Making the Hard Choices

I wrote ELEGY in 2008. It was my NaNo project for that year, and it was a significant accomplishment for me in that it actually ended. I had won NaNo previously to that – a couple of times, in fact. My 2007 NaNo project also ended, but it did it in such an incredibly rushed fashion that I knew it was nowhere near complete.

ELEGY, on the other hand, was actually a complete story. It was paced fairly well, followed a strong arc and then concluded on the other end with something significant happening and a satisfying ending. It needed work, sure, but what first draft doesn’t?

I did some very minor editing at first, but then I just put it aside. I did some more work throughout the next couple of years, and did heavy revising just before it was nearly published, but it waited until this year to get examined by my beta readers/writing group. As it turned out, I’d whipped it into pretty good shape over time. It needed some additional tightening and clarification, some further content edits to make things flow and then a final proofread to scrub out errors, but overall it was solid. That’s why I decided to go ahead and release it.

Now that we’re past the background, I can get into the meat of it. When I began writing my current project (tentatively titled “PROPHECY” but we’ll see if that sticks) in early July, I began as I always do – with an idea for the opening scene. I wrote it, and it came out good. I continued writing, following along the story as my brain pieced it together, and it continued to be strong and engaging (well, to me anyway).

I hit a certain point in the story – a critical turning point. At the time, I wasn’t entirely certain that I liked how I’d done it, but instead of sitting back to reflect, I forged ahead. I was on a roll with my wordcount, and I was treating it like a NaNo project – don’t stop, just go and fix it later.

Well, I would have won NaNo. I hit 55,000 words before I realized something was wrong.

All of a sudden, the characters stopped responding and I was no longer interested in finding out where the story was going. I had grasped at straws desperately just to keep the words flowing, and I’d written myself WAY out of the story I wanted to tell and into a place that only a NaNo attitude could take me. By making a single choice, I had forced myself to betray my vision for the world of Eisengoth, and it wasn’t sitting well.

I decided to go back and revise to make it all flow together better. As I continued to work on that, it became clearer that something was wrong. No matter how I reimagined a certain scene, it just wasn’t working. I wasn’t interested in the story I was telling anymore. I began to avoid writing and editing altogether, and that lasted for a few days before I even realized it was happening.

So I went back and read from page one. The story was good, strong up until that one point where I’d wondered whether I’d done it right. After that, it crumbled and it even looked to me like I was groping blindly in the dark.

That’s when I decided I had to kill 20,000 words.

That critical point fell right around the 36,000 word mark, which meant that I had written 20,000 words of bad story. It was not going anywhere that I wanted it to go, and while there were a couple occasional moments of brilliance in there, it was the wrong place for the story.

So I killed them. I’m now back at ~38,000 words and the story is once again progressing in the direction I wanted it to in the first place.

They say there are two kinds of writers – “outliners” and “pantsers” (as in, flying by the seat of). I am not an outliner. This is one of the difficulties of working scene by scene as the story goes along and not planning ahead, except for the ending (sometimes).

Sometimes you gotta make a tough call in order for things to be better. In this case, it was definitely the right call.

It is all too often, or so I gather from reading the impressions of others in this field, that an author looks at their work through rose-colored lenses. They don’t even see typos and grammar errors, apparently. They just gloss over their work because they can see the story “the way it’s supposed to be” and can’t even identify when their own work is flawed, even fatally.

I do not understand this. I firmly believe that an author must be their own first-line editor. You must have some level of objectivity for your work if you expect it to be any good at all. If you can’t see the flaws, how can you fix them?

See the story that you want as you write it. Then go back and look at it, and look hard. Would you want to read it?

Answer honestly. It’s important.

I just cut 20,000 words out of my manuscript-in-progress. Can you be that brave?

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