I can’t get very far in a manuscript until I have a voice. I struggle with getting that voice sometimes, as in I rewrite and rewrite the first paragraph and page, but I need that voice, whether it comes in a flash or has to be worked for, before I can go very far in a manuscript.
Generally, I believe you should push forward in a first draft, letting your subconscious mind do most of the work. Of course you’re going to mull things over while you’re in the shower or driving to work (pedestrians and other drivers beware), but when you’re writing you’re mostly trying to get to that quiet place where you can create and experience it all at once--that, as Robert Olen Butler calls it, moment-to-moment experience of your story. However, I can’t do this without a true voice for my narrator. I can’t get there.
I’ll write ten or twenty pages sometimes just to see what happens but I’ll keep going back to that first page and toying with where the story starts and what the narrator’s voice is. For me voice is extremely important. That tone of the story helps me feel truly at home in my world. It’s essential for me that I get that early in the process, however imperfectly, to open up my story.