Writer Rae Oestreich (whom you should totally be following on Twitter) has a fascinating post up about when you have to restart a novel you’ve been working on for a while…and then restart it again…and possibly even restart it again.
Sometimes, you restart your novel many, many times before you feel like you’ve got it absolutely right. Personally, I believe that’s okay. Why? Because I’ve been working on my WIP, The Hollow Men, for two years, now. I’m on draft eight (or nine-ish? Possibly ten; I’ve lost count), and out of those eight drafts (current one included) I’ve only completed the novel twice.
Two complete drafts and six unfinished ones. Let that sit for you.
Her reasons for all those restarts lie in her perfectionism as a writer. I’m a perfectionist too, with the caveat that I’m generally able to temper my perfectionism for at least the time I’m cranking out the first draft. That’s not to say that I’m a complete slob during that point, but during first-draft composition I’m looking to get the story itself shaped out, so my perfectionism is focused on that. I don’t start looking at business involving character consistency and theme and everything else until I have the basic scaffolding, the story, in place.
But I have restarted works from the ground up. In fact, as I write this, my current WIP is, yet again, The Amazing Adventures of Lighthouse Boy (not the actual title). This is, I believe, my third start with this book. Why?
Well, there are a lot of reasons why a project get shelved. Perfectionism, and the sense that the project simply isn’t right at some fundamental level, is a big one. That’s why I shelved this book the first time. As a dedicated “pantser” when it comes to plotting, I believed very strongly that my characters had, in fact, got to where they needed to be. My problem was with what was happening next. I found myself with this deeply odd sensation that the events that were about to transpire were both the logical end of what had come before, and terribly goofy events that didn’t make any sense at all. Very strange! “Based on this state of affairs, which feels like the right state of affairs, THIS should happen next. But I don’t want THIS to happen next, because THIS is the wrong time for THIS to happen.”
So what did I do? What I usually do when I feel I’ve gone awry: I reverse course, backtracking in the manuscript to the most recent point when I felt things were going indisputably correctly (my most recent Manuscript Restore point, as it were), and taking another whack at things. I did this a few times and kept winding up with the feeling that it was almost right, but not quite. This didn’t work, and I ended up just putting the book aside while I went on to work on something else.
What then, you might ask. Well, I put Lighthouse Boy on the back burner for a good, long while. I got Stardancer ready for publication, I did a round of edits on The Wisdomfold Path, I did a round of edits on Ghostcop (not the actual title), and I wrote the first draft of Forgotten Stars III: Hey Look, More Stars! (also not the actual title). Now I’m back to working on Lighthouse, and I found myself with the same problems again as I considered the state in which I left my story. There was something fundamentally wrong with the thing, which I couldn’t put my finger on, until I was looking at the maps I had drawn for my fictional land of Old Eldra, and that’s when it hit me.
See, here’s the thing that I suspect many an author, but especially those writing imaginary-world fantasy, has discovered: geography is terribly underrated as a driver of plot. Very few books can get away with the types of geographic shenanigans perpetrated by The Simpsons, where you have mountains the size of the Matterhorn just miles away from the ocean, and where “East Springfield” is three times the size of Texas. In stories, the realities of your physical locations determine things, and that’s true with imaginary-world fantasy as well. I had already drawn my maps, and thus, things could only happen a certain way if I wanted my characters to visit a certain series of locations in a certain sequence.
The answer was clear: I had to start over, with a whole new map. So I literally re-drew the maps. I didn’t change anything radical, but I did move some places around. There are hills where once were mountains. One town just became a lot more important, and another has been reduced to little more than a trading post. The biggest change, though, was that my main character’s first major destination changed. In the book, he has to get to a certain place. I simply made it so the place he has to get to is twice as far away as the original place he had to get to, the first couple times I wrote the book. Twice the necessary journey will mean twice the hardship. (Meaning: Enter the smarmy thief who didn’t even appear in the first couple iterations!)
And then I started writing again. I’m keeping all the old chapters, because there’s a lot of material in them that will be preserved as I move forward. Hopefully things will proceed more logically this time, but as always, the proof will be in the doing. We’ll see. My next obstacle will be that I’ll be writing this draft at the same time that I am trying to get editing work done on Wisdomfold Path (coming in November, wow!), Ghostcop, and Forgotten Stars III. And I already have new ideas starting to percolate for other stories! Ye Gods, what’s a writer to do, but keep writing!
Ultimately, there’s no shame in rewriting or starting over. But before you do, make sure you think deeply about what issue will be best addressed by starting over. When you get to the point of starting over, you’re mainly conceding that there is something wrong with the current project at the conceptual level. There is no shame in this, either. It happens. Just get it fixed, and move on!