When Something Changes Mid-Draft

So, this question came in from Alex last week, and I thought I’d address it in a post today.

I’d really like to read about how you handle it when you’re in the middle of a draft and suddenly you realize that you need to change something BIG. Something which changes the story a lot, a major change you’re already sure will make it into the next draft. (Like e.g. a character that does important stuff in this draft, but you really know you’ll get rid of that character completely anyways. Or switching the narrator. Or changing something big about the whole story set up)

The crappy non-answer is: every book and change is different. 😛

The slightly less crappy non-answer is: gauge the scale of the mid-draft change and proceed from their. Below, I’ve tried to show how to do this and give you examples from my own writing.

Disclaimer: This is MY process. No two people write a book or revise or deal with story issues in the same way. But maybe by reading how I handle issues, you can see what will work best for YOU.

There are, I think, three different options that face you when you make a change mid-draft.

  1. You can power onward, writing as if you have ALREADY made the change and knowing you’ll fix it all in revisions.
  2. You can stop and revise.
  3. You can throw the draft out and start over.

Now, first off, let’s define the sorts of changes (at least the way I see them): major,big, minor, inconsequential.

A major change: a completely different story.

A completely different story means you can save almost NONE of what you have already written. It means that stuff is so different–from characters, to setting, to scene order, to plot structure, to events–that you really have no choice but to toss the draft out (though not literally, of course. You ALWAYS want to save old drafts somewhere. You might still use a few lines or descriptions!) and start over. 

What are big changes then? These are story-wide changes–like a new voice, the addition/subtraction of characters, the cutting/adding of a subplot, or a change in character arc or goal/motivation.

So what do I see as minor changes? These are scene-level changes. For example, a setting switch-up, removal of a character on a scene-level, tweaking character reactions, smoothing out characters for consistency, pacing fixes, or amping up tension/conflict.

And finally, what do you I consider inconsequential changes? All line-level changes–be they enhancing a description (or trimming it), improving your prose, smoothing out dialogue, clarifying a point, whatever.

Now, let’s look at how to handle these different scale changes.

1. When to Power Through:

Inconsequential, Minor, and some Big Changes

If you’re worried about weak prose in previous scenes, definitely DON’T STOP. Keep going and deal with line-level changes at the end. Trust me: you could spend hours adjusting a single description only to cut that setting later on.

I also think that minor changes should be dealt with at the end. Write the story as if you have already made the needed changes and continue onward. Why do I say this? Because you might go back and rewrite a character’s reaction in a scene only to CUT that character later on–or realize that even the new reaction doesn’t fit with the way the character’s overall arc went. Scene-level changes 

Some big changes might be best dealt with at the end as well. If, for example, you know exactly how that change will play out, then you can keep on writing as if you’ve already made the change. Why stop and go back when you can keep plowing forward?

For example, as I drafted my most recent version of SCREECHERS (this book has suffered from MAJOR changes 2 times now and been rewritten twice, but I’m finally writing the Right Story and plowing through a draft), I realized that one of my POV characters was all wrong. This was a big change. The characters was the wrong age, he was too naive, and he just didn’t work with where I now saw the story going. But while I knew HOW I wanted his character to affect everyone else and WHAT I wanted him to do in the final climax, I hadn’t yet wrapped my head around WHO this new version of himself would be.

So I kept writing, and whenever I felt a scene was needed from him, I just wrote <insert Sun’s scene here>. I will now have to do quite a bit of writing in my revisions, but that’s okay–I’m not sure I can fully understand who this character needs to be until I reach the end.

Ultimately, if you don’t HAVE to fix the beginning scenes now and you can power through without it (and your gut is telling you to keep going!), then don’t stop! You always want to cling to a draft’s momentum as long as you can. 🙂

2. When to Stop and Revise:

Some Minor changes and Some Big Changes

Sometimes–be a change minor or big–you don’t know how it will affect the story. Maybe the addition/subtraction of a character will completely shift how your protagonist behaves, but you don’t know HOW it will shift their emotions. And the only way for you to find out is to go back and rewrite/revise those earlier scenes.

Your gut will tell you on this (mine does at least!). You know you need to make changes earlier, but you’re not sure how those changes might all play out…So you have to halt your drafting and revise

Be careful, though! Make SURE you really need to stop. Sometimes we think we should stop because there’s so much appeal to revising something already written instead of facing the terror of crafting something new. Maybe all you actually need to do is swallow your fear and keep typing ahead. Just ask yourself: do I know how that change affects future scenes? If yes, then keep going. If no, then stop and revise.

In the third book in the SS&D trilogy, I encountered a seemingly minor problem that required me to stop and go back. Essentially, I realized that several scenes I had always intended to set in a X-Egyptian ruins would no longer work (this can be a problem of drafting without stopping to do research while you go)–so all those scenes I had already crafted in X-ruin needed to go. I had to figure out how I could keep the same plot-reveals but now make them work in a Y-ruins.

