Thursday, July 22, 2010

Back to the Beginning

I broke a book.

Well, I didn't break it. But I royally screwed it up. I took a great premise, an engaging voice, an awesome narrator and...did nothing with them. I ended up with 100 pages of meandering. Conversations. Haircuts. Watching paint dry. (Okay, not watching it dry, but putting it on the walls. No, I'm not kidding.) Nothing much happening at all.

I knew I was completely tanking this idea, so I quit. And I thought about it. And I didn't think about it. And then I thought about it some more. That's when I knew that I had to go back. I don't have any problem abandoning ideas--I've got three, or four, or five started-but-never-finished novels that I feel no compulsion whatsoever to return to. I don't even know how many story starts and characters are in my Word graveyard, because they don't talk to me anymore. They're dead.

But this character refused to die. She kept talking to me. She let me know that I butchered her voice--she isn't nearly that sullen! She'd never react that way! And I didn't even get her taste in music right. But Character, I said, I don't know what to do with you! It wasn't working! My idea didn't work, and I don't know what to do to fix it! I have all of these awesome scenes in mind, but I don't know how to get from where I started you to where those scenes are.

Character was not happy with me.

Neither was my crit partner Natalie. She kept asking about Character. I kept hemming and hawing. Finally, Natalie said, "What if in the beginning instead of X you had Y?"

And then it all clicked. I had shot Character in the foot from the very beginning by taking what I thought to be the natural plot path. That plot progression lacked any sort of narrative tension whatsoever. It was an idiot move. A complete idiot move. Six completed novels under my belt and I can still doom a manuscript within the first twenty pages!

That, my friends, is talent.

Actually, that, my friends, is writing. Sometimes we mess up. This is the worst I've ever messed up. Last night I deleted twenty-THOUSAND words. It used to be that would make my heart hurt with lost effort. Now, however, I'm excited. Those twenty-thousand words didn't work. But now I've got words building up and screaming to get out that will.

And that's also why I have an alpha reader--someone who reads my things as I write them. Because otherwise I wouldn't have had someone nagging me, someone who knew what I had and why it wasn't working. Someone to suggest just the thing to spark the idea for how it all could work.

Three cheers for Natalie!

I know not everyone uses alphas, but I can't recommend them enough. Sometimes we get so stuck in the path of how our stories "need" to be that we don't see what they can be if we'd only let them. I knew something was wrong with the story--had known from about 10k words in--but it took me to 25k to admit that it was too wrong, that nothing was going to fix it. And it took a wonderful crit partner to help me see what I needed to do to get Character back on the plot she needed to tell her story.

Character is happy. Natalie is happy. Agent Michelle is happy. I am happy and excited about a project for the first time in a what feels like a very long time.

Writing is hard, and it's very easy to mess up (I never make the same mistake twice--I come up with new and innovative ways to screw up every time!), but that's the glory of first drafts--the delete key can be our very best friend. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go argue with Character about why, exactly, she is forcing me to listen to The Cure and Passion Pit.


Michelle Wolfson said...

YAY Natalie! FOUR cheers for you! Not to pressure you, Kiersten, but I totally love Character and I'm glad she is not dead.

Kiersten White said...

Yes! Many, many cheers to Natalie! I love Character, too. And she's happy with me now.

Natalie Whipple said...

I'm so, so happy that Character never stopped talking. She rules. And now her story will rule too! I'm so pumped.

Amanda J. said...

I am intrigued by Character and happy that Natalie helped you fix her story. WOO NATALIE!! WOO KIERSTEN!!

Now, how long will Character remain virtually nameless? O.o

Kiersten White said...

I am keeping Character very, very close to my chest. I'm not even breathing what the plot/premise is anywhere. Ever. I've never been this protective an idea before, but NO ONE gets to hear about this one unless they are a crit partner or my agent : )

So, pretty much you can learn her name and the premise when I finish and it sells. How's that for confidence? Tee hee.

Madeleine said...

Whoot, Natalie! :D

I kept telling myself before that I wouldn't show my book (or even talk about the plot) to people before it was finished.

Stupid, stupid mistake.

Honestly, having someone who reads as you go and gives constructive feed back is invaluable. Even when you don't realize what a mess you've made of that paragraph/chapter/40,000 words, they will catch it and help you get back on track. It's also great when you do something right and they're there to give you a virtual high five. :D

I'm glad you're excited about the new project! I am, too, and all I know is that Character listens to stuff I haven't even heard of! :D

Kiersten White said...

Madeleine--The Cure were big in the eighties. Here's a video from Passion Pit:

Not at all what I normally listen to, but something I'm willing to do to get into a character's voice : )

ElegantSnobbery said...

A character that listens to the Cure and Passion Pit? Um, sounds like the best character EVER.

Also, hurray! I once wrote 30k of crap b/c I had my character figured out all wrong. She b!#ch-slapped me until I deleted the 30k and started over. She is much happier with me now.

Deleting all those words must have been hard, but so glad you figured out how to make her story work!

