Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Pernicious Momentum of First Ideas

Ever since I put the final period at the end of the last sentence of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, I had always imagined the beginning of #2 starting a very certain particular way. It was unexpected! Shocking! A little bit unsettling!

But after I submitted a partial to my editor, she came back and said (very politely): the opening didn't work. My agent (very politely) agreed.

GAH!

But... but... I wanted to sputter, this is how I always imagined it. It's part of the fabric of the novel. How can I write this novel if this isn't the beginning?

Then I took a step back and realized something: they were totally right. It didn't work! Not even a little!

Thankfully, trained publishing professionals saved me from one of the deadliest foes of the writer: the first idea.

First ideas are much like first loves. You fall so hard for someone, they are your everything, you love them to the point of rendering you completely bonkers. Then there's a calamitous breakup, and you think the world is quite possibly going to explode. Then some time passes and you realize that person was perhaps quite nice but you know what they kind of smelled funny and maybe I should have wondered about that throwing star collection before I found one stuck ominously in the dashboard of my car.

Um. Where was I? Oh yes. First ideas.

The point is this: first ideas have a tendency to become intertwined with your conception of the entire novel. You start to think: this is how this character is. This is how this world is. This is how this novel is. If it doesn't work, well I guess the whole thing isn't going to work.

But who owns those characters? Who owns that world? You do! You're the writer. You can change it to make it work. You really can. You own your character and plot and setting.

Every book on writing I have ever read talks about how dangerous your first ideas are, and it's positively absolutely true. Some say you have to think of ten bad ideas to find every good one, some say you should discard five GOOD ideas for every one you keep, Stephen King advocates darling killing, etc. etc. The one thing all this advice has in common is that no idea should be sacred. If it doesn't work it doesn't work.

It's so important to move past those first ideas and to avoid making them too intertwined with how you envision the entire project. Obviously you can't change a novel beyond a point where it stops being the story you want to tell, but short of that, everything is changeable.

Take a throwing star to that first idea. Your second or tenth or hundredth idea is bound to be better.






113 comments:

lexcade said...

i restarted the first scene of my novel probably 25-30 times. the general premise is the same, but reactions are different, dialog is different, the general tone is different. even though she's still trapped, it's not the way i envisioned it. the entire novel's not the way i originally envisioned it, and it's a much better product.

Katie Alender said...

I just ditched 10,000 words, which is scary on a deadline. But the story must take priority!

Anonymous said...

Whoa.
What's a throwing star?

(and, um, if they're cool, where can I find me some?)

(and, um, if they're ominous, is there like a spray to keep them away?)

Anonymous said...

Oh crap! I knew it!!!

Pernicious. Momentum. Damn. Busted.

abc said...

so you dated a Ninja?

Another good reminder, Nathan. You have so many of these! If I ever get published I'll have to thank you in the acknowledgements b/c you are that writing coach to so many of us. You are my Coach Taylor. Thanks, Coach.

Matthew Rush said...

It's very hard to come to terms with ... but eventually acceptance of the necessary will be attainable, depending on how badly you want to become published that is.

Nina said...

What about those first ideas which you end up marrying? Or in other words: Are the perfect ones? How do you know (without someone having to tell you), that you haven't fallen blindly in love and that you need to keep it?

I get what you are saying, I really do. But after going for 6 weeks and not knowing how this one part in my book is going to be, that lightbulb just goes "pling", and it's love at first sight. Loving someone, or something, is better than loving nothing, and then at least you HAVE an idea.

Felicity said...

I was watching BLEAK HOUSE this weekend, and it became so clear to me that Dickens was a master at creating characters - memorable, unique characters. But it also seems that he created his characters in order to drive and, eventually, resolve his plots and conflicts. Do you think he created the characters to drive his story instead of creating his story as a platform for his characters? Or does it work effectively both ways?

I don't know if that makes sense now, but I think it has to do with what you are saying about ownership.

Anonymous said...

Last night, a writer in our group shared an opening rewrite that just died where it stood.
It got one hundred percent rejection from the group. All of us referred her back to her inspirational earlier attempt.
One of the most interesting comments of the night was about the "fire" in the writing.
The earlier attempt had fire in it. The current one had a feeling of trudging.
An editor-for-hire had directed the new beginning. Not for me to question, but to the credit of the integrity of the group, we call it like we see it -sandwich style, like you Nathan, but like we see it.

What came out was the question: Are you writing what you WANT to write?