It was a minor issue, but I couldn’t move forward until I understood how past scenes had interacted with this new Y-setting.

3. When to Start Over:

Major Changes

I’ve discussed this idea of the Right Story before (and then I’ve discussed it some more here), and I still strongly, strongly, strongly believe there is a Right Story that pours naturally from the heart. And then there is a story that is mediocre–you can hammer it out, it’s technically fine, but it doesn’t sing to your soul.

But latching into that Perfect Story can be really hard–especially for first drafts or first novels. Heck, more often than not, this “write a terrible first draft, ditch it, start over” is how I’ve produced my current books. It isn’t efficient, and only lately have I started to realize HOW to get around my dreadful first drafts.

But I still do it. I STILL write horrible first drafts, thinking I know what I’m doing, until eventually my instincts tell me I’m off–and that I’m off by a LOT.

The only way to know if you’ve got a broken story is if you don’t want to keep writing it. But even then, you’re story might not be broken–you might just be constipated. What you have to do is stop writing and THINK. Think about where the story is going, think about why you’re not into it anymore, and think about what you’ve written. If no amount of thinking can summon a solution for you–or if the solution you find requires a complete overhaul–then don’t panic.

Just throw the manuscript out and start over.

Just throw it out?! you cry. But I spent months/years working on it!

As did we all, I’m afraid. But sometimes the only way to fix a book is to start over. It can be incredibly liberating when you do, and it will open your heart to all these new possibilities you hadn’t seen there before.

No written words are wasted. You learn something from every single sentence you type, and your skill as a writer improves.

As mentioned above, SCREECHERS thrown out twice. The first draft was totally the wrong story, and by the time I reached ~50K, I just had to accept that this story–while a cool premise–was weak. The characters were bland, the world was far too simple, and the conflict was too straightforward. I couldn’t go back and fix it when I was finished because the entire story was broken.

My gut knew what needed to be done, and as soon as my brain had accepted it too, I tossed the entire manuscript in the trash.

Then I wrote a new story. It was a lot better, and I knew I had at least found the right heroine and the right world. I wrote ~50K in this draft…but I was having a lot of trouble with the middle and the end. I didn’t know what came next, and I just kept hammering out lackluster scenes trying to get my heroine from Point A to Point B.

And all the while, my gut was saying, This story is STILL too simple. The world-building is cliche, the love interest is too “devilishly roguish” for no real reason, and you’re not bringing this bright story in your heart to life.

Well, I didn’t want to throw it all out AGAIN, so I tried to go back and revise. I was convinced I was just suffering from a bit of writing constipation, and if I BICHOKed enough, it would all work out. I spent months layering in more subplots, more tension, stronger characterization…I even started writing new scenes, thinking surely I could just power through to the end now.

But nope. Writing the next scenes STILL felt like pulling teeth–it STILL wasn’t the Right Story.

And then I lost most of the revised MS + new scenes this fiasco. I was so heartbroken at losing all those pages, I just stopped. I set the story aside for almost a year, and I didn’t look at it again.

And then the next year, the story started singing again in my heart…and I realized I had–yet again–done it ALL wrong. I had managed to hit the nail on the head for Echo’s story (my heroine), but I actually needed to be showing more points of view alongside her. My world was huge, and I wasn’t doing it justice by only showing it through one lens.

So I started over again. I wrote in four more points of view (one of which changed completely mid-draft!), I ditched a lot of scenes, adjusted the trajectory of the plot now that I knew these other characters, and I knew–deep in my gut–I had finally hit the Right Story.

The words poured, I had no problem with writing constipation, and the ONLY reason I didn’t keep writing was because of deadlines for contracted books (but I managed to write 30K in 9 days over Christmas!).

So ultimately, you should start over on your draft when the adjustments you need to make are such wide-scale, you are telling a new story. Like, completely different characters, different world, not enough scale/scope. You’ll feel so much freer if you just let it all go. Then, you might find as you write a new version that some of your old scenes still fit into this version, and you can layer them to fit. Or you might just realize how off that earlier draft (or drafts, if you’re me!) actually was.

 Moral of the Change Story

In the end, whether you power onward, stop and revise, or toss a story out, it all depends on what your gut is telling you to do. No, it ain’t always easy to get in touch with your gut. But I’m planning a post for the near future about that–about learning to coax your Muse out and staying enthused with a story. Maybe that will help you “sort out the Right Story”.

For now, if you’re facing story changes and you aren’t sure what your instincts are telling you, then you can just look at the scale of the problem-major, big, minor, and inconsequential–and go from there.

Just remember: All problems are fixable–it’s just that some solutions take more work than others. 😉

You tell me: How do YOU handle mid-draft changes? Do you have any questions?