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)
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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!