I think that's just such an excellent place to be: where you WANT to be writing. The beginning, middle, end can all find its organization, but without the FIRE of the writer, it's dull.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

So very true. I usually only think I know what the story's about when I write that cool opener (at least I think it's cool at the time). Only later do I discover the story's true purpose.

Josh said...

In my most recent novel, I threw away large portions of the first chapter to rework them. I had to chop a couple scenes later that I liked, but fell flat and didn't work with the overall narrative.

And then I scaled back a favorite character, rewrote the climax once, and rewrote the ending twice.

Most of the story is still the same, but enough has changed that it's not what I originally. And I think it's a better tale for it.

More to Nina's point, I think the idea is not to become tied to anything. After we take a critical eye to our work (or if an editor or agent does) we need to be willing to accept the fact that something doesn't work. If an idea lasts several edits and cuts, it's probably a keeper.

Nathan Bransford said...

nina-

I think it's the hardest part of being a writer - trying to decide which are the good parts. Some first ideas really are great! The hard thing is that I think the bad ideas are especially hard to spot once they've achieved a certain momentum.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a great reminder. Sometimes it takes me time to see my way around the story and envision how I can throw out that first great idea and rewrite it so it is so much better, though. Even when someone says, "you know this part just isn't working," it sometimes takes me months before I have that "eureka" moment when I know exactly what to do about it.

I worry that "months" is too long.

Stephen Prosapio said...

So very true! Great article. Every good piece of work I've produced started with a great idea... that I eventually either threw away or modified.

Key thing is not getting bogged down on the opening scene/s since they'll probably get thrown out in the revisions anyway... just keep going with the story and see what unfolds through the creative process.

Melody said...

Good advice, Nathan, thanks!

Stephen Prosapio said...

Oh. And with my WiP, I got 20k words into it and realized I had a kindly fatherly figure helping my characters along. He was part of that first idea but his presence was making it wayyyy too easy on my MC. I'm turning him into a creepy lonely guy with a lesser part and the opening is now cooking with gas.

Perle said...

Had a friend tell me she couldn't submit just the agent's requested 3 chapters, because the novel didn't really get cranked up til later....

I suggested, perhaps the novel should start at chapter 4 - She eventually self-published. oh well.

K.L. Brady said...

I'd have to agree. Fortunately I belong to a critique group where we review chapter by chapter. I got to chapter 6 on it and told my group that I just wasn't feeling it and I need to go back to the drawing board. One of the girls says, "But we were just getting to the good part!" And I said, "Exactly!" I shouldn't be six chapters in and just getting to the good part. Now the good part starts in Chapter 1. It wasn't bad before, but it wasn't good either. My second swing is much closer to the ball. :)

St

beth said...

I really like this post. That was pur very well.

Krista V. said...

Great advice.

(Except I ended up marrying my first love/kiss. Wonder what that means for my writing career...)

Mark Terry said...

David Morrell once wrote about doing "test borings," (I think he got the concept from a mentor, Philip Klass). His mentor was trying out some ideas and David asked him what he was doing and he said, "test borings" and Morrell said something along the lines of, "Oh, like doing drilling tests to see if there's oil" and Klass looked at him and said, "No, I see if the ideas are boring."

I sometimes do that. I'll give an idea some words, I'll write 5 or 10 or 20 pages just to see if they work. Just to see if they catch on with ME. A lot of time they don't, for one reason or another. Structural issues, character issues, or it-may-be-a-great-idea-but-that-doesn't-mean-it's-a-great-idea-for-me.

Stephanie McGee said...

Between your post, Nathan, and the comments there is a lot here to ponder. I'm currently letting my manuscript stew and I know that when I get back to it, there are going to be several of my brilliant first ideas that are going to shine not so brilliantly.

Thanks for helping newbies like me navigate around the potholes and pitfalls of writing.

DG said...

Great advice Nathan

I think it's important to keep in mind that the opening of a novel (one that actually works) might get thrown out simply because the writer is tired of it. By the time a writer reaches the last sentence of a novel, the opening has been re-read several thousand times.

One must be careful not to throw out what feels tired when in fact it works.

Nicole MacDonald said...

Yes the first draft is sooo personal but the re-write always makes you feel so good!! Why?
1. it makes the book better
2. you can do it!!

realising I could re-write and re-write WELL was a biggee for me :)

http://damselinadirtydress.blogspot.com

Kelly Wittmann said...

Wow, is this a timely post for me, Nathan. My agent just read the first five chapters of a YA novel I'm writing, and said, "It doesn't work in that time period. Change it to the present." Well, I didn't want to, but I am. And I have a feeling that, in the end, I'll be glad I did.

