Hoarding for Writers
My wife says that I’m a packrat because I never throw anything out. There is a bit of truth to that statement. You never know when you might need that box of fuses, the old PC case with a power supply, or the broken lawn mower that could be used for parts. I have trouble throwing things away because I might need them someday. But that’s not true of everything. For example, I had no trouble at all throwing out one of the books that I’m working on, only to start over. Twice.
If we’re keeping score, this would be stupid thing #12 that I’ve done so far this year. Don’t ask what the other eleven are. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. Or maybe you would, and that would be rather depressing.
The first time I started over, for which I will explain the reason shortly, consisted of storing all of the original work in an archive folder. The second time was slightly more drastic. I deleted months worth of work. Why did I delete it? Because I didn’t see the value of keeping it. That’s saying a lot considering I still have t-shirts from Navy boot camp, sweat stains and all.
First rule of writing? Never throw anything away. You would think that I, of all people, should know this by now. There are various notebooks with bits of scribbling that have been with me for more than thirty years stored in my office. So, what was so bad aboutthis story that I felt the only recourse was to delete it? The simple answer, because it was messy. The longer explanation deals with outlines and character development.
When I started on my novel six months ago, I did so without using an outline. By the time it was 12k words I realized that I had made a tactical error. The characters were leading the story into places that didn’t fit with the book I wanted to write. My novel, an action thriller, soon became a supernatural thriller, which morphed into a sci/fi-supernatural-thriller. How many genre could I cover without turning it into a Bad Book?
Time to Reset the Matrix
When your characters realize that they control the story then consider it a good thing, to an extent. But when they start destroying your vision of the world, well then, it’s time for a reset. Without an outline the only direction I had was the destination, the ending. Trying to corral the characters toward that ending was like herding cats in a rainstorm. Each of them wanted to go places that led further away from what I had envisioned.
I decided that the only way to keep the characters focused was to use an outline. So, I took a few weeks off and plotted out the novel, which of course negated many of the scenes and chapters that I had previously written. Fortunately I saved the original work before starting over. Even though much of it didn’t fit the new outline there were enough good nuggets to make it valuable.
With the outline in place I started the novel anew, keeping the characters pointed toward the end of the rainbow. Now the story had a great arc, purpose, and direction. I started on it with gusto, though after a couple of months I did one of the worst things you could possibly do as a new writer. I began editing a third of the way through the story.
By trying to adhere strictly to the outline many of the characters lost their charm. They were two-dimensional, flat. They weren’t this way in the original version, the one that I had tucked away in the archive folder. I thought I could blend the two together. It didn’t work.
The new revision had the story proceeding along the path that I wanted, but the characters were lifeless. Even I had a hard time caring about what happened to them. The structure of the story was lean and fast, much faster than the previous character driven attempt. I attempted to edit my way around the problem of character development. However, trying to flesh out the characters in the confines of the box that I put them in messed with the flow.
Once again I had lost control of the story that I wanted to tell. Granted it’s easy to do considering the huge span of time that the novel covers. Still, the problems I ran into were unexpected. I wanted a character driven story that followed an outline. Is that too much to ask? Apparently.
The story, as it was, could only be described as a mess. Believe me when I tell you that a few weeks worth of editing only made it worse. No matter how many alternate ways I tried to reinvent the characters and scenes, it still came out…lumpy. It didn’t flow.
Frustrated beyond belief, and in a moment of insanity, I deleted it. Months worth of work, poof! Yes the characters were flat and seemingly beyond repair in this version, but if the original had some good nuggets, then this one had a gold mine hiding beneath the surface. I just didn’t have the tools to dig through to it.
Immediately I regretted deleting it. There is no such a thing as pulling it out of the Recycle Bin on my computer. I changed the setting to delete things permanently, and without throwing up a confirmation prompt. It’s a geek thing, and yes, it bit me in the ass.
Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few
Setting aside the fact that you should never throw away (or delete) a story that you’re working on, let me recap the two biggest mistakes that I’ve made on the novel thus far.
First, I had a vision of where the story would end. I even know what the last line in the book will be. The problem was getting there without an outline. The characters, each one memorable, took on a life of their own and decided that their story was better. This wouldn’t have been an issue had I not cared for where the story ended up.
The second problem I ran into, once I created an outline, was following the outline too closely. I should have treated it as a guide and let the characters work out the details. Instead, I exerted my will upon them, took control of their minds and actions. The story went in the direction that I wanted, but the characters had no heart, no soul.
Had I done this right the first time, like I’m doing now, I would have written an outline and included scenes for character development in addition to plot and flow. On the bright side, these are rookie mistakes that I hope to never make again.
Now, I told you all of that to tell you this:
I’m not advising you on how you should write. That’s up to you. Perhaps my mistakes will give you solace that you are not alone. We all make mistakes. Mine just happen to be open for public consumption. However, if you want to step out on a limb and share what your biggest mistake has been, then I would love to hear it. We can learn from each other.
Of course I would be remiss not to share some type of advice with you. The following comes from Chris James, author of The Second Internet Cafe: The Dimension Researcher and Class Action.
“Get the story out of your head. Don’t edit. Don’t look back. Keep going forward.”
That is exactly what I plan to do. In the meantime, I promised my wife that I would clean the garage. I just hope she doesn’t expect me to throw anything out. You never know when you might need it, am I right?
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