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.

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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6 Responses to Raze It To The Ground

  1. Celtic Forest Dweller says:

    *cowers in fear*

    …Sorry, just had to say that. You are admirable. I did pretty much that to my first story when I decided the week before I turned 12 to finally make something out of the little penciled story in a pink notebook I started when I was 8 and to become a writer. It is now 99k and needs another complete rewrite but man did that get me further. The day I made that decision (exactly 1 day short of six years ago) was my first step into becoming a serious writer. What you say is a great reminder but I still cower in fear. I need to remember that redoing something completely is sometimes the only way out.

    Also, congrats on starting on Reah! I can’t wait to watch you on this journey of writing her, as I’ve been watching with Tavis and Devan and a little bit of Cayle. I’m hoping it will continue to be as insightful (and amusing… if not to you at least to some of us… ;)) as the rest.

    Good luck, writer. We other writers salute you.
    /is apparently feeling dramatic

    • Julie says:

      Lol, trust me, once I get it out of my system, this stuff is often funny to me too. The perspective shifts and you can see the humor.

      I don’t think tossing out a lot of work ever gets easier, but you’re right that it’s sometimes the only way to move forward. And it is nice to be reminded not only of that but also that you’re not the only one to do it.

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    You have no idea how timely this post is for me. If my first novel will ever be anything except a bottom drawer book for me, it has to be completely redone. What’s left for me to decide is if the revised story would be one my characters and I could —or want to—write. For now at least, I think the answer is “no.”

    So it’s back to revisions on the other one and listening to my Muse for the next idea. to take shape. I keep reminding myself that most careers authors have at least one such book.

    • Julie says:

      Absolutely. I suspect it’s more than one for most, even.

      Give it time. The story will probably whisper when you least expect it. I know my last dead novel has been sitting a bit restlessly in my head lately. And even if it doesn’t, it’s about learning and moving forward. That’s the most important part, really. 🙂

  3. 4amWriter says:

    I have revised my first novel over and over again because I really believe in the story, but I realized that I need a lot of practice on how to tell it. The current draft is far removed from the original draft, but the vision is still the same. It was painful and I kicked and screamed, even refused to change things, but over time, the book wouldn’t let me drop it.

    I don’t know what it all means yet, because I know there are some people who would say ‘it’s an under the bed book, give up.” Do I keep trying to make it work, or do I move on? Today, I’m trying to make it work and that’s all I really know.

    • Julie says:

      I wouldn’t say give up on it unless you feel you want to. That said, I do believe in writing other things while you’re learning because different stories exercise different skills. Also, the change can let you come to the older work with fresh eyes. I know you’re doing this though, from NaNo.

      So yeah, keep at it until you don’t want to. You’ll keep coming back to it if you stop before you’re ready anyhow.

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