Unraveling the story

This one’s not a how-to; this one’s a request for help. Have you ever put down something you blocked hard on, only to pick it up months or years later, and go “Oh! That’s where it went wrong! …well, and there, too. And I could have done that better. And that’s not quite right… I should explore this bit of worldbuilding, and flesh that out…”

If so, how do you decide when to edit, when to rewrite, and when to rip the characters out and start anew?

See, Tiny Town Texas’s Library has a writing group, and two months ago, I was informed that I could no longer duck out of it, and had to show up with something to crit. As a pantser, I’ve heard a few too many horror stories about feedback completely messing with the work in progress… So I grabbed an old story I’d blocked on hard 14K words in, well over a year ago, and brought in the first chapter of that.

They had some really good feedback, from catching continuity errors (“What happened to his luggage?” “Oops! I’ll write that in!”) to asking questions because I hadn’t explained the character background and expectations clearly. (Done that before. Once upon a time, I asked someone to beta-read a chapter. I had forgotten to note that the viewpoint protagonist was trying very hard to avoid meeting a group’s eyes because they’re vampires, so the beta reader thought he was a cowardly, ineffectual pansy who didn’t want to look his opponents in the eye like a man. Details matter!)

One thing several people asked was, “Where’s his backup? Why didn’t backup show up?”

…well, in real life, backup (and the police) take 12 minutes to an hour to show, so if someone yelps for help, they’re still going to have to fight alone, and it’s going to be over long before anyone else shows up. But in movie-land, that’s not the trope. And I mentioned backup coming and going in passing, but it was an “in the aftermath” sort of reference, unimportant, unemphasized, and apparently easily missed.

But then I got to thinking. What if backup hadn’t come? Why would that be? …and suddenly I have the same major cast and crew, but the plot is completely different. And I’m rolling my eyes at my muse, going, “I’m already working on something! I don’t need to go back to that old thing!” But it’s not listening.

I know I’m not the first person to get ambushed like this. How do you deal with a stubborn, inventive muse stuck on the wrong story? And do I try to salvage the rest of the 10K words of wrong plot, or rewrite from scratch, or…?


  1. > What if backup hadn’t come? Why would that be?

    There’s a movie I’ve used to confound some friends in meatspace. It’s Dolph Lundgren’s “I Come in Peace” from 1990.

    Early in the movie there’s a critical scene; Dolph’s partner is undercover in a warehouse, wired and broadcasting a meeting with some criminals. Things start to go sour. Dolph prepares to go in to assist his partner, then observes a robbery in progress at a convenience store across the street, with the bad guys lining up customers on their knees, execution-style.

    Hit PAUSE. “Your partner or the store? You have five seconds to decide.”

    It’s a decision most people don’t want to make, and one they usually make the wrong choice. And most of them got angry when I pointed that out.

    And it’s a surprisingly good movie that didn’t deserve to fall down the memory hole; worth your time to find and watch if you like oddball science fiction movies.

    1. And the Calico 950 jams just as often in the movie as in real life, but at least in the movie there is a story reason.

      In my headcanon, ‘I come in Peace’ (working title, Dark Angel) and Split Second are in the same universe, but anyway

    2. The store.

      Elf would…well, he wouldn’t kill me, but he’d be upset if we were a For Justice! team and I went and chose him over innocents about to be executed.

      It would be a betrayal of his abilities, and his choices.

      And I’d scream all the way down to doing The Right Thing.

  2. I purely hate rewriting as much as 10K words, though this may be left over from my time in trad publishing when doing that made me think, “Damn, I just wrote 10K words for which I won’t get paid!” Still, my impulse would be to fix whatever can be fixed with a sentence here and there and to plug on with the story. By 20K words I usually have a better feeling for the story… and sometimes those early fixes aren’t necessary after all, or else they have to be totally different from what I was going to do.

