Dear Story Nurse,
I am a first-time novelist with a second draft problem. I’ve written +90,000 words of an alternate history/fantasy novel, which, at its outset, was nothing more than me proving to myself that I could, in fact, write a book. I followed a writing plan I found online of 350 words a day every weekday, moving to a new scene whenever I started to get bogged down and coming back to fill in the gaps later. It worked fairly well, but therein lies my problem.
This novel is beyond sprawling, with five locations, plus travel scenes, a first-person narrator who is dealing with both inner guilt and exterior prejudice after the death of her younger brother and mother, eight decently-characterized supporting characters, a minor love triangle, one major supernatural antagonist and three minor human ones, three earthquakes, a house fire, a plague of birds, cross-cultural (mis)understandings, the role of literacy in a society that only somewhat has writing, two gladiator-style Mayan ball games, a riot… you get the idea. I lost steam near the end of the project because I couldn’t justify writing even more new scenes instead of trying to knit together what I already had into a more cohesive whole. I was on track to hit 110k, but I stopped a month early, ostensibly to give myself time to come up with the last few linking scenes. Now, looking at the whole thing, I have the sinking feeling it needs to be disassembled and reorganized (possibly rewritten) completely, since the characters and plot developed as I wrote in my jumping-back-and-forth style, rather than more naturally over the course of the story. It probably could shed a good 10k-15k as well, if I’m brutal.
How do I do this? Where do I start? Usually, I’m a pretty good editor, but for other people’s writing, not my own, where it’s a lot harder to be ruthlessly objective as to whether that very pretty turn of phrase works, no matter how long it took to come up with. The only thing I can think of is to set it to double-space, print out all 280 pages, and go to town with red pen, scissors and tape. But, both practically and psychologically, I balk at that much time and effort for something that is not only a first draft, but incomplete (and being my own work, with all the standard accompanying self-doubt). I tried finding a beta, but the same problem applies. It’s too big for my friends and family to plow through to even tell me if I should keep going to try to make this into a real book or let it go as a mostly-successful experiment. Some part of my brain is insisting that I’m just falling for a sunk-cost fallacy, and another part really wants to see if there’s something good in this gigantic pile of words that another person might want to read.
I Need an Iolaus to Kill This Hydra (she/her)
Dear I Need an Iolaus,
You are in what Maureen McHugh calls the dark night of the soul. 90k words into a 110k-word project sounds like about the right place for that; it usually hits around three-quarters of the way in, which is why I tend to think of it as the three-quarters slump, but later and earlier are both known to happen. Many, many, many writers have felt this way around this point in their books. Some feel it with every book. You are not alone.
The key to escaping this very unpleasant state of despair is to finish the novel. This is extremely important.
You said you can’t justify writing new scenes, so here are some handy justifications for you:
- You can’t edit an unfinished novel, any more than you can make clothes with half-woven cloth. When I was freelance editing I absolutely refused to work on any book that wasn’t done, no matter how long it was or how much work it needed, because if you don’t know how the book will end then you can’t shape the body of the book to guide the reader to that ending.
- If you haven’t finished the novel, you haven’t made space for your writerly intuition to do really surprising things in that high-pressure last section where all the plot elements come together. Even the most die-hard plotter can experience the sudden flowering of seeds they didn’t know they’d planted, and a pantser such as yourself is nearly guaranteed to. This is one of the weirdest, best pleasures of writing. Don’t deny yourself that delight.
- Finishing your novel is essential for your morale. Revising will be its own challenge and the thing that will get you through that challenge is “I finished a novel.” Writing the next book will also be a challenge and knowing that you’ve written one book, start to finish, will help you face it. And as you note, it’s difficult to invest revising time in a manuscript that you aren’t sure you’re going to finish because you haven’t finished it.
- No one gets a quota. You don’t actually need any justifications at all. You get to write as many words as you want. Go ahead, write! You’re a writer! Enjoy it! Your book is a mess and that’s fine! Many perfectly lovely books start out as messes. Keep on going until you finish your mess.
Do not start revising. Do not even think about revising. Definitely don’t print the whole thing out; the size of the manuscript will only encourage you to see it as a giant mass of word-stuff, which is not a helpful mindset right now. Don’t reread it even onscreen. Treat the words you’ve already written like Eurydice, make like Orpheus, and don’t look back.
Instead, do whatever gets you started writing again and carries you all the way to The End. Turn your wordcount meter into a countdown from 20k to zero. Pretend you’re on word 1 of a novella with an extremely long prologue. Start a new chapter so that you have a fresh blank page to work with. Put on your most energizing music. Make a pact with a friend. Get back in that 350-words-a-day habit, or set up other deadlines or goals or rewards that will motivate you.
It sounds like your writing up until now has not been especially directed, so it may help to outline the last chunk of plot and at least vaguely follow that outline. If you find it impossible to do that because the plot of what you’ve already written is so tangled, take an hour or two to very sketchily outline the whole plot, start to finish, not as it currently is but as you would like it to be after revisions—but don’t get too obsessive about this, because the only purpose of it right now is to give you a way to finish the book.
If you get desperate, slap on a finale in which everything happens at once in a crowded rush. The ending definitely doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be.
Could you ignore all my advice and revise those 90k words before completing the draft? Sure. But then you’ll have 90k (or whatever your post-trim wordcount is) of lovingly polished words, and it will feel very weird to try to graft 20k or more of rough draft onto that. It might feel easier to just go back and revise some more, which makes the rough draft feel even rougher, and that’s a sure route to giving up on the book altogether.
Could you give up on the book altogether anyway? That’s always an option. But it doesn’t sound to me like the book has insurmountable problems. Its biggest flaw, right now, is that it’s not finished. Finish it and then consider it in its entirety. If at that point it feels unsalvageable, you can put it in the drawer marked Learning Experiences and move on to the next project with a better idea of how to approach it. But you’ll move on to that next project with the knowledge that you, dear writer, have written a whole and complete novel.
Go reread Chuck Wendig’s post about his 350-words-a-day plan. He’s very clear:
The goal is not to write a masterpiece. It’s not to sprint. This ain’t NaNoWriMo. The goal is to finish a novel despite a life that seems hell-bent to let you do no such thing. It is you snatching snippets of word count from the air and smooshing them together until they form a cohesive (if not coherent) whole. It assumes a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to this book.
A finished first draft. That is the brass ring, the crown jewels, the Cup of the Dead Hippie God.
The dark night of the soul isn’t fun to struggle through. It is so much easier to seek solace in the order-from-chaos joys of revision or the excitement of a new project. But you didn’t start this project because it was easy and you didn’t stay with it for 90,000 words because it was easy. You did it because you wanted to write a novel. So go and write it. I think you’ll be very glad you did.