The One With Starting Over

Last fall my novel-in-progress came to a standstill. I eked out a few sentences here and there, but I’d stopped writing any major forward motion of the plot.

It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in the story idea or the characters. In fact, I busied myself researching the time period, which I found fascinating. (Clue #1)

I was well over 120 pages in, roughly 30,000 words, and I started rereading those pages, shifting paragraphs around and making important edits, like changing characters’ names. (Clue #2)

What had me stumped, I realized, was what the characters should do next. I am largely a “pantser,” but I know that an outline can be invaluable help. I spent a couple of weeks writing one. (Clue #3)

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Lo and behold, a lovely idea came to me like a bird on the wind. It was an unrelated character for a different story. It felt important to write this other story before the idea escaped. (Clue #4)

By this time months had passed, and I’d been dancing around what I knew I had to do. I opened a new document on my computer and started over.

My writing students gasped in horror when I shared this news. How could I throw it all away? Couldn’t I just rework the pages? Often reimagining a scene or a chapter is the right way to go, but sometimes it’s not. Can I be a bit vulgar for a moment? It’s just us here and I hope you won’t mind. Reworking crap is still crap.

Now, there is a big difference between thinking your work is crap and it being crap. Recognizing that gap is key. It is the difference between the cat that sleeps in your bed at night and a mountain lion; between a writer and a good writer. We all have doubts about our creative output. Is this writing good enough? (What “good enough” constitutes is the subject of another post. It’s a constant battle for me.) That’s true whether you’re painting or making origami or renovating your basement.  But this isn’t about losing your mental mojo.

Let’s say you wake up one morning and realize the story you’ve been writing really is crap, as I did. Do you pack it in? Grumble that you never wanted to be a writer anyway and reach for the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer? Mourn the lost 120 pages? No, you don’t. You open a new document and you start over. Because you are a wordsmith and words are in endless supply. You’ll never run out.

Now that I think about it, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not really starting over. I’ve gained insight. I’ve learned about my characters—their personalities, their lives, why they want the things they want. That means I’m not starting over. I’m beginning again.

Each day we wake up, we begin again. That, of course, is a good thing. Aside from the obvious up shot of being alive another day, we have a chance to be our best selves, to do our best work. Here’s what I way to say: don’t be afraid to get rid of those words, scenes, chapters that aren’t working (or anything else for that matter). It can be difficult, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Ernest Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Ernest Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Have you stared over on a project?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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45 comments

  1. Hi Jackie. I don’t know where we all got the idea that we can get a novel “right” from the start. There are a lot of blind alleys and false starts. But like you, I believe the novel only gets better when we have the courage to start over. When the novel loses its momentum and “life,” there’s no use trying to resuscitate it. It’s best to start over–as I’ve learned again and again!

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    1. That’s a great point, Patti. For so many other endeavors, we can accept that there is a long apprenticeship. No one would expect someone to play the cello like Yo-Yo Ma without years of practice. I love what you wrote about having the courage to start over. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that you have the wisdom to know when something isn’t going to work and is just not quite right. I sometimes will keep blundering along (and not only in writing) without realizing I should just hang it up. I can’t wait to see/read what you come up with! And btw, whenever you want to do another SHINE for me I would love it!!!!

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    1. Isn’t it interesting how we have a sixth sense when something just isn’t right? I can usually tell when I begin procrastinating. I’ll even start cleaning out the fridge in an attempt to avoid it. 🙂
      Thank you for the kind offer about a new SHINE story! I’ll put my thinking cap on and let you know what I come up with.

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  3. I can totally understand this! In fact, I abandoned a project last year (45K words in) that I hope to go back to eventually. I just can’t find that bird on the wind — perfect way to put it. As you say, it can be difficult but it’s nothing to be afraid of. Great post, Jackie, expresses the feelings really well.

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    1. Wouldn’t it be nice if the words came to the page perfectly the first time? Sometimes when I’m reading a novel, I have to put it down and return to it another time. I may not be in the right space to receive it. I think the same holds true for writing. You may find that story will wait for you to be in the right space to put it on paper.