D.G. Hudson said...

I've had to rearrange chapters, and rethink characters when first ideas became stalled. I do keep the best deleted material in a separate folder for that novel. (If there is something of value in it -- an idea, an event in that character's past, etc) I can always delete it later.

Guess I kill my darlings slowly.

The time taken between putting down a piece of writing and then looking at it in a few weeks tends to clarify my writing sight.

Mira said...

This is a great topic. First ideas are just the starting place. And I have the same experience as Susan Quinn. My stories often turn out to be completely different than I imagined them.

But......Nathan are you sure? I know that you said you eventually agreed with your editor/agent, and I'm sure they are brilliant, but I think writers need to change things very carefully. And slowly. It's hard to see our own writing clearly, but on the other hand, it's too easy to change things to other people's visions. I mean, writer to writer here, Nathan, you get to be the final authority, signed contracts be damned.

But that's just my opinion. I know you'll do what feels best for you, so I'll support you in that.

Well, actually....that's not how I REALLY feel. What I REALLY feel is I want you to send me the partial so I can make sure I agree with their advice to you, but I'm not sure you're going to be willing to do that, so I'm settling for this.

Mira said...

Oh. And congrats on that final period! That must have felt wonderful.

Josin L. McQuein said...

First ideas are where it starts, even if they aren't the final beginning of the story. It's hard to wrap your mind around that sometimes because if those were the first words to flow, then logically, they must be the start of the story.

Unfortunately, writing isn't logical (which is why there are very few Vulcans out there penning Urban Fantasy). The writer knows more of the story than the reader, and while the writer may think chapter one is chapter one, the reader may realize that chapter five is in fact chapter one, and highly miffed that its place has been usurped.

And you DO NOT want to get in the middle of a chapter war. They start slinging fonts at each other, then the ink toner comes out, and before you know it, half your MS is is Comic Sans Serif, and the rest is written in occasionally inverted Pig Latin.

JohnO said...

This is a fine column, Nathan. Now tell us -- which ideas did you reject before deciding to write on this topic?

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

You gotta trust the people you're working with, and they were right.

JohnO-

I would reveal more speficics but it would be spoileriffic.

Deb said...

Yikes, it certainly is a timely post. I've been pondering the beginning of my ms all week wondering if I should start somewhere else. I need fresh eyes. How exactly do you find a good editor? I had a coach/editor but they agreed with everything I did and I feel I missed the opportunity to improve through constructive criticism.

Nina said...

Nathan said: "The hard thing is that I think the bad ideas are especially hard to spot once they've achieved a certain momentum."

Right on Nathan. It's like having that great idea; "Today I'm going to sky dive" (I really need to write this). You get on to the plane, you think "this is great" (This book will be a best seller). Then you hear "10 000 feet" and you start to have second doubts (maybe some editing here will do the trick). The top must be that second when you jump off the plane (you send in the manuscript), but two and a half seconds later you really need to consider whether that parachute will save you or not... (oh shit, did I seriously write that?!)

swampfox said...

It's like baseball, when you hit a long ball. You think it's a home run. But next thing you know the outfielder caught it. You're out. And so is that opening that didn't work.

Jessica Lee said...

That's exactly how my first novel is going...

Melissa Gill said...

I just unearthed an old MS in the hopes that I could put all my new found knowledge into a revision that will sell. Ha, no ha ha ha ha. It's total junk. So bye bye to that, I may use some of the ideas, but it really needs a total rewrite.

Jabez said...

My bad ideas have tractor beams on all the remainder of my work. And they're running cloaking devices.

Ann M said...

It is so nice to learn I'm not the only one who suffers from this condition!

I do think it's very easy to confuse the "first idea" with the "plot" or "concept" of a book. Sometimes, I suppose, they are synonymous, but other times they really aren't.

I realized a few years ago (during painful edits of a book) that I had to be okay with sacrificing certain aspects of my book for the betterment of the whole story. And, for the most part, after I made the edits I was happier with the book anyway. It's realizing the book isn't always about that one moment.

Like you said, sometimes it takes someone else to recognize what works and what doesn't, and even though my initial reaction is usually the "but... but..." after a while (if I'm honest with myself) I realize they were right.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Nathan, you are remarkably human. Sometimes I read a post you write and you just astound me. I tend to think of literary agents as...like...impersonal gatekeepers. I imagine them dividing manuscripts into arbitrary unread piles - I love this...I love this not...
You just seem so, oh, I don't know, earthy.

Marilyn Peake said...

