This is part of the process, this is part of the process, I remind myself every time I start a new book.
Without fail, I have a false start. I know why I have false starts; I just don’t like that I do. Typically, this happens because I am excited about the book and want to dive into it, but I haven’t actually gotten to the point where I know where I’m going or what the larger point is of something I mention early in the story. Or I have an idea of what I want to say and where I’m going, but I mess up what point of view it’s from. Usually, I realize this halfway through writing the scene when things feel off.
I am neither a pantser nor a plotter but some secret third thing. I like to think of my writing process as gardening. I start out with a basic idea of what I want to accomplish, what the end goal is, and sort of let things happen as they may while pruning and prodding the plot to make it cohesive. Plots and plants need shaping and scaffolding sometimes. While writing, I do have a very basic act by act outline where I plan the main points of the plot (or the key beats) and I also keep a stack of note cards with a bunch of scenes on them that I know I want to use in my story. Sometimes I pull them out to move stuff around or figure out where I need to go next.
The problem is that I need the beginning to be solid before I move on. I know there are plenty of writers on the internet who will be like, “No, you must move forward! You must keep going no matter how messy it is because progress is progress.” Yes, that’s great, but that doesn’t work for me. If the foundation isn’t solid and the beginning doesn’t feel at least somewhat tidy and logical, I can’t move forward. This means I spend a lot of time futzing with the opening chapters of my books until I hit about 10,000 words. From there, everything seems to flow better. I would much rather mess with the opening chapters and get the book on a decent foundation because everything flows from those opening scenes. They set the stage for everything else, so they need to make sense. I also do another editing session at the 25-33% mark for added cohesion.
The false starts have become a part of the process as I’ve grown as a writer, but I’m still coming to terms with “wasting words.” It’s hard for me to give in and say, “Okay, this isn’t working. Let’s restart.” My brain would like to push through and keep going, but sometimes rewriting a chapter is easier than fixing it piece by piece. That’s what happened with The Reanimator’s Soul. I got a chapter and a half in and was not happy with it. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure where things had gone wrong, so I put it aside to write “An Unexpected Valentine.” Sometimes a palate cleanser is necessary for clarity. Once I finished that short story and reread what I had written of The Reanimator’s Soul, the issues were glaringly obvious. The prologue needed beefing up, and the first chapter was in the wrong point of view. I went back and rewrote the prologue chunk by chunk and totally restarted chapter two. Between finishing “An Unexpected Valentine” and doing the rewrites, I had also worked a bit more on my outline and note cards, so things were clearer.
The question I had for myself was, “Would I have figured this out if I had just waited a week or two to start The Reanimator’s Soul instead of diving in headfirst and making a mess?” and the best answer I can give is no.
For me, those false starts are part of the process. They help me tidy up the ideas I have and sort of troubleshoot things that don’t work in a way I probably wouldn’t have figured out through thinking or outlining alone. Some things sound great on paper but just don’t work in the actual story. Other times, you think you could do A or B, so you just pick one and pick the wrong one. Oops. So far, false starts have happened for the past four books I’ve written, and I’ve probably done the same for more, but I just don’t remember them.
At some point, you have to figure out where optimization ends and the process begins. You can’t eliminate all the mess in the writing process, so sometimes we have to acknowledge that we need to write through a little chaos to find the gold that comes after. Knowing this also helps you better estimate how long certain parts of the process will take. For me, I always know act one will always take twice as long as any other part of the writing process, and I can live with that.