It seeps into the room the moment you are faced with major rewriting. Some part of your story is off, and you may have some idea how to fix it, but the size of the problem—like needing a new protagonist, a completely different setting, or a new plot—is so daunting that you don’t want to touch it. And then, in the back of your mind lurks the question: What if this change doesn’t fix anything? What if I’m just not good enough?
First, it’s nice to know that all authors have been there. Stories don’t usually come to any of us; they have to be whittled out, stroke by stroke (or click-by-click, since many of us use computers). Most writers do a great deal of fussing and rewriting before their stories are completed. Reading about authors, and seeing their rough drafts, shows that most of us don’t know where our stories are going when we start out. We leave without a pocket handkerchief, and set out to face unknown perils: writers’ block, unwieldy plots, exasperating characters. And sometimes, we adventure in circles before we finally set out in the right direction.
But how do you face the plunge of a major rewrite? There are a few options:
- Start over completely. Give yourself a brand new word document (or notepad, if you are still in the pen/pencil-and-paper era) and go from there. This avoids any awkward reunions between you and scenes you just couldn’t make work.
- Save another copy of your story and edit from the beginning, making whatever changes you want. When I do this, I put the old material on a separate page, where I can access anything I’m keeping but don’t have to write around the “old stuff” directly.
- Switch projects. Work on something else completely while you let your new ideas for your old project age. Some stories are like wine; they get better with the passage of time.
- Take a break from writing. This one is a little extreme, but it can be healthy, giving you a chance to experience life before going back into the fictional world.
The last option can also result in the “fruitless fidget of composition,” as Henry James called it, where you would write, and should be writing, but are coming up with excuses not to write. Nowadays, there are lots of excuses—Facebook, Twitter, reading other people’s posts on WordPress—but ultimately, as Mr. James recognized, they achieve nothing. They’re fruitless, because our heart wants to be creating even though our fears hold us back.
And ultimately, those fears must one day be faced. And if the major rewrite doesn’t improve your story, you’ll still have the old copy to fall back on, and you’ll be able to cross that new method off your list, stating “Tried it and didn’t like it” in the mental margin next to the possibility.
So try the new strategy you’ve been debating. See if first person works better, or adding a narrator, or making the protagonist a girl. At least then, you can stop wondering and fretting. You’ll be exploring the world of what-if instead of sitting on a stump, analyzing the realm of what-could be from a vantage point that tells you nothing. And exploring is always more fun.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren