When to scrap a bad manuscript? When can a bad manuscript be changed, saved?
What to change?
In writing my current WiP, working title “Vast Horizons,” I’ve come up against a problem I encountered twice when writing “Vagabonds.”
I want to scrap the whole thing and start over. Which made me wonder, “How often do other writers experience this?” By logical reasoning, I’m certainly not some unique snowflake that has this thought and no one else. Hell, it’s probably a common thought people have.
So what’s the best way to deal with it?
Option one, of course, is to nuke it and start over. Well, maybe not go nuclear, but at the least bomb it back to chapter 1. There will still be plenty of pieces to salvage and scavenge that be used to expedite the re-writing process. Maybe.
Vagabonds originally started as something that took place on Earth and involved the Egyptian pantheon in a modern setting. I’m sure if you look at Sejit and Yf you can figure out who they originally wear. Tess, however, might be a little bit of a mystery, so I’ll tell you: She was originally Set. Like what I did with the name, there? No one will ever figure out who Alucard is! I’m a genius.
Sophia existed, too, albeit younger and with a tragic (read: cliche) backstory.
For some reason I wanted Sophia to be the main character, the main lens through which the narrative and plot were viewed. I wrote and wrote, getting to over 80,000 words when I realized something. It was when I got stuck on “What do I do next?”
I skimmed through what I’d written. It was… okay, but a lot of sections dragged. There were a lot of pointless scenes of nothing happening. I thought they were amusing or interesting at the time, but coming back to them months after I’d written them. Well. Spending an entire chapter, 5,000 words, to have Sophia basically cook breakfast and be teased was not good storytelling.
There were a lot of scenes like this. Sure I had a couple that I was proud of. They were good. A couple folks I showed them to agreed. But all the bits in-between? Garbage. I didn’t like where the whole narrative was going, either. I’d outlined and re-outlined about ten times. Never could stick to it.
So, into the dumpster it went. I thought about what I could do. Well, for starters, I didn’t like being hamstrung by facts, by actual history and mythology. I began the world-building for Aurphel. Characters were migrated. I brought over a lot of the core, key plot points and began anew.
50,000 words later, I didn’t like where it was going. Again. Some scenes I liked, most I didn’t.
“Am I just a shit excuse for a writer?”
Possibly. But after a lot of introspection and rumination, I realized something. Sophia, as a main character, just didn’t work. She wasn’t interesting. She was a character who was along for the ride, rather than affecting any great change herself. Trying to view everything through her lens meant the story spent too much time on her and her inconsequential bullshit. Compared to these actual gods and goddesses, what the fuck was she? I was trying to make a gopher into the principle main character. I still liked her, though.
So, goodbye second draft.
Some of the characters got reworks. Sophia got a bit older. Still a character that exists largely for exposition, but no longer the main character.
Within the first few chapters I was much happier with what I was doing. Success!
Option two. Continue with what you’ve got and finish it, then edit.
Funnily enough, this would probably be my default answer to most people with the question of whether or not to scrap. “Just fix it in editing!”
There are things not even all the editing in the world can fix. Besides, often times it’s easier and cheaper to just build a whole new house instead of trying to fix one that’s just so fucked the contractor looks at you like you’re a crazy person even though they’re about to make bank.
This is where, I think, strong self-analytical skills come into play. Being able to identify when something is salvageable. Or, simply being able to identify when, just maybe, it’s not actually as bad as you think it is.
Maybe I could’ve taken that first, or second, manuscript and shaped it into something a little different than my original vision. Maybe, with a few tweaks to my objectives, it could’ve become another sort of story.
But I didn’t want to write something like that.
An interesting situation, no?
“Vast Horizons” is something I think I could use option 2 on. I don’t believe it’s as hopeless as the others since the focus isn’t on any one specific character, but the entire cast. More or less. There’s a lot of good material, I think, and potential, but! How do I realize it? Do I just force myself to complete it even though I’m having a hell of a time figuring out how to get from my mid-point to the end? Or should I take a segue and insert a second narrative to fill the gaps in the first?
Would this second narrative wind up overwhelming and invalidating the first?
These are tough, tough questions writers face all the time. Questions within the question.
This is also something where I wish I had a few close writer friends to have a discussion, get some viewpoints, because right now I’m stumped. I write this post as well because I know there are others out there in the same spot.
How do we decide which option is best?
There are alpha readers, people we can show the bits and pieces of what we have to, get their opinion on whether or not it can work. This is tricky because anyone who doesn’t have experience with writing is likely going to have a hell of a time giving anything meaningful. Someone who reads lots might be able to provide some insight. Or a lot.
There’s a lot of rumination. Taking a step back, putting the work on hold, then coming back and reading it when a lot of the details are gone from memory. Does it work? Is it interesting? There’s going to be bias since we’re the author, but maybe we can be honest enough with ourselves.
There’s a combination of the two.
I am stumped. Hopefully my anguish here might be read by someone in a similar spot and maybe something I’ve said will help decide. Probably not, since this is just the most rambling entry yet. Hah.
But yes, I’d love to have a conversation on this matter with someone. Feel free to tweet or leave a comment!