Does starting over mean you have failed?

I’ve been struggling with my novel for a while now and I have come to the conclusion that I need to start over.  This has been a tremendously difficult decision to make but if I feel that if I don’t make it now I am going to waste my time flogging a dead horse for years to come.  Hmm.. I may very well still be beating a nag, but I’d like one that stands an outside chance of finishing the race.  The problem is not that everything is crap (yes, a lot of it is) but that I have changed since I started and the story I wanted to write has not changed with me.  I want something more.

I have spent the last few months wondering if I was experiencing my first true period of “writers block” but I have not been unable to write – I have simply been unable to write the story I originally started.  I have been writing this blog (don’t say it!) and continue to build fascinating (to me at least) worlds of new places, people, magic systems and legends without pause.  I have been able to create some wacky standalone scenes and even outlines for some short stories I think may work.  Yet each time I have picked up my novel, wholly committed to finishing another planned scene, I have gagged at what I have written.  Scenes with no point, characters more dead than three-day old pizza crust, plotlines that intertwine for no other reason than to confuse the reader, a story that is actually two entirely separate books with little or nothing to do with each other.  I could hack and slash my work with a pen so sharp that any editor would impale themselves on it.  There are more horrendous examples that any high school english teacher would find in the blink of an eye and I have not even opened the door to my internal critic yet!

Laura Ritchie
credit: Laura Ritchie

I am not saying that everything is beyond redemption – in fact there are parts, especially certain scenes that I still like and will retain with a little rewrite here or there.  The primary thing for me is that the book is filled with dead lifeless characters for whom I feel very little beyond some initial curiosity.  They are alive in my mind but my translation to paper has left them candidates for the oozing extras on the next episode of Walking Dead.

In an amateur attempt to make my ‘writing place’ more ‘writer like’,  I have a printout of writers quotes stuck to my wall just above the computer monitor and one is from Stephen King.  “If a book is not alive in the writer’s mind, it is as dead as year-old horse-shit.”  I thought I understood what he was getting at, but I only now fully realise what he meant.  It’s the most apt way I could describe my last 90k odd pile of words that seem to be going nowhere fast.  I have known for a while that my first effort was not going to be good but it took awhile for me to realise what the exact problems actually were.

Since actively starting to write, beyond only a wish to do so, I have been dissecting every book I have read – almost to the point where I have irritatingly been unable to just enjoy what I am reading because of it.  As I have learnt and read more “how-to-write” books, blog posts, grammatical instruction on the pitfalls of the apostrophe or watched yet another famous authors interview, so I have applied this new knowledge to evaluating what I am reading.  Until recently I had not been retroactively applying this to my own novel and the results have not been pretty.

I was reading a novel last week that I enjoyed but realised that I struggled to find a character that I really liked/hated/admired with or even laughed at… When the characters started dropping dead (as is usual for heroic fantasy) I was unable to empathise with the remaining characters displays of regret/loss.  I realised then that I would have given the book 5/5 stars if the author had been able to create a character I could fixate on – even if they kicked the proverbial bucket early.  I gave it a 3/5 instead and now understand that my own novel has the exact same problem.  I have always found character driven fantasy far more appealing than the big epic tales that while fascinating, seem too distant and aloof.  My favourite characters are right in your face “love them or hate them” kind of creations and when you feel your subconscious cheering them on and you cannot turn the pages fast enough, you know the books a keeper.  I never felt much emotion in LoTR, Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones (books), DUNE or Hyperion but they are some of my favourite novels for the amazing stories, majestic settings, epic conflicts, weird characters and unbelievable worlds.  Yet I struggle to remember my favourite characters names or what they may even look like.  I read Game of Thrones years before it became the phenomenal TV success it is now and although I liked the books (damn hard reads though – definitely need to be wide awake for that series) I would be lying if I ever remembered Daenerys Targaryen in the multitude of characters the reader is introduced to.

I have about 700 odd fantasy/sci-fi books and if I can remember the book’s title then I know that the book did not have anyone really memorable.   It’s not that the book was bad, it may very well be brilliant, it’s just that no character touched me.  I have favourite characters like Gerald Tarrant (ColdFire Triology by C.S.Friedman), Waylander & Druss (David Gemmell) and Shadow (Gaiman) that I remember as if I had met them personally and yet I sometimes struggle to remember the exact book title or the storylines are blurred to the point where I recall only my favourite characters parts.  When I first read Legend many many years ago, I balled my eyes out when Druss is killed and his warrior enemies honor his memory like they would a beloved king – crying over a book was not something I had ever done before.  Legend is never going to be a prize-winning  example of elegant prose or high browed writing but Gemmell sure as hell knew how to create a hero for a young adult to remember.   Waylander and Tarrant are my favourite anti-heros forever on a tightrope between good and evil and I followed their travels voraciously – I can hardly remember everything that happened in the Coldfire series but I remember Tarrant in his most perilous moments and remember cheering when he rides to the rescue like some unlikely demonic white knight.   These are the kinds of characters I want to write but have not yet been able to.

As if these flaws are not enough, it’s not just the characters who have died prematurely, but also new ideas that I have come up with – some of which fundamentally change the entire story and others affect how my characters would interact.  Perhaps, you say, I should leave these new ideas for my next novel and finish what I have started… I don’t think I can – my new ideas have made the old seem insipid and bland to the point where I just want to scrap them and try again.  It’s like drawing a picture… you get halfway and realise you have messed up the proportions and no amount of eraser is going to fix it.  My latest idea is an entirely different way of using magic – it’s not like a contemporary thriller where you change a murder weapon and everything slots into place relatively easily.  Change the fundamentals of a magic system in a fantasy world where magic helps shape everything and you throw your story on its proverbial head.

Maybe I am being too hard on what I have achieved so far.  Maybe I am in danger of doing this for every novel I attempt and so doing end up with a box of unfinished potential and always have some excuse like this to start again.  Maybe I am right that I need to create better characters.  Maybe the story outline is actually still good and all I need to do is drop a new set of people in the mix.  Maybe I need to outline in more detail to ensure I don’t stuff up more than halfway in.  Maybe I should not start over, maybe I should push on and squash down the turds that have come before.

Maybe maybe maybe.  Nah, I am going to keep the ideas that I like and see if I can revive the more promising characters to the point where I give a damn about them again but it’s obvious to me that I am going to have to start over.  I do not consider the 90k words wasted, I have learnt a huge amount and will retain the best bits.  I just hope to hell this is not the start of some horrible writing faux pas I am too naive to watch out for.

Lanceolot

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2 thoughts on “Does starting over mean you have failed?

  1. Pingback: Gender point of view and spirit walking | Lance Phillips

  2. Pingback: Nano, I shouldn’t. | Lance Phillips

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