Letting go of previous drafts with gratitude and thanks

Roadblocks ahead

I think I’ve figured out another roadblock.

As I’ve been working on what is close to the final draft of Pride’s Children, I am getting more and more into the territory of a true first draft – scenes I wrote but which have little in the way of polish. Maybe my own limitations has made this extra hard – the ‘big picture’ is a composite of story pixels, only one of which I examine at a time.

These scenes are often even older than I’d like to admit – they pre-date, in some cases, the Great Reorganization undertaken in the Summer of 2007, when 6 pov characters were culled into 3 main pov characters. I had given, to tell the story, each of the main characters a sidekick. This was a person who knew the character reasonably well in the case of two of the main characters (for those following along, Bianca’s friend, Tonya Illstrom, was her sidekick; Andrew’s childhood friend and bandmate, George, had the insider view of Andrew – each had known the main character since childhood).

But for Kary I had Elise, her NY agent. This didn’t work as well, since they hadn’t known each other before Kary started writing for publication. Zöe, Kary’s long-time friend, doesn’t interact with her enough throughout this story – and that is telling: Kary keeps secrets from her best friend. She has plenty of people in her life, but she is an intensely private person who doesn’t want to spend time either trying to keep up with healthy people, or indeed, doing anything beyond expending her energy on the last thing she has for herself: her writing. She loves her daughters – but they are grown, out of the house, healthy, and managing their own lives just fine, thank you.

Kary’s favorite aunt Ruth, whom she occasionally confides in, and who is attuned to her moods, lives far away in a nursing home in California.

Releasing good ideas from previous drafts – maybe some other time

So none of these secondary characters, alone, made a good secondary character for Kary. Their ensemble – which also includes her lawyer in NH (who shares her illness) – creates the support system that allows Kary to feel as connected to the world as she needs, and keep her from being totally isolated. But she is the center of none of their lives – and that’s the way she wants it.

So the sidekick idea had to go – and I actually found it quite freeing to make the three main characters carry their own stories, and try to make you care about them. (Sidekick idea: maybe in another book.)

But this means that I’m getting farther and farther away from that first draft which had 6 characters.

The end hasn’t changed – not since I got the story idea. In fact, it is the end that keeps me writing.

Only the end was the kind of thing you get over lunch – a shortened version of the story, without all the details.

The miracle middle

There is a famous New Yorker cartoon of two scientists before a blackboard filled with equations on the left, equations on the right, and the expression ‘Then a miracle occurs!’ in the center.

I’m finding myself more and more in the miracle middle section. Except that I have the basic equations for that miracle. And, as I’m writing, the implicit richness of the middle keeps coming to the fore, telling me I wrote in haste before, and don’t need to be limited by anything other than the knowledge of what happens.

That is fairly solid – I don’t think I’ve changed a major plot point in years. But the details of the actual scenes are coming in new waves, and the first draft has become too confining, the words I put in the characters’ mouths to tell their story too sketchy or too awkward or too unsubtle, and the general thinness of the execution too evident.

Thanks – and goodbye

So I’m formally allowing myself to start scenes more from scratch, from the same set of Dramatica appreciations and other systems’ ‘plot points’ or beats, and let the previous draft have a much smaller weighting in the final product.

I don’t know why I’m so surprised at this turn of events – everyone who learns to write has to also learn that first drafts (even well written ones) only serve to get you to the place where the real story work, the showing, begins.

But more and more lately the old draft has become a choke collar instead of a road map, if I may mix metaphors. And I’m setting it free, reducing its contribution to the storytelling, and lowering my expectations so that whatever is good in there can surface, instead of being required to keep the ship afloat.

Thank you, previous drafts. Your work here is done. You may rest.

Conclusions – and yes, it worked

Immediately I finished the draft of this post, I asked myself what I wanted to keep of a previously-important section. Freed of any requirement to use the previous words, out popped a paragraph which said exactly what I needed.

And the complete structure for the rest of the scene. And a list of all the bits and pieces. It WAS a roadblock.

I know all writers have to learn this stuff, and learn it personally, not vicariously, but does it have to be so painful?


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