Congratulations on starting the second JACOB WONDERBAR book, and for having an agent and editor you trust. That is awesome.

Amanda said...

Guilty as charged. I never let go if ideas without them having claw marks all over them.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Another anonymous poster pointed out that in his writing group, someone submitted a rewritten opening that an editor asked for. While probably more-technically polished than the old one, the new one "lacked fire".

Nathan, are you so sure that you didn't discard an opening that had that "fire"??

Mira said...

My last post didn't make any sense! Ha.

Nathan,

I'm glad you're working with good folk. :)

Very much looking forward to the first Jacob.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

The new direction is way way better. The way I see it: it's the editor's job to point out what's not working, the writer's job to make sure the new way has fire.

T. Anne said...

When I lay down at night and say my prayers the first thing I ask is, please don't let them change my opening, anything but my opening...

Ok, not every night, just on occasion.

*It is SO important for us not to let an idea rule us. It can lead to staggeringly bad places if they do. You worded it so well in your post. We are in charge of the world we create. Now if only I can get my characters to understand this.

Regan Leigh said...

This is a perfectly timed post for me. :)

But HOW do you get back to that starting place and make yourself discard the initial idea? That is something I'm still struggling with. Maybe it just takes time away...cause I can't kill my initial idea just yet. My brain won't consider other options right now.

Kristy said...

I get what you're saying, but a problem I have is that I run through too many ideas in my head unable to commit to one!!!

Sierra McConnell said...

It's why I've told myself that I can change pretty much anything in the novel so long as the basic idea stays. I can move this. Change that. Rewrite a little here and there.

Because I already wrote and changed and cut and pasted and snipped and broke and tore with the betas over and over again. The world, right now, is maleable. It's able to be squished. Formed. Molded. And I have those other copies. To me, those things DID happen. I can go back and laugh and cry at them.

This isn't about those things. This is about getting published. Getting my characters and their ideas out there.

Even if it doesn't start with the flower. But the sandworm.

terryd said...

Well said, Nathan, and perfect timing. I'm working on the sequel to my first book, and learning to give love only where it's due.

gsfields said...

My brother read my first draft of my first chapter and replied with two words...Verbal Masterbation. (Brothers can be brutally and often painfully honest)

He was right and after a dozen rewrites and multiple revisions, he and my other dedicated readers say the result is head and shoulders above the first draft.

LTM said...

I see you've been chatting w/my husband who said "your first novel probably won't be The One." Naturally, I went away pouty. But it's so true. Writing is a process of learning~

Lorenda said...

I remember being surprised when Stephenie Meyer said she got her book idea from a dream. Cause sure, I've had ideas come out of nowhere, but I've never had good ones from dreams!

Jeff said...

Hello Nathan,

Yes, I totally agree. I've been working on my novel for a long time and I finally come to realize some of those first ideas have now become plot holes and loose ends that really need to be addressed. And of course when I'm sitting down to really hash out the work that will be done, you post something like this, confirming my doubts.

Bravo!

mulligangirl said...

So true. I keep a 'for possible inclusion later' file for just this purpose. That way I can remove passages, pages, sometimes whole chapters less painfully--because it feels like they are right there if I want them back. Inevitably, I never do. Sometimes you just need space in a relationship. :-)

Kristin Laughtin said...

Yes, yes, yes. I just started work on a new manuscript last week, and aside from the first few lines, the opening was not what I had imagined it. I stared at the screen for a few minutes before shrugging and saying, "Ehh, it works better this way." I may change it some more. And already my outline is changing as I think of new ideas to explore.

You can't get too attached. You've got to be willing to let some things go if it works better for the story.

ryan field said...

I hope you worked that unexpected shocking part somewhere else in the book. Now I'm curious :)

But I agree about the first ideas. Doesn't usually work out.

Magdalena Munro said...

I appreciated the snowball photograph more than your post. Sorry...I'm baking in 100 heat in the nasty San Fernando Valley.

Thank you for this post. I am uber-ultra guilty of being overly connected to characters/plot because they almost always have happened in some shape or form in mine or someone's life; trashing them feels like blasphemy to me and I continuously struggle with being too cemented to my ideas.

pookha said...

But sometimes it's even worse to second-guess yourself.

M.A.Leslie said...

Nathan,

I agree that an original idea that isn't working needs to be rewritten but at what point do we take control or lose control of our stories. I have issues with a quite a few of my ideas and keep rewriting the story to fit into what I think a mainstream novel should be, but at what point am I going from being a high school garage band to a hand picked 90's boy band with my writing. I want to be published and I would like to take this so called hobby to the next level but I would also like to be the one that dictates what I write. Am I just being amateurish in my thinking or is this really not that big of a deal?