JEM said...

Oh, I use my partner-in-crime as my alpha, and it has saved more than one manuscript more than once! I too champion the mysterious ways of the alpha. Good post!

Enna Isilee said...

I had an alpha for a couple weeks, and for those couple weeks I wrote more than I ever have in that span of time.

Now, I haven't had an alpha in two years. Have I written? No.

Sad days.

Tara McClendon said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. Sometimes I need a sounding board (or a not-so-subtle kick), and my alpha steps up every time. I'm glad you have the motivation you need to scrap what you had and write it the way your character needs you to write the story. Best of luck.

storyqueen said...

I have a book graveyard, too! Some of mine are ghosts that haunt me....I didn't kill them in the right silver bullets or wooden stakes, but I didn't breathe the right kind of life into them, either.

So I suppose they are part of the undead.

Congratulations on finding the right stuff!


Kristan said...

I'm sorry, but can I just say what a RELIEF it is to know that even Impending Megawatt Blockbuster Authors like you do this too?


And I'm so glad it worked out for you, Natalie, Michelle, and Character. Everybody wins! :D

Myrna Foster said...

I'm glad Natalie could help you figure it out. And I find it interesting that your character listens to The Cure. My high school boyfriend had a big old poster of Robert Smith on his wall.

Dara said...

You know I never really thought of an alpha reader but that's a good idea. Especially as I keep floundering on my poor character's story.

Dawn Embers said...

Yay for happy Character and happy Writer! :-D

oooo it's a sekrit? (Blame umm Mire or Ashy for the spelling of secret.) Fun! I used to tell my friends anything about my ideas they wanted to know, which isn't a lot but is some. However, I'm finding that having a Sekrit Novel is just as fun. Sometimes I'll do a tease like in a blogfest where I put Sekrit Novel and then below where the excerpt would go I write "haha not telling". *giggles* A bit of a tease, but there's fun in that.

Good luck with the novel.


Happy to hear you found your way : )

Ezmirelda said...

I think we've all come across the same problem before. The key is to go back to the very beginning and figure out what's going wrong. When you find out what's wrong a new road will open with more favorable directions for the plot. Great post today! :)

heidikins said...

Yay Natalie! Yay Alpha! Yay Character! Yay Kiersten! (Not necessarily in that order...)


Kare said...

you make me laugh everytime you write can't wait to read paranormalcy!!

Giles Hash said...

That's awesome, but it does sound kinda painful. It's funny: I get the same way when I have the opportunity to improve a book! Proofreading can be really boring, but I'm looking forward to it because it gives me the chance to make the book better :)

Lily Cate said...

I recently dumped about 20k at the end of a book, condensed the rest, and rewrote the entire last half.
Much better now.
Sometimes it takes an amputation to save the body.

Jade said...

I'll have to side with Character and say The Cure rock. Like, a lot.

I'm glad you worked things out. I have a couple of half-completed ms that I still think about. I plan on fixing them one day. I also have a lot of uncompleted ms which are just total fails. How was I to know that Vangels wouldn't work. (They're vampire-angels for those not in the know.) It seemed like win-win idea to me. Tehe!

Kristin Briana Otts said...


I love the idea of alpha readers, but I have a hard time finding people who are willing to read the drivel that is my first draft haha.

Patty Blount said...

I wish I'd seen this particular blog post on Wednesday, KEERsten (haha)

Wednesday night, I sat in tears with one finger hovering over the DEL key. I was done, finished, had it up to my eyebrows with writing. I sucked, the MS sucked, everything about writing sucked, sucked, SUCKED!

I was lucky; I tweeted my nervous breakdown and a few kind souls rescued me from the pit and saved the 60,000 words of my WIP from cyber-limbo.

In the clear(er) light of a new day, I know all writers experience what I went through Wednesday at one time or another. I also know better than to judge the first draft so harshly. Not sure why I totally wigged out, but I am glad to hear I'm not alone. No less insane, apparently, but at least, not alone.

Thanks for this.

Patty Blount said...

Damnit, a whole comment got gobbled up. I hate when that happens.

OK, condensed version. I flipped out Wednesday night. Total epic breakdown. Nearly deleted the entire 60,000 WIP I've got saved on the hard drive because suckage was running rampant.

I am better now. I wished I'd seen this blog post earlier. I would have been better earlier.

Thank you for helping me feel better - no less insane, but definitely better.

Sean Wills said...

This was a lesson that I took a long time learning. I was so stuck in the idea that radically altering the plot of a novel halfway through (or, uh, one-fifth of the way through...) is a sign of some sort of weakness that I wrote several stories right into the recycling bin.

Bee said...

Yay, Character lived!

Also, I've never thought of an alpha reader. Thinking now..

Lisa Nowak said...

I never heard the term "alpha reader" before, but I have one. My friend and I send each other our chapters as soon as they're finished. In fact, since I'm an outline person, I send her my outline before I ever start writing. I caught several potential pitfalls that way on my third book.