It is entirely normal to be afraid of changing your novel. I’m not talking about being afraid to make changes in the draft, especially in the revision process. What scares most writers to death is something far more fundamental and far more difficult: changing the key elements of your story after you’ve already begun writing it.
Why Making Changes is Hard
I think most writers realize that their story or novel will transform over time, and most changes aren’t that painful. Maybe you plan on your character going to the beach, but your character throws a tantrum and says he wants to go skiing instead, so you keep writing but make a note that John needs to pack a coat instead of his swimsuit. That’s no big deal. It’s easy say that’s part of the rewriting process and move on, but sometimes it isn’t that simple.
What if you set the story in a mystical forest in France, but, you get excited about your new novel, and you skimp on your research. So you write a significant portion, and after you’ve written tens of thousands of words, you tell a friend about your story. She loves your idea, but politely points out that there aren’t any lions in France. Surely she is mistaken. You find a source that lists all sorts of creatures native to France, but there aren’t any wild lions listed. It’s just a coincidence. You look at a few sources specifically about lions and their habitats. Yep, it’s certain. There are no lions in France. Wasn’t the lion is the most important part of the story? So what do you do? You could ignore it. Hey, it worked for Shakespeare, right? But let’s be honest, you aren’t Shakespeare, and you have more resources for research, so claiming you didn’t know won’t work. Unless your story has a fantasy element to it, and you’ve decided that some lions broke out of the zoos and decided to live in France, you’d better start having your characters pack their bags for Africa.
That’s definitely worse than changing a vacation destination. Now you have to research an entirely new setting. You may even have to change the time period if you find that it’s difficult to go from place to place in the jungle without cars, and I guess your gypsy king might decide he’s a warlord. Even with all these changes, you aren’t worried yet. It seems like most of the changes may just be semantics. You can change snow to sand and forest to savannah with a few clicks. But what if, after all that, your hero decides he hates your leading lady, and he won’t run away with her no matter what? Not only do you have to change the setting, but now your characters have to change too. You probably need to spend some time getting to know your hero or heroine to find out that your hero likes brunettes, not blondes. Maybe you’ve tried that, though, and he still won’t go. It could be that you need a new protagonist all together, and that is scary.
But won’t that change my whole plot? Maybe. Won’t that take a lot of work? Absolutely. What if I have to start over? I’m sorry, but you may have to.
And that’s what makes it hard. When your entire story evolves so much within a single draft, the entire process is overwhelming. I wanted to cry when it happened to me. In my last post I talked about how I had to throw out 35,000 words and start over. It wasn’t fun at all. I kept thinking that if I gave it more time I could figure out a way to fix it, but there was no way to make it work.
My main character needed a brother, not a sister, so the sister became the wife of the brother. Then the brother didn’t want to marry her when I tried to put them together because, surprise! He’s gay. The father changed careers, and now he’s a banker, rather than a politician, and Oliver, the scholar who had previously been a monk and then an investigator decided he wanted a sex-change, called himself Olivia, and decided that he was a journalist. I got rid of one major plot line entirely, which did away with three characters, made a lot of research on Anglo-Saxons obsolete, and negated the entire driving force of my book, an ancient curse. I didn’t even get to keep my theme. (I guess you can’t blame your parents for everything after all.) My characters jumped 200 years into the future and decided that all that hokey supernatural nonsense wasn’t for them, and they could do without the murders. They had enough problems without them. Oh, and they didn’t want to be British.
After all those changes you’re probably curious want to know what I was left with from my first version. It wasn’t much: five of my characters got to keep their names, two got to stay in a relationship together, although the nature of it was dramatically altered, and… nope. I guess that’s it.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw a tantrum just like my characters did, but instead, I moped for a while, and then I sat down started over. I started with the only plot line I could imagine working, the two in the relationship, and built on it from there. I made an outline and new character sketches. I did some research on my new setting. And how’s it going? Well, I’m at 34,500 words as of today, and I can honestly say that it’s already much smoother than the old draft. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was scary, but I’m glad that I started over and my novel is already better for it.
When You Know Something Has to Change
It isn’t easy to admit it to yourself that you have to make major changes, or that you have to start over. After all, that’s a lot of work you’ll probably throw away. Of course you’ll want to try to save anything you can in hopes that your efforts weren’t a total waste, and if you’re able, congratulations! But you can’t let being afraid of starting over keep you from fixing your novel. If it’s not working, it’s time to thank your draft for the lessons it taught you, end the relationship, grieve, and move on. You’ll probably want to save a copy somewhere to remember the good times you had together, and who knows, maybe someday you’ll remember what you saw in it to begin with, but now you need to get excited about your new draft.
Take time to let your brain process your new idea, and when you finally get back to it, you should have a clearer idea of where you’re going than you did before. This is a great time to make a new outline while the ideas are fresh. (I’m not a pantser, but if you are and the idea of an outline scares you, that’s okay. Jani at Hugs and Chocolate has written a great post on improvisation that might help you stay motivated.) After you decide on the necessary changes, you might even feel excited about your novel again because all those points that stumped you before are gone.
Why You’ve Got to Do It
If you keep ignoring the changes that you know you need to make in hopes that your plot will somehow fix itself, you’ll probably end up with a bigger mess than you started with. Yes, it will be a headache to untangle it all no matter what, but just remember, it’s to make your novel better, and that should be motivation enough. No publishers or agents are going to want to buy a dysfunctional novel, and would anyone really want to read it if they did? Would you really want anyone to read it?
When You Have to Change More Than You Keep
Sometimes in the name of art, writers have to scrap more of their original draft than they keep. It hurts. It hurts a lot, but it’s okay. You’ve learned from that hurt, and it will be better next time. The hard part is staying positive. If you feel like you’re struggling with it, try writing in a journal about it. Maybe it will help you see why you’re so reluctant to make changes. Are you so caught up with your main character that you can’t see her flaws? Call a writing buddy if you have one to talk about similar experiences, or at least offer support. If you’re really sad, maybe he or she will bring you ice cream or brownies.
Just be confident, knowing that you’re making your novel better, and don’t forget to try to stay positive.
Have you had to make dramatic changes or start over on your novel? Leave a comment.