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January 22, 2007 1:16 PM   Subscribe

How can I revive a dead novel?

I started work on a novel (my second) last year. I got down about 25,000 words, or about one third of the way through, before I decided to go back and do one more pass at my first novel. While it really helped number one, now I come back to number two and find myself cold. I still love the idea and the characters, so just running away is not an option. But I am at a loss as exactly how to restart my writing process. I could dive back in right where i started, but I feel like I have a better idea of the voice now and the first third is very different from how I think the rest of it will play out. On the other hand, just starting over and throwing those words away makes me sad.

Any hints or tricks for reviving a dead project would be welcome -- or is this just writer's block? I've been dilly-dallying for two weeks now.
posted by Bookhouse to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Just write. Do you know what happens next? Then go to it.
You can always come back to the first third. You were going to have to revise it anyway, right?

And sometimes you have to get rid of lots of pages. Jay Lake calls them "unwords."
posted by sugarfish at 1:31 PM on January 22, 2007

Change a little bit of the first third at a time - you'll find that you like it more in the new voice and rewriting it will become a rewarding experience, and you'll soon find yourself tackling bigger chunks at a time. At the same time, keep running the rest of the novel in your head in the new voice.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2007

As bitter as it is, I would advise just biting the bullet and starting from the beginning again. You've undoubtedly learned a lot more about writing and explored your own personal style more since you last worked on this project. Starting from the beginning could bring some new perspective and depth to the material. And, since the beginning is usually more exciting than the middle, it might provide you with a little more inspiration or spark to motivate working on the project.

What I would recommend doing (and it sounds like you have this in mind to some extent) is just starting over with the same basic story, but a new angle. Tell the story from the perspective of a different character, or go for cheesy/dramatic instead of literary, or imitate the style of an author you admire (or maybe even one you dislike) to force yourself into a different view on the material. Glance at the old story from time to time, but don't copy and paste.
This will give you lots of new ideas and stuff. Maybe you'll use this take, maybe you won't. Another important thing to remember... I don't want to presume, but if you plan to publish this, you'll probably edit it a few times. (I have seven different distinct drafts of an attempted novella sitting on my computer now... and uh... it still sucks.) It's a bummer to think about it now, but a few drafts are probably going to be scrapped anyway, so you'll probably be better off in the long run if you can diminish your attachment to the first take.

Hope this helps. Good luck on your project!!
posted by crackingdes at 1:36 PM on January 22, 2007

If you're looking for a way to get yourself interested in the project again, introduce a new element. This can be a new major character, a change of venue or scene, a new situation for existing characters, an alternate narrator or contrast point of view, etc. Whether such an element makes it to the final cut, or not is immaterial, if it gets you writing again.
posted by paulsc at 2:04 PM on January 22, 2007

Just write. Do you know what happens next? Then go to it.
You can always come back to the first third. You were going to have to revise it anyway, right?

I agree. Don't think of it as waste, think of it as part of the process. No one has ever written a (good) 200 page novel by writing exactly 200 pages and no more. I don't have any stats, but I would say most writers end up writing at least two or three pages for every one that ends up in the finished product.

For me, the important thing is just to get to the end of a draft, to get the feeling the project is moving forward. Getting to the end is also a learning process, as far as finding out where you want the story to lead and what tone you want it to take. Then you can revise based on that.

if you start from scratch now, you may miss out on valuable information that will help you revise the first third.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:04 PM on January 22, 2007

Good stuff so far. Thanks!

Just to be clear, I am prepared to do a lot of rewriting (the extra pass on my first one that I mentioned above was draft six). But it's still important to get the first draft as right as possible, in my mind. And even more important to get myself writing again, which I'm not doing now (but boy, I'm getting a lot of Metafilter reading done today).
posted by Bookhouse at 2:16 PM on January 22, 2007

the first third is very different from how I think the rest of it will play out.

I would start again from scratch. It seems more natural to make your changes at the beginning of the story now and see how things fall out as a consequence of that than to write the latter two thirds with the idea that you'll retroactively go back and alter the beginning to make things fit.
posted by juv3nal at 2:25 PM on January 22, 2007

I'd suggest starting from scratch, but I probably wouldn't do it myself. Because... ug. I've been there.

Try doing a find/replace for one of your character's names (or all of them, for that matter). I've done it before and it makes it feel like I'm reading/writing a completely new, fresh book.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:47 PM on January 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

"But it's still important to get the first draft as right as possible, in my mind."

That, in my opinion, is exactly the wrong attitude. I'm pubbed and contracted for at least two books a year and usually under a couple of simultaneous deadlines, so if anyone should be trying to "get it right the first time" you would think it would be me.

The thing is, that unless you have lots of experience, you probably won't. And even then, we all have bad days/weeks where it's all just crap.

Don't be so precious with your words. Weak plotting or stilted writing will just cost you in the end. Read THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman.

If it makes you feel better, cut it and save it (you might someday want to put "deleted scenes" of your bestsellers on your website).

If you like some of what you wrote, try this. Print out hard copy, go to the beach/coffeeshop/whatever, and use a highlighter to mark the passages you really like. Don't think about what to cut--think about what to KEEP. There is no commitment or loss, since your stuff is safe at home.

