Friday, 7 June 2013

On Starting Over

This is a hard thing to do. It's hard to discard hours and days and weeks of work and start at the same story fresh—even when you know that what came before isn't any good.

It's hard to turn your back on a hundred pages of material and then dedicate yourself to turning right around and starting fresh with the same story. The draw to dig through that old document and cherry-pick passages is incredible, and—sometimes—extremely hard to say no to. You've written all of that other stuff, and surely some of it has to be worthwhile. Maybe it even is. You're familiar with the old manuscript, after all. You know where the good bits are hidden. Maybe you can just go back and...

...Yeah. Not the healthiest way of looking at things, I know. Before you know it, you haven't started over at all.

There's a saying that you have to write a million words of shit before you're ready to start producing real, publishable work. That you have to be willing to dispose of the old, crappy things, and learn from them in preparation of the better work to come. I don't know if that's true for everyone. A million words seems awfully arbitrary, if you ask me. It stinks of the same, terrible hyperbole that plague most of the sayings about writing. I believe in the sentiment, though.

And I don't believe in turning back.

So, when I tell you that I've written X-number of words and Y-number of pages on any given day, I want you to understand that they are fresh words and fresh pages. The plot points may be the same, but the day-to-day work is all new. That old manuscript has been scoured for details relevant to the Outline and the Character Key, and now it's pretty much dead to me.

You might wonder why I would do something like that. Surely, I'm limiting myself in some way. Surely I'm costing myself valuable time by rewriting scenes that I have perfectly serviceable versions of already. Why wouldn't I just go ahead and keep a new document full of bits and pieces on hand so that they can be plugged in at a later date?

Well, yeah. That seems to make sense. One of the first things that I ever learned as a writer, though, was that you often can't write towards a specific passage or line. Especially if it's something that sits in the back half of the book.

This can be torturous at times. Oh god, trust me: It can be torturous. You're writing the first chapter, and suddenly you come up with the perfect piece of sniping banter for the hero and the villain to throw at one-another during the novel's climax. You want to write it down, because you're certain that if you can just get there and slot those words into place, the entire book will click and everyone will love it. And, yeah, sometimes you get there and you write the scene and the banter and it's just fine. Hooray, you.

Most of the time though, if you let it, getting to that piece of banter becomes your ultimate objective—more-so than finishing the book. You start to write for that exchange rather than for the story. You write an entire novel or short story, not because you had a plot and characters and execution that were worthwhile...But because you came up with a final sentence that was clever.

Hell. It probably wasn't even that clever. You were writing and it was day one. It was probably late. You were probably tired. You were probably wearing a bathrobe. You were probably drunk; on whiskey or creative power or both, take your pick.

Congratulations. Now you've probably ruined your book. Again: Hooray, you.

Okay, okay. I'm sorry. That's an extreme example. I've seen good stories ruined this way, though. I've seen other writers do it, and—more than once—I've done it myself. And that's why I'm not going to be cherry-picking passages from the old manuscript. I wanted a fresh start on this, and—god help me—I'm going to get one. I'm going to get as many as I need until I get this thing right.

Ain't like it's costing me a thing.

 

-Sean

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