Here’s a tidbit of sage advice from a veteran writer*: It doesn’t go away. That spasm of self-doubt between chapters, after you’ve read the criticisms of the chapter you just wrote and clearly see your mistakes or had shower thoughts about it and suddenly figured out a perfect new wrinkle. That moment when you ask yourself, “Do I go back and revise before moving on, or do I just make notes and plunge ahead?”
That never goes away. But you can choose which way you want to proceed.
On my last book I got about a half-dozen chapters in before I could no longer move forward without revising what I had already written. Many fellow writers told me it was suicide to do that, because you risk going down a rabbit hole from which you may never emerge. They have a point; you can get caught up in trying to make it perfect, and you will never get there at this stage of the process. I actually never had a decent first chapter until after I had finished the novel. I needed to be able to see the whole package in order to see how it should properly start. Yet I had convinced myself several times before then that I had the perfect beginning. I don’t regret writing them – they were good exercises. But I might have saved myself a lot of stress and self-doubt if I’d known then what I know now.
Yet on the other hand, I couldn’t just leave those chapters in their original, rough and utterly wrong form, either. I had some substantial changes, not only to the basic plot, but to the main character’s motivation, many of the characters’ personalities, etc. I received a lot of counsel that insisted I should just pencil notes in the margins and continue writing the next chapter as if I had already made those changes. There is a lot of merit in this strategy. The main goal of the first draft is to get the whole thing down on paper, so you can have that whole package I mentioned before to examine, to help you determine what you need to foreshadow and what the character arcs need to be, and so forth.
Think of an artist creating a mural. First they sketch the basic elements on the wall, to get the composition balanced and all of the major elements where they need to be. That’s the first draft. The broad colors and fine details come later. And you can paint outside the original lines as the painting evolves. But what if you start out sketching an elephant, and midway though decide it needs to be a giraffe? Can you just leave the giant ears and trunk you’ve already drawn and carry on with the long neck and spots for the rest of the sketch? I couldn’t.
So when you find yourself faced with this particular conundrum, you have to make that call on your own. Ask yourself how much needs to be changed, and can you switch gears midway through without your train derailing? In some ways, writing the first draft of a novel is like the race to finish the Continental Railroad. You want to lay as many miles of track per day as you can and keep up the pace, or you may never actually ever finish. Particularly if you keep doubling back and moving the track you’ve already laid. On the other hand, if discover quicksand or realize the mountain you’re approaching is impassable, you just may need to tear up some of that track and start again.
Just don’t get caught in the trap of trying to make it perfect before you move on. That’s the real quicksand.
* I’m working on my third novel, my second serious one, and my first sequel. So a veteran only in relation to most people, not most writers.