Raze It To The Ground
Sometimes you start writing something with an idea, only to find as you explore or write it that what you originally planned doesn’t work. When you run up against that, you have a couple of main options. You can keep trying to massage that idea into working, revising it until it sings. A lot of people do this. I’ve tried to do it in the past. It’s never been either pretty or particularly successful, so I now opt for door number 2. I burn what I had to the ground and start fresh, listening to the story whisper, while blocking out what I had tried to do. Unless there was a bit that really felt right, I refuse everything from the original draft. Drastic, I know, but something I’ve done well with.
Let’s keep in mind too that I’m not talking about it being a little off. I mean doesn’t work as in you can’t stand to work on it anymore. I mean the very idea of opening that document gives you fits. I mean you’re so far off that you can’t remember what you were trying to do. The characters and the story tell you to go to hell, and might even give you directions for that trip. Nothing makes sense, no matter how hard you try, though you remember that it once sort of did. The idea of trying to salvage it makes you want to cry.
That sort of not working. And yes, I’ve been there.
I first wrote Bound for NaNoWriMo 2011. It was my first NaNo, my first outline and my first completed draft of a novel. EVER. It also blew dead bears. I tried to read it the next morning, because I knew (for a lot of reasons) that I had to rewrite at least the first half. I wanted to see if I could manage that before I put it in the drawer to chill for a while, so I could gain detachment. I realized, to my complete horror, that half of what I had based the book on didn’t make sense, even the parts that instinct told me had to be in the book. I freaked out. I cried. I phoned a friend and cried and freaked out some more. Said wonderful friend talked me off the ledge. I think I was almost ready to give up writing for a few minutes of that awful fit, convinced I had zero talent at creating a coherent story. Thank god that passed. My life without writing is very miserable and ugly.
I ended up sitting down the next day, when what passes for my sanity returned, and figured out where I’d gone wrong, not to mention what the story needed to work. I learned a lot from that exercise, including what my biggest original weakness as a writer was, passive main characters. I don’t do that anymore, because that event in my life etched in my brain that main characters should constantly be making choices that drive the story.
So I set about rebuilding Bound, but first, I had to burn it to the ground. No, not literally. I didn’t take a match to the printout I made for my friend to read and comment on. I still have that in a drawer actually, though I can’t bear to look at it (Yes, it’s that bad). Instead, I started a new outliner document, plugged in the few things I was still using (mostly just character names) and then set about building a new story, one that had a new basis that changed everything.
I’ve never looked back from that moment. In a way, it’s lucky that the new version turned out so much better, because it gave me courage. I have no fear of doing that again, tossing a whole manuscript that isn’t working. I learned, in addition to everything else, that I can rebuild it better, that sometimes incremental changes aren’t going to cut it. Sometimes, you’re better off to start over again and let it become the new thing it needs to be, without the influence of the old things, especially the old darlings that you’re so in love with that you can’t bear the thought of cutting them.
It’s hard, I know it is. You’ve put all those hours into it, hours it’s easy to decide were a waste, but they weren’t. As long as you learned something from them, and from the act of figuring out what was wrong, you haven’t wasted anything. Every field in the world, every endeavour involves trying and failing. Hell, the try-fail cycle is one of those writing concepts we read about, so why would we be immune to it in the act of writing? Sometimes, failure is as good for us as success, though it’s neither easy to deal with nor fun. Just make sure you learn from it. To me, that automatically redeems the time and pain. We all need to learn, right?
Wow. That’s a long lead in for what I was planning to say. I guess that needed out.
In any case, what I actually started this entry for is to say that I’m doing exactly that with all my notes and nascent outline for What Lies Beneath, the first book of my new trilogy Spire of Time. I’d been doing kind of the dumbass thing of trying to salvage my old notes and everything after Reah rewrote herself and it wasn’t working (why I expected it to, I couldn’t tell you). So I’m turning it over. I started a new notes document and a new outliner document. I’m starting fresh and letting her whisper the story that needs telling in my ear, unmuffled by the past or any preconceptions I might have had. So far, so good, and the version of Reah coming out of this is so much better, so much stronger. I think she’s planning on being practically incendiary this time.
I love it, every second of this craziness, and her.