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  4. It must be tough to jettison something you’ve already put so much time into. I don’t know if I’m objective enough about my own work to recognize and admit when it’s crap.

    I can’t even get started on a major project like a book, so good for you for juggling several of them!

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    1. You said it! Objectivity is so difficult. It’s difficult in both directions — sometimes I think I’ve written something good when it’s not, and sometimes I think I’ve written something terrible when it’s not.

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      1. I can’t be objective. Sometimes I think i am overly needy for praise, but at heart, the thing is I really don’t trust my own judgement and I need feedback to tell me if what I’m doing is any good.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jackie, as you might imagine, your words speak volumes to me today. Sometimes we have little choice but to start with the blank page, moving forward word by word. I have a rock inscribed with “Begin Again” that I’ve been handling a lot lately, and it reminds me of what is possible. There’s a story ahead, and it’s always ours to write.

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    1. Lovely words, Karen. I was often afraid of starting over. It felt like failure in many ways. But now I realize that it isn’t failure at all. It’s an apprenticeship. The only way to learn is to keep writing. The only failure is when we don’t tell the story that is waiting for us to tell.

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  6. Words of wisdom! I wrote several chapters of a book a few years ago then chucked it. Now I’m eager to begin again with a screenplay. I still wonder if it’ll be crap or not. It’ll be fun to find out.

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  7. About twenty years ago my computer crashed and I completely lost the entire screenplay that I had been writing. A programmer I was friends with said that he knew how to retrieve my script. I thanked him for the offer, but I interpreted that crash as my computer’s way of telling me, “This is crap.” I also knew that what I was writing was crap. I think writers inherently know when what they’re writing isn’t working … unless you’re a hack who views words being “in endless supply” as an excuse to type endless drivel. Instead of re-writing that screenplay, I wrote an entirely different one. That one did very well in every screenplay contest I entered it in.

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    1. I do have that sixth sense when what I’m writing isn’t good. Though sometimes it can take 120 pages for me to admit it to myself! I’m glad you wrote a screenplay that was well received. Validation like that is so uplifting.

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  8. I haven’t ever started over, (unless you count when I go back after the first draft and begin rewrites – that can certainly feel like starting over). I would begin again though, if it was needed. With my current novel I went astray at the end of the first third (pantser here too) and had to excise a plot thread which I realized was not the right direction to be going. What helped me come to this realization was that I didn’t feel excited about getting up and writing anymore. The plot didn’t feel right, and the story bored me. This stopped me writing for about three months. Really writing, I mean; I still showed up, but it felt like writing the words blah blah blah de blah on the page, which was so distressing. Oh my god was it ever! What a terrible feeling!—And wonderful to finally figure out what was causing it. As soon as I got rid of that plot thread I felt so much better. Lesson learned.
    Best wishes on the new beginning, Jackie! Thank you for being so open and for sharing this experience. It’s good to know what other writers go through, and that it’s not easy for anyone. It’s not a misery loves company thing either – just an affirmation. We all struggle through, and this is what it takes.
    Thanks. And keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must have been quite a challenge, Cynthia. I’ve never had to remove an entire plot thread. It’s an incredible sensitivity to know that a subplot (or even a character) has become a hinderance to telling the story. The attention to detail required to make that change is like threading a very tiny needle. I applaud your tenacity! I’m sure you breathed easy after that revision. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Jackie, I love this! And it was true for me with my novel. I rewrote so much of my novel I lost track. At one point I hit page 60 of my 250 page draft and realized I had to start at page 61 and scrap the rest. Since then I rewrote most of those 60 pages 🙂 and now I’m revising. But I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments here. We are writers and we have an endless supply of words at our disposal.

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    1. I spent many weeks in denial. Once I realized that writing those first pages wasn’t a waste of time. It really helped me learn a lot about the characters which I hope will inform these new pages. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Dana. You and Cynthia made me feel better! 🙂

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  10. Wow, good for you, Jackie. It takes guts to admit something isn’t working and start over. I began working on a memoir last year and put it away because I was getting really frustrated with it. Hope to return one day soon. I don’t like rewriting, but I know it’s essential.
    I look forward to reading your new novel!

