“I only need one gun, but it has to be the right gun.” – Lois Bujold
Very few ideas are perfect on arrival. Few non-writers recognize this, and almost none of them realize that the process of correcting them often begins before a word of a story gets written.
This is part of the unwise veneration of “getting a good idea” as applied to writing. The general notion appears to be that getting ideas is very, very hard (or at least, that getting a good idea is hard). The corollary to this seems to be that “getting an idea” is something that, once it happens, is finished and final; if it is a bad idea, one doesn’t use it, if it is a good idea, one does use it, and there’s nothing in between.
There are writers for whom that is true, but the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of ideas) fall somewhere in that large gap where, supposedly, there is nothing. That is, 99% of stories do not end up looking a lot like the idea that got the writer started writing them. Furthermore, they often start changing almost as soon as the writer has the idea.
Non-writers find this nearly incomprehensible (unless they’ve had a lot of exposure to the odd ways that writers work). Even a lot of other writers find it disconcerting when it’s someone else going through it. Those who aren’t used to it – beginners and writers who normally don’t make changes until much later in their process – can find it downright disturbing when it happens to them.
For those of us who normally work this way, though, reworking the idea is a necessary part of the process. And the reworking can happen on many different levels, depending on the degree of detail and the qualities involved in the original story idea. I have one particular story idea that I’ve tried to write three times; each time, it has morphed so extremely before I even started typing that the idea has remained usefully pristine. I may be able to keep trying to write a story from that particular seed-idea for the remainder of my writing career, without ever getting it down on paper.
Other times, the changes are less dramatic. I mentioned last post that the current project is now expected to open with my heroine visiting the State Fair; what I didn’t say is that I already have several unsatisfactory opening scenes on my hard drive, beginning, variously, with my heroine waking from a nightmare, sitting in her bedroom on a hot August afternoon, walking through a park, and leaving the library. Also one truly unworkable in medias res opening that will probably end up being cannibalized for Chapter 2 or 3.
None of those various openings felt right, and consequently, none have been seen by anyone other than me, but quite often, I find myself talking about plot twists and characters and elements that I want to “try on.” Things that might make it into the final story, but I’m not really sure about. The difficulty arises when one of my beta…listeners gets attached to one of these could-maybe-happens that, in the end, doesn’t make the cut.
Most of my beta-readers and –listeners have been putting up with me for a long time, and know perfectly well that until it’s on paper, it isn’t going to make it into the book for certain. Even so, they can’t really help but make sad faces when something they were particularly fond of doesn’t make it. And I try very hard not to cut stuff that more than one person really, really likes, because if two people like it that much, it will probably appeal to a lot of other folks, and appealing to readers is part of the point.
Sometimes, though, things have to change. What I have is a perfectly serviceable idea – a perfectly good gun – but it isn’t the right one. The idea sounds good, sometimes terrific, and everybody I’ve mentioned it to loves it, but I know in my heart that it just doesn’t fit the book I’m getting started on writing.
The obvious thing to do at this point is to go ahead and come up with something else: a new character, a different plot twist, a change in the magic system or the politics or the setting. Oddly enough, it can be just as hard to resolve to make this kind of change before one has written even a word or two as it is when one has 17 chapters written, 14 of which will have to be scrapped. Because whichever point one is at, making the change is going to require more work, and I, at least, resist the inevitability of “more work” as much and as often as possible.
Painful experience has taught me, however, that forcing a project forward when it doesn’t feel right always results in having to scrap a bunch of chapters later in addition to working out all the stuff that needs to be different. In other words, it’s a lot less work to stop and work out the changes when my backbrain first starts looking at something sideways and frowning, rather than waiting until it starts screaming and jumping up and down and refusing to move a foot farther into the story until things are put right.