  3. Use the anything can happen just so it’s plausible. Random or not so random events intercede. Speaking from experience,there are all kinds of reasons why back up is delayed. The most common is the back up can’t find you because they don’t know the location or going to the wrong location (same street name somewhere else, garbled transmission, you’ve moved and they’re going to last known, etc)

  4. I have “backup incoming, 40 seconds” because its a hundred robot spiders of various sizes, launched out of a railgun five miles away, and it spends most of the trip decelerating. But then the MC has to take the shot anyway, because 40 seconds is a looooong time when you’re fighting an armored zombie. Kaboom! Oh shit, he got up…

    When the book is 10K and the narrative suddenly goes sideways and burns rubber in another direction completely, I roll with it. The characters decide the story, I am in the back seat with a camera and my seat belt buckled up tight. When you are deep in the pants, there’s no end in sight. But they’re smart, they’ll figure it out. (Never write dumb characters. They’ll just die and the story will stop,)

    Is it worth it? Better question for me is, do I have any choice here? ~:D They aren’t going to shut up until I write it down. (Character rolls her eyes: “Dude, there’s no WAY I would do that. Fix it!”)

    “Always remember, it is easier to hear the Voices in your head when you stop yelling at yourself.” The Phantom, 2019.

  5. First key question, how much control do you have over your process? If you have the choice of doing things one way, or snarling up your process, you do things that way. Even if it is nuts, and as a design choice is not economically sound.

    There are almost always more economically sound time investments than creative writing. Stories are completed because of habits that basically make the energy spent compulsive or almost compulsive. To the extent that you can make decisions, make them on the basis of more completed stories.

    I’ve been stuck on plotting my WIP for about a couple of months. In short, I have some things I know I need to do, but do not have specific ideas for how to get my next steps done. So, I’ve more or less been spinning my wheels, and haven’t put in much energy in it. I’ve been putting energy into the early stages of yet another new and likely to be abandoned story, which has a key unsolved problem of lacking a character motivation for the main character, in a story spanning some thirty years or so of his life. I didn’t make any choices about how I was going to spend my time and energy, and drifted into a decision that was objectively wrong.

    I’d suggest finishing what you have in front of you. When you make the time to finish the old story is when you want to make the salvage/remake decisions. Your skills will be improved when you go back to it, and you will be a different person yourself. Finishing your current project first minimizes the rework costs from learning and growing as a person between starting and finishing.

  6. Go with the muse… 🙂 You’re going to end up writing what it dictates anyway… LOL

  7. And do I try to salvage the rest of the 10K words of wrong plot, or rewrite from scratch, or…?

    In my own experience, salvaging is far more time-consuming and energy-consuming than writing fresh words from scratch.

    Therefore, I recommend taking the salvage route only when most of the words and content are right, but the work is missing some important elements. Then it is worth keeping all that good stuff and weaving in the missing threads.

    But if a lot of the existing words and content are wrong, just scrap them altogether. Take the ideas and start fresh.

    My opinion. Because I just finished a revision for a novel that was indeed all good stuff, but missing elements so key that their absence wrecked the story. I don’t regret the revision. It was the right choice, and I’m really pleased with how it came out.

    But, sheesh!

    The revision added 20,000 words. I’m a slow writer, but I can write 20k to 30k fresh words in a month. Because this revision involved the intricate weaving in of new material into old material, it took me 4 months. (Plus a lot of hair tearing.)

    So, don’t spend that kind of time on material that’s largely wrong.

  8. I back up the document and tear it to pieces.

    Also I take notes on what needs to be revised as I discover it.

    1. I back up the document and tear it to pieces.

      Does anyone use version control with their writing?

      Early in my software career, I learned the “don’t change too much at once” lesson. It was at the same time that I learned the “use version control” lesson. I didn’t have an older version to go back to and the new version was hideously broken.

      Backups with dates or version numbers do the same thing, but less elegantly. On the other hand, version control has it’s own issues and overhead.

      1. Yes, I’ve known quite a few people who use version control, from a new file every day, to a new file every chapter, to a new file every draft. (Depends on the person, depends on the story.)

        Also, even people who maintain one working draft and one backup draft tend to have a folder of “deleted scenes and outtakes”, which often ends up recycled elsewhere, whether in the same series or a completely different story.

      2. Version control is an interesting idea. I use GIT every day in my job as a programmer, but never even considered it for use in writing. I’ll have to think about that. 🙂

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