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    1. Revision is certainly a different mindset than writing. For me writing is creating and revision is refining. I hope that you’ll be ready to dust off your memoir someday soon. I bet it would be a terrific read!

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  11. I think That’s one of the hardest things, Jackie… Knowing when to trust your “this is crap” meter and when not to. Getting far away enough from our own work to really assess it is difficult, but I think we do have that sixth sense when something “big” is wrong Iin one of my novels, I had to eliminate an entire character. Not fun, but necessary. Hope you’re on the right path now!

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    1. Oh, eliminating a character is tough, Melissa. Now I think that is such a difficult thing to recognize in your own work. Knowing that this character is not adding to the story and maybe even detracting from the forward motion of the plot takes a lot of self awareness and control. Good for you, and thanks for sharing your experience.

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  12. I know what you mean by “crap is crap.” Four months and a bunch of pages into my dissertation I chunked it all and started over. But even work that isn’t used is useful. No work is wasted.

    (Sorry for the double comment. Typo in the first.)

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    1. It must have been hard to make the decision to scrap your dissertation after 4 months. I imagine there was a deadline looming! But you’re absolutely right that no work is wasted. That information is still brought to bear on the new pages.

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      1. There were definitely clues like you mentioned in your post, but I kept stubbornly hanging on trying to force something that just wasn’t working. Thank goodness I finally arrived at the point I could release it. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t ever have finished the degree.

        It takes courage to let go and start anew. I applaud you for yours! Great post!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s great that you were able to recognize that you needed to start over. Although the original work was the creative force for your new projects so perhaps it was a brainstorming of sorts. It’s funny how the creative mind works, isn’t it? But wonderful to respect it!

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    1. I think the original pages were a kind of brainstorming. It was a way for me to get to know the characters and learning their histories. They had to invite me into their world for a while before I could understand what I needed to share on the page.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Ernest was a wise man! Not matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd 🙂 Better to move on. Is a pantser someone who flies by the seat of their pants??

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  15. I’ve scrapped several writing projects in the past because they did not resonate with me. The characters were too flat and the plot didn’t hold my interest. The writing, rewriting and discarding is all part of the process – the question for me becomes whether I can maintain my sanity and persistence in committing to a new work. Love the Hemingway wisdom.

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    1. That’s a great point, Rudri. Rewriting and discarding are important steps in the process. Writing is just one step. The other two are equally important to have a finished product that is worthy of the effort.

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  16. I couldn’t begin to write fiction, Jackie. Just writing the stuff I do on the blog takes a bit of wiggling and jiggling with words. But I enjoy it! And that’s an end in itself 🙂 Good luck with version two!

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  17. Holy crap! I would be drowning in Ben & Jerry’s for sure. I’m weak like that 🙂 but I have gutted chapters of my novel during the editing process, wasn’t 120 pages but a good chunk. And I was like … Burn. It didn’t seem to fit so I hit delete wrote some more and grabbed some chocolate 🙂 it’s a process. But congrats to you on starting anew 🙂 hope the pages and ideas are flowing and that your characters are getting where they need to be going Buen Camino 🙂

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  18. Hi Jackie,

    You remind me of the insight Nicole Bernier shared at a book talk for THE UNFINISHED JOURNALS OF ELIZABETH D, which I read/heard her speak about in 2012 and still recall this: She penned something like 250 pages of a journal written by one of her characters so she could get into the character’s head, then tossed away about 80%. The characters in her novel felt so authentic. Her courageous technique explained why. Lorraine

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    1. Thank you for sharing that story, Lorraine. It does make me feel better to know that other writers have had similar growing pains. What a powerful way for a writer to get to know a character. I will definitely have to read Nicole Bernier’s novel.

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      1. Hi Jackie,

        Hope you do. (I blogged about it very early on in my blogging career!) What also stands out about it is that it was inspired by a true story. And, that a good chunk of the writing was actually done in the bookstore I heard Nicole B. speaking at: Politics and Prose, in DC. They have a wonderfully atmospheric cafe. It was one of those author talks that was so much more than reading excerpts from the book. She has a number of kids too, so I also recall being in awe of how she found the time. All the best with yours. Lorraine

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