Thank you for your advice as always

M.A. Leslie

Gale Martin said...

Die, monster, die--pernicious first idea for a novel opening (with apologies to The Magic Flute). I just shucked my opening to my lastest novel--came to me in a flash. Brand new opening. Much stronger. It's a reckoning you can live with. Thanks for posting.

Kate said...

Oh, this is so true. I'm having a really hard time letting go of mine--a manuscript that's in its millionth draft. But I just don't think it's ever going to work. Ever. It's sad, but true. One day I'll accept it.

Les Edgerton said...

Sometimes the problem is as identified by Blake Snyder--the story idea is one of those "the smell of the rain on the road at dawn." I have a blog post on this subject if interested, at http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/05/smell-of-rain-on-road-at-dawn.html

The concept applies to a lot of novel and story ideas...

Blue skies,
Les

Rowenna said...

I think my true first ideas are fine...they're vague. Maleable. It's the middling ideas...the ones that pop up in the middle of brainstorming, or while drafting, or as solutions to revision problems...those are dangerous. Especially when I think of them while on the treadmill--they seem brilliant at the time, but are often a result of mild dehydration.

Miss Aspirant said...

Phew! I've written about a half-dozen openings to my novel, renamed it several times and revised the genre so this makes me happy.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing, I was comparing relationships with writing just last night. So, what if you married the one who smells funny?

Tahlia said...

I tend to change the ending, not so much the end of the ending, but how I get to the ending. How it happens changes as I write, the characters develop, the plot thickens etc.

Letting go of fixed ideas allows my charcaters to do unexpected things too. That allows the plot to go places that surprise me and surprise the readers too, So you're absoutley right. First ideas are probably not the best - I think of them as jumping off points.

Willow Retreat said...

Love that quote about "you have to murder your darlings" ... sometimes attributed to William Faulker, or Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or Colette, or Nabokov, or ... ?? Though it's quoted by Stephen King in his book "On Writing", he did not come up with it himself.

Nathan, your blog is, as always, spot on. "Begin in the middle" has always been good advice ... at least for modern novels. In other words, begin while the hurricane is raging around your hero, not while he's staring out at calm seas waiting for it to hit.

Claire Dawn said...

Sometimes I feel I have the reverse of everyone else's writing problems. I, for example, am always convinced the first idea sucks. lol.

StrugglingToMakeIt said...

So true. I fell in love with the first two sentences of my WIP (that is currently on an editing break). I had those sentences written long before I even started writing my first draft. I was determined that they were fantastic and that they had to stay in the novel. They blinded me to the complete uselessness of my first chapter. Then, an agent at a workshop opened my eyes by suggesting that the novel had a false beginning.

Once I finally got up the nerve to dump that first chapter, I had a much stronger beginning.

Colleen said...

So true about marrying the First Idea. have you read Richard Hugo's book The Triggering Town? A number of essays on craft, but they all center around this idea.

LaylaF said...

Very cool post. Thanks for sharing. It really is helpful to hear your perspective on this topic as you are both an author and an agent. I too have learned that it's important to be open and flexible in this creative process.

Thanks again!

Art Rosch said...

Nathan, Your entries will some day make a fine book on writing. I have what I call "The Magic Curtain", the moment of insight when what I thought was good turns out to be not so good.
How many thousand "magic curtains" must rise before a work is mature?
I don't have an editor, unfortunately, so all I have is the Magic Curtain. Writing is a lot like trying to eat soup on a trampoline.

Art

Dominique said...

So true. I rewrote the last 55% of my second book, because the first idea of how it ought to play out was just that bad. The second idea was much, much better. Yeah, the first idea isn't always gold.

Dawn Simon said...

I recently went back to the outline of my current WIP when I realized the climax I was about to write wasn't big enough. After lots of brainstorming, I saw I had to return to the beginning and reshape the book. It's so easy for us to get caught up in the darlings that will die, fear the amount of work involved, and feel we're married to our earlier ideas. Once we get past that, there's a huge sense of freedom that comes with opening ourselves up to changes--though the freedom is easier to appreciate, in my opinion, after we've found the better ideas.

Best of luck on your next idea. And the one after that. ;)

Tess Cox said...

Nathan, as a beginner I've been struggling with many of these issues. I love reading this blog because it is so incredibly helpful! Thank you!
Tess

wendy said...

