When is Enough, Enough?

I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.

But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

You can take that to the bank, friends.

Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?

Hey, Mr. Bad Daft, why don't you step into the courtyard for a second...

Hey, Mr. Bad Daft, why don’t you step into the courtyard for a second…

Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.

Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?

In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.

I know there's a garden over there and I know where I went wrong, so I'm just going to turn around now, okay?

I know there’s a garden over there and I know where I went wrong, so I’m just going to turn around now, okay?

For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.

If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on July 8, 2015, in Critiques and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Do what works.

    It’s that simple, or that difficult, depending on your point of view.

    I can’t write new words if I don’t have the foundation for them. In the last couple of weeks, I have added 10,000 words to my novel (now up to 80,000), while moving my narrative ahead by less than a page. Why? Because my NEXT page relies on things that weren’t in the earlier 70,000 words. I couldn’t move forward until I added them, because I kept seeing holes in the structure in my head. Now that those holes are (almost) gone, I should be able to move ahead confidently.

  2. If you already know what you want to write then write it. It shouldn’t be any more complicated than that. If that means deleting a critical scene and adding a different one and then tweaking the cascade fallout, then do that. On the other hand, if it means starting over, then do that instead.

    That being said, I’d say just start writing what you want to write as if you had already done the beginning third of the book the way you had wanted to. When you’re finished, you can go back and rewrite the beginning.

  3. Frustration 😦

  4. I’m all about quitting. Well, selective quitting. In your hypothetical scenario I would put it down a bit, work on something else, and see if I can return to it with a new perspective.

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