On April 7, 2011, Angie wrote, …While writing a first draft, I find myself constantly having new ideas for the plot that require me to go back and change several details. This becomes bothersome the further into the story I am, and it also worries me that I will lose some of the original integrity of the story the more I do this. What if, after changing a ton of details and scenes to accommodate a new idea, I realize that my grand new idea actually doesn’t work at all? Then I need to go back and change those scenes back, but will most likely lose a lot of my original work in the process.
As much as I try to plan my plot out ahead of time, I am still at heart an organic sort of writer; I discover the story as I move along. How do I keep from ruining my story as I come up with fresh ideas?
I may have quoted this before from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
How I wish this weren’t true.
In hunting online for the above quotation, I found this on a blog I’d never visited before, but which you may all already know:
http://kendaturner.blogspot.com/2011/04/three-rules-for-writing-novel.html. More quotes, some funny too.
First to answer the easy part of the question, the only part that I can respond to definitively: You never have to lose original work if you start a new version and save your old one. You can name the old one something descriptive or you can write a note at the top of it that tells you what version it is and what made you start a new one. Then you can go back to the old if your new idea isn’t working out, or you can find those parts of the old that you want to re-insert.
I’m a make-it-up-as-I-go writer too, which makes me inefficient, very inefficient. Take the book I’m working on now, possibly the hardest ever for me. It’s a mystery, but it keeps wanting to be an adventure story, a form I’m more comfortable with, so it frequently veers the wrong way. I’ve mentioned before that I wrote many pages and then realized I’d forgotten to include any suspects. I went back to the beginning, putting in maybe too many suspects, but I made the mystery impossible to solve. In one instance, I don’t remember which, I wrote about 260 pages, in the other about 120. Then I wrote 90 new pages and felt lost, so I sent the thing to my editor, who said the problem was the book wasn’t compelling enough. Started again, and I’m now on page 72. It’s going better but very slowly.
Some writers get it right more quickly than I do, and even I do better on some books than on others. Some writers are even slower than I. This may be scant comfort, but writing is often difficult. I slog from confusion to confusion with clarity coming very gradually. Once, after visiting a school and speaking to the children there, I got a letter from one of them that said something like, I used to want to be a writer but since you came I don’t anymore. It’s too hard.
Of course I groaned. I probably shouldn’t have emphasized the problems to kindergartners. (Joke.) But the kids really were in elementary school, as some of you reading the blog may be. If you are, know that the rewards of writing are at least as great as the pain.
Patience is the first virtue a writer needs to cultivate. Skill won’t ever come if we don’t have the patience to develop it.
Don’t marry your first idea or your second, or your twelfth, but don’t divorce them either. They are each links to the final idea, the one that succeeds, which you couldn’t have gotten to without the others.
As for the ideas you abandon, which you’re now saving, they may be useful in another story or a germ from them may be. Our minds are deep lakes. Idea fish swim there and evolve, eat other fish or get eaten. When you catch your old idea that failed in one story and reel it in, it may have changed so much that you don’t recognize it, but the original is there in its belly, like the golden ring that appears in a fish’s stomach in more than one fairytale.
If you worry about running out of ideas, please don’t. We have new experiences, even when we think nothing is happening in our lives. Our brains are not only lakes but also soil, and new experiences are mulch, which our minds turn over and over and reshape, and ideas sprout.
I just reread a wonderful poem called “Skater” by Ted Kooser that captures this instant-by-instant change in us. Here’s a link to the poem: http://milan-poetry.blogspot.com/2007/01/skater-ted-kooser.html. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that one cannot step twice into the same river (because the water is always flowing). I’d add that the same person can’t step twice into any river because he is always changing.
This is very philosophical, but basically I mean that new ideas and then bungled new ideas and bungled old ideas are inevitable for some writers, like me. We just have to keep going.
Some writing advice urges the writer to write forward always and never go back. You can try this. If you can do it, great. This method worked for me on A Tale of Two Castles, but not on the new book. Write down your new ideas in your manuscript so you don’t lose them and march on. Then pick up what you had in mind in revision.
However, often the people who write this way hate revising because they’ve got such a mess on their hands by the time they type, The End. I love to revise because by the time I reach the last page I’ve worked out most of the kinks and all I have to do is polish – and usually cut.
A few prompts:
∙ Tessa is sitting in a classroom or studying at home when something happens that changes her forever. Write the scene and make it the occurrence that changes her a small moment, the change almost imperceptible but real. Then think again; put her back in the same place and make something different but equally significant happen. Repeat once more. Pick your favorite and turn it into a story.
∙ This can be fantasy or not. Ivan can be a modern boy or a prince who is buying a present for his dad’s birthday. They haven’t been getting along lately, and Ivan wants the present to bring them closer. Write the scene and its affect on the father-son relationship.
∙ Now let’s change it. Ivan wants the present to show his father how distant he feels they’ve grown, so he picks something emblematic of this. Write this scene.
∙ Bring a third character into the scene, Ivan’s older sister Yvette whose relationship with their father is unlike Ivan’s, maybe better, maybe worse. Write the gift giving again. Then think of yet another way to handle it and try that. Expand either one into a scene, a story, a novel, a seven-book series!
Have fun and save what you write!