I don't know if I'm kidding myself, but I always thought my first ideas were the best ones. It was only when I kept fine-tuning that the gleam seem to fade out of them and they become tired. Sometimes it seems that it's the way I try to execute that first idea that is its undoing. first ideas are usually more original and therefore have to be handled in a way that's not the norm. But when you take an unusual shape and try to hammer it into the same ol', same ol' mould that's when it doesn't work, I think.

JDuncan said...

Well Nathan, this certainly fits well with what I just went through with you and the opening to Deadworld 2 (damn title, where are you hiding?). I was enamored with a certain character's state of mind in the beginning, which was so over the top with respect to what was going on that it felt out of character. Thanks to Nathan's editorial input, said character was toned down a wee bit and the opening chapters work much better.

I will certainly admit that it's difficult to see beyond aspects of your story that you feel give it identity, fire, or what have you. I am not good at this. Some people are good at pulling apart their own writing, stepping back and realizing something doesn't work. I am not one of those people. Thankfully, I have Nathan on my side to provide some objective, experienced eyes. Without them, my stories would not be nearly as good.

This is yet another reason why having an agent is worth every penny of 15%. At least if they are of the editorial sort.

Cathi said...

The delete key and back button are my best friends...no chance of an original idea escaping them here!

Pamala Knight said...

I wrote 2345 words today and deleted them all because they were all wrong. Someone suggested that I put it in a separate file to revisit later but I disagreed and just scrapped them.

Your post is timely and spot on. Sometimes it's hard to see that you might have a BETTER idea lurking around in the murky recesses of your mind.

Pamala Owldreamer said...

Gaak. I wrote the first line with a vision of where I wanted my MS to go. I was working on my second novel and rewriting the first for about the tenth time when I stopped writing.After weeks of rewriting I put the MS away.Went back and realized the characters were too nice,too perfect and the idea for the story wasn't working. I shoved the project in a folder and left it there.An idea slowly formed,the last of many and I began to rewrite.Is the story great? Not yet,but it is definitely much better and very different than my first idea. interesting,likeable,and I cared about them

Hilary said...

I ended up rewriting my entire book for this very reason. Wrote it, sat on it for a year and a half, read it again, said "Balls," cut half of it out and reconstructed it line by line.
I was too attached to the writing and the process of the first draft and I had to become unattached before I could write something that worked.

Munk said...

I hate this blog. In a good way.

charlotteotter said...

Tis true. My six draft in no way resembles the first draft. In No Way. The ideas are threaded through, but they are vaporous wraiths of the original idea.

Nik said...

Yet another good bumper post. Beginnings are important, obviously. Sometimes they should be revisited after the book is finished, not during its writing. They might work then, might not. The first idea - depends on its shape; maybe it needs to gestate - for years rather than months. Some of mine have taken over 20 years! One opening I liked and kept for a number of years was 'He was dressed entirely in black. Black because he was in mourning. Mourning the men he had killed.' It ended up being the second sentence of my first published book.

Jonathan_Priest said...

Great post, it's inspiring to hear you share your pain and your bravado. I find the concept of the narrative landscape helpful, where the landscape represents the premise, the world and the host of characters. The finished story is one of many potential routes through that landscape. By definition, the reader will not not see most of it or meet all the characters, but everything you write helps to enrich the landscape somehow, which is the soil from which ideas grow.

Aven said...

I just cut my first three or four chapters, about 12K words-ouch. It really will be a better place to start though. There was a lot of nothing going on between the first three pages and where I've chosen to start now.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Yup, the hardest thing was cutting out 14,000 words from my novel knowing I have a deadline looming and expectations and ... oh dear. But, it doesn't hurt like it used to - first novels it seems we "can't" cut - it hurts to cut, but now, slice slice slice with a cold determined hardened heart . . . kill those little bastard darlings.

RosieC said...

With all the advice you've given us over time, it's nice to hear you're human, too :) Sometimes it's hard to see the novel for the scenes, and you love each of those scenes so much that you couldn't possibly cut them down for firewood, even if you regrow a tree in its place.

Thanks! :)

M Clement Hall said...

You write (type) your idea into the "ideas file". You look at all the other ideas that seemed great at the time but don't now. You put it away until you're struck with the next great idea. Meanwhile you get on with your day job and the umpteenth revision of your completed work(s). Eventually revisiting a "great idea" will convince you perhaps it was. Then you have to set about convincing the rest of the literary chain before it hits the world.

Kristan said...

What I think is so interesting -- and reassuring!! -- is that even you, an agent yourself, fell into this trap.

