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.