Monday, March 21, 2011

Once More with Feeling: Starting Over on a Half Finished Draft

Today I am starting over on a book I have about 20,000 words of already. I set it aside in November, sure it was a steaming pile of garbage. Happily I read through it a few weeks ago, and it's not as bad as I thought.

This last week or so I have been preparing to start over on a book I was in the middle of writing. It's no easy feat. In the interest of saving you some grief, here are some ideas/guidelines to help you along, should you find yourself treading a new path in an old forest. 

1. Figure out what went wrong the first time.
When deciding to rewrite a book, or pick up a half-finished manuscript, it's important to know why you put it down in the first place. You had a good reason to set the manuscript aside the first time, and sadly, the book elves have not fixed those problems while you were off doing other things. 

If the problem was something like being super busy or sick, chances are you're doing a little better than those of us who stopped because we didn't know enough of the plot to carry us through the rest of the book (like me). 

2. Make a plan of action.
If your problem turned out to be lack of conflict or stale characters, make a plan of action of how you're going to fix that. Develop the characters or plan out the plot a little bit. Anything to keep you from reading up to where you left off and saying, "Hmmmmm what now?" Hopefully the time off from your book has given you some distance. Now isn't the time to edit the life out of the half finished book, but to figure out why you staled out. Like any other outline or plan for a book, chances are it's going to change once you get back into the book, but that's okay. Having a plan now will keep you from losing steam later.

3. Figure out how much of the original draft is salvageable.
Here's where your personal preferences might vary, so take this with a huge grain of salt. You need to figure out how much of the draft to keep, but personally, I don't think now is the time to start editing. Editing a half finished book isn't really going to do anything for you, and you might get stuck on commas and word choice and less on finishing the story.

Your objective while looking over your partial draft is to figure out how much, if any, is worth saving. This will also depend on how far into the book you actually got before jumping ship. For me, that first 20,000 was pretty solid. I wrote the scenes I knew I needed to be there, but stalled out when I couldn't figure out how to get the characters where they needed to be next. 

BUT. I am also planning on changing the POV from multiple first to multiple third, adding in an extra POV, and changing one of the current POV character's personality. So while the scenes are okay, there's going to be a lot of changes to the original draft. 

I've gone back and forth whether or not I wanted to make those changes, or let what I have stand now and change it during editing. I finally decided to go ahead and rewrite the scenes. Because a) it's not that far along into the story and b) making those changes will give me a better feel for my characters as I see them now.

However, if all you're doing is adding in another character, and tweaking some events, and your half finished manuscript is something like 50,000 words long, you might consider simply letting it stand as is, and fixing the errors in revision. It's really a personal call. Consider how long your draft is now, and the magnitude of the changes you plan to make. For me, if I am changing a few characters around, and adding in another, that's a change of large magnitude. I like to see how the characters come together, and how they act towards one another. Skipping over the crucial introductory scenes has never worked well for me in the past (one time I decided to skip two crucial characters meeting each other, and went straight for when they were being the best of buds. Turns out, the characters couldn't stand each other. Had I started with their introductory scenes, I would have saved myself some grief).

4. Plan new stuff.
This sounds a little weird, but hear me out.

You're going to be working on a book you've already started. That initial spark of "this is the bestest idea EVAR" is probably gone. You've already stalled on the book once. Not such a great track record when going back to write a book.

So try to re-imagine the book now. Even if you've taken only a few months off, you're a different person than you were before. Don't assume you can simply sit down with the old outline and just punch out the book as you originally saw it. Figure out why you stopped in the first place, but also add some new spice to the book. Maybe a new character, or a new location. Allow yourself to brainstorm for new events and ideas. You're still in the creative process of writing a book, so allow yourself to be creative. Giving yourself some new and cool things to look forward to in the draft will help you from feeling bored with the book.

What about you? How do you approach starting over on a half finished project? Any advice for me? Other than lots of chocolate of course.


  1. When I finished the first version of my main WIP, it came out to 120,000 words. The setting was awkward and didn't fit the mood. The plot had holes the size of my fist. But the characters were awesome. I spent forever trying to sort out what I could keep and what had to go. I thought it was nothing, so I started over.

    But I've been working through a from-scratch rewrite and I realized... I did some things right last time. There have been sections I just revised slightly and added back in to the new version. And that made me feel pretty good! I'm not a total screw up!

    So my only advice would be to keep an open mind about what you've already written, even if you're thinking about throwing it out. You did something right, somewhere, or you wouldn't have a story at all!


  2. First off, good for you! I don't think I have any advice, you seem to have a great start on this, and I'm going to pull out my half finished ms in June. It's my summer novel, my sitting by the pool novel if you will.

    So, I'm bookmarking this post to read again when the time comes.

  3. Tara: that's a great point! I think I will take out the old manuscript once I am done with the first draft.

    Charity: Thanks! Let me know how that comes along for you. I might have more war stories ;)