Thanks for sharing, and good luck with reworking the opening!

jean said...

It's hard, but the whole story takes precedence over the (sometimes great) parts. I've been finding that revision requires a strong delete-key finger. The good news is this always always always improves the story. (I thought about deleting a couple of those always, but sometimes you just have to hear things repeated a few times before they sink in--my experience, at least..)

Hilary said...

When I first began to write, I had absolutely no idea of the process. I believed the book would stay more or less intact, with corrections for grammar or syntax or spelling or rhythm, but not for the story itself. As I went on, I began to realize the first draft - and my original ideas - are more like a lump of clay for a sculptor. Things are added and taken away constantly, until at last, a figure begins to emerge. The process is so much more malleable than I'd imagined. And that's what makes it such fun.

Chase said...

Nathan,

Thanks for this advice. It came at a really good time for me. Something good will happen to you today.

-Chase

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I truly hope everyone was right about your #2 and changing your first idea.

I'm not always so sure first ideas are wrong. First impressions are usually correct; first instincts usually work out best.

I once had a book released where this happened. I submitted the contracted book to the publisher with my first ideas in tact, and the publisher and editor thought it needed to be changed. I agreed with them, halfheartedly, and made the revisions, going against all my instincts. However, when it came time for the release and reviewers started reviewing, I soon found out my first idea was right and the publisher and editor were wrong. And I took the heat for it all. The publisher and editor disappeared, conveniently, and I'm still making excuses for this book and the changes they made to this day.

I learned a good lesson. And if I truly believe my first idea was right, I fight them until the end.

I would imagine it's hard to switch gears from agent to author. You have to play nice as an agent, and everyone has to get along. But authors don't have this luxury, because it's their name that's going up on the block and they will be the only ones responsible for the published work in the end. It all falls back on the author's shoulders, and the publisher, editor, and everyone else who offered the advice and changes do fantastic disappearing acts.

Best of luck with your release!!

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, anon. My feeling is that one person can perhaps be wrong about something, but when you're hearing it from people you trust there's something to it. And now I see clearly that they were right and I'm glad I mentioned.

The second challenge is then going and making it better. That's the part that the writer owns. Editors might be really good at spotting problem areas and suggesting some possible directions, but the ultimate solution lies with the author.

In this case: it really really was the right decision. There's not a shred of doubt in my mind.

I'm actually surprised this has been a persistent theme in the comments. Granted, not all feedback is good feedback, but I don't think there's anything sacred about an author's "vision." Really good writers lead themselves astray all the time because they don't listen to feedback and trust themselves more than the people they work with.

Nathan Bransford said...

Whoops, serves me right to leave a comment before coffee. Take 2:

Thanks, anon. My feeling is that one person can perhaps be wrong about something, but when you're hearing it from multiple people you trust there's something to it. And now I see clearly that they were right and I'm glad I listened.

The second challenge is then going and making it better. That's the part that the writer owns. Editors might be really good at spotting problem areas and suggesting some possible directions, but the ultimate solution lies with the author. And the author needs to think and think and work and work until it's right.

In this case: it really really was the right decision. There's not a shred of doubt in my mind.

I'm actually surprised this has been a persistent theme in the comments. Granted, not all feedback is good feedback, but I don't think there's anything sacred about an author's "vision." Really good writers lead themselves astray all the time because they don't listen to feedback and trust themselves more than the people they work with.

Anonymous said...

When a piece of writing is going around our critique group, sometimes there are opposite remarks: one person loves what another would strike; one person is confused by what two others get absolutely; and so on. When this happens, I don't necessarily change the writing, at least not right away, and I think about it. Not everyone in the group will be the eventual reader i am looking for.

However, when everyone says the same thing about a section, I listen hard. If it's good, it's spot on; if it's bad, it needs my attention.I still like to take my time and think about a change though so that it fits me as a writer and my story.

What I find helpful in the feedback when something doesn't work is to hear what the reader wishes was there, the missing ingredient.
If I can hear what's NOT there, that NEEDS to be there, I can go right to work.

Kelly Bryson said...

I've always loved the word pernicious. It reminds me of wermiscious and it's always followed in my mind by knid.

First ideas are so alluring, though. It's hard to let them go when they have all the glory of the "A-ha" moment, the excitement of the blossoming story attached to them.

Mira said...

* I don't think there's anything sacred about an author's "vision." *

I believe that's the crux of the argument here and why it keeps popping up as a theme.

You're putting forth writing as a skill that can be guided into a best product.

