My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Keep Going or Start Over (Mailbox)

Should I start a work over or keep going if I see a revision that needs to happen?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Props (and jumping the question queue) if you can come up with interesting questions about the industry.]

Lola asks:

Again, thanks a lot for your blog, it helps more than you can imagine.  

I've got a question: what to do when you realize that you might have taken your plot the wrong [direction] while you are still writing the first draft? Is it better to keep writing until it's done and to save the big change for the second draft or to start again immediately? 

Like taking the plot of the "wrong" beginning, for example, to start the story in the chronological order, only to realize that it would be much better if some of the earliest stuff were revealed during the story, and that it [the story] should start a lot later. 

I hope what I write is understandable though... Sorry if it isn't. I'm not good at explaining... 

[Note, I did some grammar and syntax touch up on this letter to help its clarity, but tried very hard to keep the original meaning.]

My reply:

You did just fine.

The problem isn't trying to describe this. The problem is that what you're trying to describe is a total mess. We have ALL had this moment. "Oh my god. I have to go back and redo this. If I change this thing, it will be better."

And they might be. Or you might be kidding yourself. Or you might not be trusting the process. Or you might be about to make the best decision for this work that you possibly could. Or there might be rabid lemurs in your pants. But we can probably narrow a few things down.

First of all, do you live in Madagascar and did you put on very loose pants this morning? No. Great, we can mark that one off the list straight away. Let's move on.

In your case, Lola, it sounds like you should keep going, but let's unpack this for the folks at home.

When I was in my writing program, there were process classes and workshop classes, and in most of the workshop classes, at some point, we had to revise something that the group had already read so everyone could see the changes. Generally, there were three types of writers. There were a tiny smattering of writers who did some major changes based on their feedback and their work was SO improved. But then the other two.....  One group made almost no changes. They maybe changed one word or moved a sentence around. They fixed their grammar. Their masterpiece could not be improved. The other group would go completely the other way. Each draft they produced was basically an ENTIRELY NEW STORY. It would have a new plot, maybe a new character. It was almost not recognizable. It wasn't revision that they were doing--it was a new story (or more to the point, a new first draft).

The question you're asking me won't take a lot of space and pixels to answer, but it will NOT be "easy" for you on the other side of the blogosphere. You have to do the hard work of introspection, self-criticism, and evaluation. Because what I'm about to give you, instead of an answer, is sort of a "do-it-yourself kit" to assemble your own answer FOR YOU. It's never always better to start over or always better to plow on.

You have to weigh some pros and cons. But you have to do it with a considerable amount of naked self-honesty because starting over is one of the ways we trick ourselves into not trusting the process. We've all seen the person who is singing something or playing something or reciting something and they make the TINIEST mistake (that maybe you didn't even notice) and have to start over.

You HAVE to trust the writing process, Lola. You have to trust that your draft, when it is done, will be complete crap. That it will need rewrites, revisions, and extensive editing. You have to trust that you will find entire sections that are not working. You have to trust that your second draft may involve removing a character, changing a major theme, completely altering the plot, or something equally dramatic. You have to trust that there will be some real, substantive changes.

And one of the things that starting over can very, VERY easily be, is a fundamental distrust of the process. (Especially if you see a new writer starting over again and again.) They're not trusting that they are going to finish with a shitty first draft. They are starting over again and again to try to get it right in one shot. If your motivation for starting over is because there is a mistake in your first draft....fuggedaboutit. There is ALREADY a mistake in your first draft. There are already fifty mistakes....per page. Get over it! The only way to really deal with them is to get it all out and see what you're dealing with.

There's a reason one of the fundamental pieces of advice you will find (after "read a lot" and "write a lot") that EVERY SINGLE working writer agrees on is some variation of "Finish your shit!" Because we writers come prepackaged with so many excuses and rationalizations and ways to not make it to the finish line with our creative efforts, and starting our first drafts over when we notice a big mistake is one of them.

If you are in considerable doubt, keep moving forward. That would be my only hard, fast, solid advice that isn't on a continuum. If you don't think that starting over would REALLY, TRULY be better for your work, you're better off to keep going. There's really nothing you can't do in revision.

