Thursday, December 30, 2010


It's Alive! Alive!
Yesterday was a productive writing day, even though I didn't write as many words as I had initially hoped. I stopped to do some brainstorming, because I wasn't sure where I was going.

This is the drawback when you start over with a book you've started twice. You have in your mind the scenes you've already written, the scenes you planned to write but are now null in void, and the characters that no longer matter. You have the scenes that have made it across a three attempts, and the scenes you've yet to write, but at still making you shiver with delight.

(I feel the need for clarity. The "second" try was when I have a great idea about 25,000 words in, but it wasn't so radical that I had to chuck the previous words. I changed some names, and pretended with the future scenes I had written the beginning the same way. So that was Attempt 2. When the real whammy came 35,000 words in, the whammy that changed everything and simultaneously fixed ALL the plot problems I was having, it was partially because of this second attempt I decided to start over. Three different books grafted together, dropping one main character, and combining another seemed too confusing to pretend I got it right the first time.)

Starting over from scratch after you have two previous attempts under your belt is very confusing. Everything feels familiar, because you've been here before, but like you're working with the soul twin of the book. If your reasons for starting over were sufficient, then you've probably made major changes to the book events, the main characters, the setting. 

Here are some steps you might want to consider, in order to ensure you have the best first draft you can write, while making use of what you have written previously and allowing yourself to write something new and better.

1. Forget about the words that came before. 

At least at first. I know this is painful, but hear me out.

If you try to mine your previous attempts for good bits right away it become even more confusing (this was my personal experience anyway).

If you focus on dropping in scenes you wrote before, the book won't have the same rising action feel to it that you get during a first draft. Normally as you write the first draft, you're discovering characters, getting a feel for the world, and coming up with plot events. Adding in preexisting material and trying to force it to fit your current project is like trying to graft an extra arm on your torso, because the other guy wasn't using it anymore. 

Also, you might realize as I did, that your characterization is so tight (go me!) that you can't just take a scene and change the names. If you are doing your job, each character will have a individual way of speaking, gestures, and mannerisms. If you have a scene between the main antagonist and his second in command, only you've changed the second in command character, you can't just drop the different name into the scene. It won't read like him, and you're also denying yourself precious time to develop the new second in command's character.

So I decided to put away my first draft, and all notes I had relating to it. Don't delete it, but just put it in an new folder labeled "Early Attempts". If you're really going to start over, then start over.

2. Jot down some quick notes about your story. 

Instead of thinking you will remember all of the changes you have made between Attempt 1 and Attempt 2, and New First Draft, write down the changes you're making.

This is not an excuse to procrastinate and write out long notes about the story instead of writing the book, but you still want to record what's different. 

I also decided to write a page and a half of the story as it stood now. I had a clearer idea of the secondary characters, and the roles they would play, so I wrote that down as well. Treat this like a brand new book you're getting ready to write. Write the conflict and character motivation from memory, and then get to that first draft.

3. Do not beat yourself up for starting over.

This is tricky. It can feel like you've wasted time and energy with your previous attempts. It feels like you're spinning your tires in the mud. But you're not. You have a genuinely better idea and now you're starting over. You made the best decision for the book, now commit and get excited. Remind yourself that it could be worse. 

I only "lost" 35,000 words, but I've been at the end of the book before when I had a revelation that changed the rest of the book (at that point, I finished writing the first draft, but it was a helluva revision). So it can always, always, always be worse. Trust me.

I wish I could remember who, but a published authors blogged about having to start over with a book 50,000 words in because he was writing from the wrong viewpoint. Ouch. And this is while on a deadline.

Also, do not tell yourself you should have prevented this. It's very possible that those previous words were the scaffolding to you finding out the true nature of your book. 

I am actually not surprised I keep having new, better ideas. It's par for the course for me. I just normally do all of this "but what if this happened????" in preplanning. Also, consider that that as you go through this stage of honing your ideas, you're improving your book. You're not just sitting down and writing a story untested. You've thought things through. You've considered different angles. Your story will be stronger for it.

4. During revision, print out your first attempt and mine for goodies.

Remember how I said you're setting it aside? Now is the time to bring it back. Exactly when is a personal call. I am going to mine my first attempt after I am done with the first draft, but before I have let the book sit for a few weeks. This way the thoughts are fresh in my head, but not interfering with the new draft. At this stage though, I would only bother with scenes that you loved and want to put in the new first draft.

Word of Caution: It's tempting to rework your entire first attempt and try to cram it into your first draft, but you probably don't need all of those scenes. Just consider it valuable writing practice and let the dead horse die. 

Second Word of Caution: Remember that thing we talked about, where you can't just change the names and graft the scene onto the book? That rule still applies. Chances are, you're going to have to rewrite the scene from scratch. So really, really make sure that scene deserves to be there.

During revision, you can revisit the first attempt for a good sentence, or apt description. Highlight any pieces you like and make note of where they could fit.

There's also a chance that those good pieces won't fit your first draft, but you can always save them for later books. 

5. Resist the urge to throw a ton of brand new ideas into the book.

My muse is a little sadistic. She likes to toss awesome new ideas, of how I could make the book even BETTER at this stage. Especially during yesterday's brainstorming session, my muse took this as the perfect opportunity to show me the ways I could change the book even more!

But be vigilante. Not every new idea you have should be in the book. You want to stick with the same premise and idea, not try to cram every idea you ever had into the story.  Some of these new ideas will be helpful; I got to reintroduce a character I thought I was going to have to axe.

(Side Note: make your characters work for you. You owe them nothing. You are the director, they are the actors. This particular character was just dead weight in the first attempt so I fired her. She came back yesterday with a very convincing speech about what she could bring to the book, so I rehired her.)

But some of these ideas are like will-o-the-wisps trying to lead you astray. Resist! New ideas, or different spins on the same characters should add to the book. It should make it deeper, more richly layered. It should not confuse you, or wind up being the literary equivalent of the six year old who dresses herself and comes out with puce polka dots, yellow plaid, and a fedora.

These steps might not work for everyone, but it's at least something to consider when you find yourself on draft 1.5. 

And drop me a line and let me know how it turns out for you. I am still struggling through my own Frankenbook, so maybe you will have some ideas and advice I haven't thought of. This isn't a well covered topic of writing, because it either doesn't happen often (doubtful), or people just don't admit it when they have to toss out half a book because they finally figured out what they were trying to write about (closer to the truth I suspect).


  1. I don't restart immediately. I write something else in between to wipe the previous attempt away. Then I read over what I wrote before with a more critical eye so I can assess what (if anything) is worth keeping. Then I start fresh and integrate any salvaged pieces when possible.

  2. You've done a good job of working out a revision plan for yourself. Keep us posted, okay?

    Just stopped by today to wish you a Happy New Year. :)TX

    PS: Love your site, specially that bookshelf graphic. Yum!

  3. @ Joe: yes, this is very good advice, and normally I do this too. But I am determined to write this book, and didn't want to start over. I am also still very excited about the idea, so I just gave myself a day or two away from it.

    @Texanne: Yaaay you came! Thanks! Happy New Year too!