But many people see writing as a channel for a creative impulse that has it's own goals and meaning. People who believe this frequently believe there is a 'sacred' quality to their work. Other people can give helpful feedback and guidance, but the vision and the meaning ultimately belongs to the author alone. Unless the author has a co-author, of course.

This is the kind of thing where people are unlikely to convince each other.

It's more a case of respecting that people may see writing differently and have different reasons why they write.

I belong to the second camp, obviously, but that doesn't in any way stop me from being very happy for you that you received terrific guidance on your work!

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

To me that's like an athlete saying that they can get by without coaching. There are athletes who are "uncoachable" because they think they know best, and they never live up to their true potential. You don't need a coach if you want to shoot baskets in the back yard, but if you want to be a professional, you have to allow experts to steer you in the right direction.

Mira said...

Nathan, I think you're absolutely right! Personally, I'd KILL for a good coach/mentor. And I'm not alone. So few of us writing folk have them, which is one of the reasons you are so appreciated, since you are a natural born teacher and share that with everyone here.

But that's a little different than the actual 'vision' for the book. For those of us in the second camp, the vision is a very personal thing. Other people, when they give feedback, are always coming from their own perspective, their own vision. As an author (in the second camp) that has to be weighed and measured against the very personal and 'sacred' vision of the author's creativity.

I hope that made sense. And I always want to hedge everything I say here with "I could be wrong", but that's how I see from the stance of a more personal and creative vision.

Nathan Bransford said...

mira-

Oh, I definitely agree with that. I shouldn't have said there's nothing sacred about an author's vision. It's not quite the right way to say it. I really believe an author should only compromise to a certain point and never beyond what they're comfortable with. I think the author should be telling the story they want to tell and shouldn't compromise the essential nature of what they want to do.

Beyond that I think there should be a lot of flexibility. It's always a tricky balance.

Mira said...

Nathan,

Absolutely. And there's the other side, that an author who writes without listening to any feedback is going to be in deep trouble! So, I think you're right. It's a tricky balance and flexibility is very important!

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Marian Allen said...

So sad, so true. It doesn't help when all your friends who have read your "final" draft have become invested in every word and scene. I have a publisher who is very interested in a manuscript, but she wants major revisions. It won't even be terribly difficult: I see how it should go, but I have to do it swimming upstream against the love of my beta readers. I've compromised by saving a copy that remains untouched while I work on the...well...working copy.

Marian Allen

thunderchikin said...

The beginning of the story and the beginning of the book are two separate things. The first is for the writer, the second for the reader.

Anonymous said...

I'm anon @7:59

"I'm actually surprised this has been a persistent theme in the comments. Granted, not all feedback is good feedback, but I don't think there's anything sacred about an author's "vision." "

That's because we've been reading you for a long time, we are fans, and we trust your vision over someone else's :))

Vandersun said...

I realize that this is probably a stupid question, but how do you determine whether something "works" or doesn't work?

For me, it's not so much cutting the chaff that's the problem. It's more figuring out which parts are neccesary and which parts aren't.

Any advice on this?

J. T. Shea said...

Okay! Whose pernicious first idea was it to push this damn snowball to Alaska?

Erin MacPherson said...

Hi Nathan! I'm so glad I found your blog... so much good stuff here! This is such a great post... I had this idea when I was horrible sick from morning sickness to write a book on morning sickness... well, guess what, great as that book would be, it wasn't marketable and I had plenty of agents tell me so. I looked back at my proposal and saw that it did have some redeemable stuff in it, so I changed the angle to a Christian pregnancy guide (with a chapter on morning sickness) and it sold really quickly.

Darren Negraeff said...

Great post. I've struggled with killing my darlings many times before, and it has killed many a story or article because of it. Of course, it's the same with a business or project - you're extremely unlikely to get it right the first time, or for that matter, the first time you think you got it right. You almost have to assume you are wrong in general, and if you have that mindset, you can make great progress.

Thanks for the post!

M. K. Clarke said...

Late to this dance, but so true!

Crit group member loved a (now deleted) scene in my almost finished first novel, but three others (including an outside source) universally agreed its implausibility was too huge to overcome. I didn't believe them, and went full steam ahead.

The writing was killer and I didn't heed advice. Ten chapters later it was a huge mess. So I took the tiniest gold nuggets from that pile and started over. I wouldn't have a better product today if not for tossing that scene.

And with that, if you don't ditch a scene/chapter/character not working, you're forcing the writing to meld to what isn't working, making it and you appear amateurish. Good point, Nathan, as always!

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