Are the changes mostly cosmetic? If you are mostly changing the order of some scenes, erasing some minor characters, changing a setting or something, you don't need to start over. Just make a note, and catch it in revision. Change the point of view? It might mess you up when you look back to see who said something, but you can probably figure it out*. The more substantive the change is, however, the more it is probably going to fuck you up to alter the work mid-stream. Take out a major character? Okay now there might be parts of your timeline that are messed up, especially if your story is character-driven. Change genre? You may end up with an entirely different set of tropes that don't work and play well together. (Trying to solve a murder in Victorian England is a bit different than in Cyberpunk future.) Alter the plot significantly? You definitely can't just keep cheerfully going like there wasn't just a Dalatronian Death Flu two pages ago!

(*This is why it sounds to like to me you should keep going, Lola. You talked about "plot going in the wrong direction, but then what you described was actually just some timeline restructuring––starting the story a little later and working some of the beginning in a later points. So unless I'm missing something, you can totally just start doing this going forward, make notes into your draft about what what has come before, and Tetris the narrative on revision.)

Are you really sure? And I mean really REALLY sure? One of the risks you're playing with is that you write out the new form of the story and realize you were right the first time. (I mean, it's a low risk from the standpoint that you can just make a save file with the old version, but if you start over, you're making a whole new investment of time and energy. If you're just fiddling with the knobs to see how it feels, you might end up with two first halves of a story, no ending, and be a little dejected. And I'm not saying writers don't often have to throw away work (they do) or start something over (of course!), but we lose so many hours of wordsmithing by fate, it's sometimes worth not trying to do the same thing to ourselves by design. How would it feel instead to finish with whatever changes you are thinking about, and then you have a complete work and two functioning halves, of which you can pick the one you feel is working the best?

I recently restarted a major work in progress. I realized my entire narrative voice was wrong. Now I could have switched straight over and just kept writing, but my OWN thinking in this was that I was going to keep stumbling over that old voice if I didn't expunge it. Narrative voice is one of the most major changes I could make with the exception of a total plot restructuring or removing a main character. And for me, since one of my techniques for getting myself into the headspace for writing is to read my old stuff for a few minutes, I didn't want the "wind drag" of that old voice bringing down the more comedic voice I'm trying to adopt. I also figured that the easier place to establish an entirely new narrative voice would be within the part of the story I had already written, so that I really had a sense of its ebb and flow before I also had to write new content.

At the end of the cliché, remember that you are the only one you have make happy right now. The first draft is for you. I can warn you of the pitfalls that so many writers have fallen into before you on the quest to get their work DONE––or more accurately: rationalized SWAN DIVING into––but I can't tell you what will bring you artistic catharsis. If having that old problem back in the first half is going to mess with your calm and cause a "buzzing sound" in the ear of your motivation going forward, don't worry so much about what this article thinks. Go ahead and rewrite it.

Bard knows you were going to have to anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Lola, Chris is right - we've all been there. I've been there THREE TIMES in this one novel! My first beta reader felt that Chapter One went from 0-100 mph and requested more background for this world I'd created. (He's an Arch & Ant graduate, so it's understandable, I suppose.) So I wrote a 3-chapter prologue describing my heroine's country's foundation myth and a screed of history. I added another chapter after that, where my heroine introduced herself. Then two more flashback chapters describing the challenges she'd faced in childhood and skills she'd acquired. Chapter One became Chapter Seven.

    My other beta reader liked this idea to start with, but then realized that readers would have to wait 42 pages before meeting the heroine. So, out came the prologue, and Chapter Seven became Chapter Four. Then, I decided that since I was feeding bits from the prologue into the main narrative, I could do the same for the flashback chapters. (Two flashback chapters in a row were a bad idea anyway.) So out they went. Now the original (but seriously amended) Chapter One is Chapter Two, but we know a fair bit about the heroine by the time she gets into her first pickle.

    Each time, though, I finished the draft. (Oh, and I removed four flashback chapters from the middle as well.) All those bits are stowed away neatly, perhaps ready to be brought out for a Tolkienesque collection of backstory.

    I think you can only tell what doesn't work by finishing the whole damn thing and looking over it. Whatever - there will be changes. Always. (That first reader got revision 5, and I'm now on revision 11.)

    Hang in there, Lola.