You'll be surprised how much easier that is.
posted by writergurl at 3:27 PM on January 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

This is one of those writing questions that I think are ultimately unanswerable by others. We can suggest what would work for us (I'd start where it left off and then get the voice issues right in the second pass, unless the changes I expected involved plot, in which i would start over at the beginning, probably excessively scavenging from the existing work), but it might not be what would work for you. Try some different approaches to see what feels right.

Try doing a find/replace for one of your character's names (or all of them, for that matter). I've done it before and it makes it feel like I'm reading/writing a completely new, fresh book.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:47 PM EST on January 22

And if one of your characters is named Magi, make sure you don't replace imagination with iJennynation, like I did throughout my first novel.
posted by joannemerriam at 3:33 PM on January 22, 2007

All good advice from other MeFi-ites. My own 2c:

* Try and find another piece of art that addresses or touches on the key thing (theme/topic/feeling) you're really writing about: a song, piece of music, or image that captures the tone, atmosphere, time, place that features in your writing. Immerse yourself in it - especially at the start of a project, when my own fictional world is newborn and not definite, I find this approach helps me take my first few steps.

* Related to my first point: research. Read up about your topics; anecdotes about your topic will often spark nice little chain reactions of inspiration.

* Think about whether you've started in the right place, or are telling the story through the right character. I remember seeing Robert Harris (Amazon) give a talk about writing his novel Pompeii. He described something similar to your problem - and realised he had started too late in the story, so all his characters were doing lots of explaining to the reader (I hate X because 3 months ago X did this...). So he solved it by starting earlier, and being more direct about the story he was telling.

I'd definitely recommend Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller (Amazon) for practical advice about the nuts n bolts of telling stories.
posted by Sifter at 3:34 PM on January 22, 2007

That, in my opinion, is exactly the wrong attitude.
posted by writergurl at 6:27 PM EST on January 22

And yet it's what writers like David Adams Richards* and Alistair MacLeod do**.

OP, don't let anybody tell you that your writing process is wrong. If it works for you, stick with it. There's no one right way to write a book.

*edits what he wrote the day before and then writes for awhile, and when he finishes the book everything's been edited that once - he and his editor do a second pass and then it's published and wins a Governor's General's Award.
**finds it difficult to move on to the next sentence until he's perfected the current sentence. Pro: wins Dublin Impac Award. Con: takes 13 years to write a book.

posted by joannemerriam at 3:39 PM on January 22, 2007

I am going through this now, sorta - first draft was a NaNoWriMo winner, so it's a jumbled mess of plot. On the other hand, it's 50,000 words of characters and situation that I really like.

So I've started from scratch, but any chance that I have to put something from the first draft in, I take.
posted by Lucinda at 3:52 PM on January 22, 2007

I was once stuck badly on a novel and couldn't make it go or make sense of it, and a writer I know told me to change the sex of the lead character. It was amazing how that change jump-started everything. It may well not apply to your situation, but perhaps it might.

The guy who wrote The Secret of Santa Vittoria was totally stuck, and then he wrote the entire novel in very simple language, as if for a child. That loosened him up so the next draft worked.
posted by LeisureGuy at 4:02 PM on January 22, 2007

Start over with a white page. Don't edit, just start over writing it again.

Then start over again.

You'll know when you find the right one.
posted by rokusan at 4:05 PM on January 22, 2007

Write the last chapter, then find out how you got there and write that.
posted by biscotti at 4:14 PM on January 22, 2007

I'd say pick up where you left off, but feel free to ignore everything that's gone before, and just go until you get to the end. Then go back and re-write the beginning. The beginning -should- be the most gripping part of the book; that's what hooks your reader. So you'd probably have had to rewrite it numerous times anyway, to get it really good. You won't be throwing the first third away; consider it as just a really rough draft, and you were going to have to improve it -anyway-. Also, in rewriting the beginning, you'll be able to drop foreshadowing and other clever hints in, now that you know how the entire story plays out.
posted by Rubber Soul at 4:46 PM on January 22, 2007

You say you love the idea and the characters, so how about figuring out why. Do you picture the characters doing something interesting? Saying something clever?
My own writing is rarely linear. I come up with scene ideas or dialogue at odd times throughout my day, and just write them down. So if you think up something good, whether it will ultimately be at the beginning, middle, or end of your story, just sit down and write it. Eventually you'll have a bunch of bits you like and you can start piecing them together.
This is one way to get yourself writing again because it's not a major 100k word commitment. It's just a scene or a bit of dialogue at a time. I've done this with several of my manuscripts and it's worked well.
Good luck!
posted by Abraxas5 at 5:38 PM on January 22, 2007

OK, so I'm pretty much in the same situation... I have a first novel that's got three drafts done, and a draft and a half of a second...which is actually a prequel to the first. I love my characters, and the story is fine. I'm just stuck.

What I'm going to do is write scenes. I have lots of scenes in mind for the "real" second draft, including a whole new beginning, just no connector materal I feel excited about. So it will be a lot like starting over.

Please, get rid of the idea of creating as good a first draft as you can. Just write. Hemingway couldn't write good first drafts. Anne Lamott says don't even bother trying. Tell the editor in your head to take a flying leap. Have fun.
posted by lhauser at 9:21 PM on January 22, 2007

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