novel for years.

  3. Great point, and well said.

    My beginning is complete. I've changed it from the polished one I had. I am in the process of editing and rearranging chapters. The whole story may end up different and will need a NEW beginning. Can you beat that?

    Thanks again Joyce, your insights are always spot on.

  4. So true. In the beginning, the beginning is just a place to start. Pushing ahead to the end can and will define or redefine the beginning. Often, the beginning that is reworked before completing the story turns out not to even be the right place to have begun. In my own case, I discovered when it was done that the story developed a tone and arc that needed foreshadowing, aspects that weren't yet realized when I first began, and a different starting point. Whatever is set up in the opening paragraph/page/chapter has to relate to the story's ending and give the reader that "Ahhh" feeling. How can you do that without having a firm sense of the ending? (Another worthy topic, as you say.)

  5. Oh, you all have excellent points! And you're right, Rick, that tie-in with the ending would make a great blogpost. I give you first dibs. ;)

  6. Okay, Joyce...challenge accepted. But other than writing it, I didn't know what to do with it. Is it okay to have used your name?


  7. Yes! I agree. This is so true. I have finished one novela-length manuscript, only to realize that it took place in an unfinished world--but it felt so good to have it finished! Now I am spending a lot of time world building on another project, so that I can just go with it when I start writing the story again.

    I have a question for everyone: how much world building does one need, especially in a speculative fiction piece?

    Thanks for the posts! I am now following this blog and am excited to see what everyone has to say.

    1. ...Don't know why these posts are under Manup Admin...I am actually Daniel. Sorry if this causes any confusion.

  8. Rick--so glad you're up to the challenge. Everybody needs to read his post, and if anyone else feels inspired to add to the conversation through blogging, please post a link here in the comments so we can all follow and comment.

  9. Daniel--only as much world-building as the story needs. The great thing about world-building is that it can lend uniqueness to a story. Never sacrifice the storyline for tons of world-building though. You need to let the two work together. Setting can be an active player in a story just as much as characters or events.