Starting Over: A Most Exquisite Agony

Just about everyone who has ever used a computer knows the gut-wrenching pain of having to cope with lost data. Ever had your computer crash in the final stretch of writing an essay, and then discover that the file is unrecoverable? Ever spend hours on a piece of work and forget to save it before disaster strikes?

Of course you have.

But this post isn’t about data recovery, a subject on which I know very little (frankly, I would be well-advised to learn more). No, today’s post is about the exquisite agony of starting over.

Over the course of the last few years, fantasy wunderkind Brandon Sanderson has released chapters on his blog from his early unpublished manuscripts. On the one hand, this is an encouraging development, since it demonstrates so well the gradual accumulation of skill as time wears on. I find myself able to identify with Sanderson’s early writings. Hopefully, given more time, I, too, can become a writer of his caliber.

But the most interesting thing to me is the way that Sanderson openly talks about rewriting, and even re-rewriting, some of his manuscripts. In other words, he wrote it once-it wasn’t good enough. So he waited a while, then wrote it again-it still wasn’t good enough. He waited some more… then wrote it again! Finally, it was ready to see the light of day.

This kind of persistence is remarkable. As far as I can tell, it’s a necessary quality if one is to become a best-selling author.

In my editing career, I frequently come into contact with books that just aren’t good enough. It’s not that they’re outright bad (well, sometimes they are), but rather that editing alone isn’t enough to elevate them to “ready” status. The unfortunate reality is that the writer probably just doesn’t have chops to pull off the story-yet. My suggestion might be to give it some time, work on other projects, then come back a few years down the road and attempt the unthinkable: a page-one rewrite.

In other words, write the entire novel over again. From scratch.

If you’ve ever spent months-honestly, probably years-on your pet project, then the notion of starting over is truly daunting. Exhausting.

In my case, I have a 175,000-word novel sitting on my shelf. I wrote it the first time back when I was in high school-well, I wrote the first half before giving up. At the tender age of sixteen, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge.

A few years later, I resurrected the project and tried turning it into a series of teleplays (television scripts). I wrote more than ten of them! But this format was impractical in the long run, so the project fizzled out. And almost stayed fizzled.

Then, after a long break, I jumped back into the fray last year and wrote the complete novel, which took nine months. In the spring, I trimmed it down some, bringing me to that polished 175,000-word version.

Except it’s not polished. Not really.

I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years. I was able to accomplish things in my most recent draft that my high school self would never have believed possible. But after receiving a lot of honest and well-intentioned feedback, I was forced to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: it’s still not ready. And in fact, like those editing clients I mentioned, editing still isn’t enough to get it where it needs to be to really come alive.

Indeed, I’ll have to start over. One more time.

But there’s no point in attempting another rewrite so quickly. Brandon Sanderson turned some of his flawed early works into best-selling gems, but they had to percolate for years.

So, just how long will I need to wait? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule, but I do know one thing: I will accumulate more skills and grow faster as a writer if I keep producing new work.

And there’s the rub. It’s not about waiting at all… it’s about pressing on.

6 responses on “Starting Over: A Most Exquisite Agony

  1. KylieQ

    Aah, this is a well-timed post, Evan. I’m not quite starting over from the start, but I’m working on the first round of edits and finding it painful. Several weeks of analysing the current plot, strengthening the beast, trying to figure out what to do with that Flabby Middle, and it seems the best solution is just to keep writing: write the new chapters I’ve got planned out and hope the rest will come together after that.

  2. leigh

    Ah, Evan. Yet again you are singing my song. Currently, I’m planning a complete rewrite of a book I started writing over a decade ago. But then, what I call my first draft is often a second or third rewrite as I discover and hone the characters and plot. It’s painful, but often a necessity as we aspirerers work our way to becoming achievers.

    Great post.

  3. Frank Morin

    Evan,

    This one strikes close to home for me, as it does for many writers. I worked on my first novel for four years and ended up with a 300,000 word monster that probably chewed up over 500,000 words in multiple drafts. I finally learned enough to see the novel could not work. What a heartbreaking decision to set it aside. I took what I could (some characters, world building, etc) and re-built the story from the ground up. I wrote the new story – about 200,000 words, and then had to go back through it and revise it yet again to drop it down to 150,000. That story is now with an agent, but based on some feedback from publishers, I might need to go back and make some minor revisions yet again before it’s ‘ready’.

    Setting aside that first novel was extremely hard, but was the best thing I could have done for the story. And it helped me as a writer progress a huge step forward. Now, if I need to cut a scene or make changes, it’s a lot easier.

    Frank
    Frank Morin recently posted..Burst Writing

  4. Ann Cooney

    Odd how the thing we fear the most may be the best thing for us and our careers! I know my impatience at putting unfinished work away for a while is rewarded when I look at it again, see how much I’ve evolved and then tackle it with a stronger voice and better eyes!
    Great post!

  5. Clancy Metzger

    I so agree with all you said, Evan, as well as all the comments. This was what happened with my last ms. After 14 months and 3 or 4 major rewrites, I had to tuck it away. I still think about it now and then and hope that the day will come when I can rewrite it and it will be what I envision it to be.

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