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I created my story last year in the nanowrimo challenge, and I finished the whole thing, I was quite happy even if it was a mess. Then I tried to edit it to give it a little more clarity and fixing errors, but after editing the first chapter, the main motivation of the main character has changed... that renders the rest of the story (or big parts at least) obsolete. Should I give up on the edition? Pressing through even if I have to rewrite the whole thing? This had me paralyzed for months and I don't know what to do.

To add more details...

The setting involved the first contact between humans and elves, which lead to several deaths and the danger of a full scale war. My protagonist was the son of one of the first victim of the conflict, initially his motivation was revenge... but moving along, he never displayed the sort of burning hate required, more like a wishy washy attitude, mixed with some morbid curiosity about the elves.

My options were to change "I want to kill them" to "I want to understand them" or rewrite all the scenes to make him more aggressive and hateful, but any option involves some heavy editing. But I guess there is no way to avoid that.

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  • 2
    Is it better though?
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 31 at 23:04
  • Probably you want to change it. Wishy-washy protagonists are not generally good at drawing interest and moving the story along.
    – Mary
    Sep 3 at 0:54
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More Editing...:

Editing is both awful and wonderful. Everything can be changed - for good or ill.

Consider your character's goals that changed. You need to either discover a new goal for your character in keeping with the rest of the story, OR you can RE-edit the part you just did, adding back the original motivation. Either way, you have an editing decision to make. There is no avoiding more editing unless you plan to abandon the story all together.

Without knowing a lot more about the story, I can't tell you what decision I would make. Then again, if I were making that decision, it would be MY story. There is only one other alternative to making the decision yourself, which is to have an alpha reader or collaborator read your mess and decide what THEY would do. But you'll STILL need to edit.

You can take their advice or reject it. Sometimes I don't realize what I want to do editorially until someone says, "Do the opposite." At that point, my mind clarifies, and I can do what my inner vision says to do. The criticism is still valid even if you don't take it. Then you need to make YOUR vision fix the problems raised by your alpha reader.

An Alpha reader is hard to come by. It's someone willing to slog through your true crap and give opinions. Anger the editorial gods at your own risk. Prove you listened to them, or do what you want so well that the reader looks at it and says, "Wow, you totally made the right call."

  • DUTY, HONOR, AND COUNTRY: You gave us your character's rationale, and I can only give somewhat vague advice, or else I'm telling you what to write. But based on your conundrum, think about what your character needs to achieve in the story. If your goal is to move him to understanding of elves or to overcome racist tendencies, then give him a more intellectual motive. Elves are EVIL. They are vile poison (he's been taught) and the gods as he understands them despise such creatures. The evidence of their racial inferiority is clear, and proved out by the character's family history. Mom says kill elves. Uncle Tom says so too - after all, it was his brother. The character's ambivalence about killing elves is emotional - he's not into killing, even something as vile as an elf. BUT, everyone says kill elves, and it seems like the universal opinion. Do it for your family. Do it for your country. Do it for your race, and species. Do it for the gods, or the spirit of dear dead Dad (who possibly is telling you to do it himself from beyond the grave). People who are not all that emotional about atrocities can do some pretty gruesome stuff despite not caring that much, just because they convince themselves it's right. Your MC's initial ambivalence may make his later conversion to greater understanding more plausible.

Like anything, it could come off great, or fall flat. You may read this and decide you want to do the opposite. The good news is, you can always edit it again, and again, and again.

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  • added some clarifications
    – Dirak
    Sep 1 at 1:10
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Put the draft away then read it

What you've done is put your draft away for a year and now you've read it.

Unless you have a super memory, it's very likely you've forgotten several details in your story. So much so, you might be able to come at it with the eyes of someone that has never seen your story before.

This is why, if you haven't finished reading the first draft, you should finish doing that before you do anything else.

Read it in as few sittings as possible. Take notes, but don't get bogged down with them.

What you find and what you note down is gold!

In most cases, you'll be able to capture that elusive first impression in this reading and these notes. Or at least partially.

Personally, I tend to question my notes when I read things again, so I have to remind myself that what I noted and read was with a mind that was not "in" the story and its world, that was not thinking about it, and working with it.

Those notes are what a new reader would see and I have to accept that I didn't say what I now feel is on the page... something has to be changed... (That being said, make sure your notes comes with a compelling argument against the opinions of your future self...)

Be cautious and lazy when editing

You edit the text to make it better.

This usually means you have to change a lot, but you can go overboard with this and edit the thing to pieces.

Always be cautious/lazy when editing. Try to figure out how you can alter as little as possible and still have a good text. Good text being the keywords...

Maybe you need to learn new things to make the piece sizzle, then good news; the internet is full of helpful information... sure hours of searching away, but not unreachable...

For instance, a slow text might be improved by adding elements of suspension rather than cutting everything away. What would happen to that philosophical discussion lasting fourteen pages if there was a bomb ticking in the basement? It could turn a blah scene into a key scene...

I'm not saying you should leave the first draft as it is, but also, do realize that sometimes gems might be hiding in the text, and rather than throwing them away, you need to polish them.

I also have to tell you that sometimes the only thing salvageable might be the core concept of the story. I've been there. I redid the whole thing from scratch.

Sometimes, not even that will be salvageable and the text really and truly isn't going to work.

What-ifs

In your case, it seems you have one character that is supposed to do a little bit too much; both be friendly to the elves and have a reason to hate them.

These seem to me to be two different "character tasks" belonging to two different archetypes; the protagonist and the antagonist.

What would happen if you split your character in two and used the background for an antagonist and the curious scenes for a protagonist?

One could be curious and the other could bring in all the juicy conflict and action you had planned.

Maybe the whole notion of "not being able to revenge your father" is something you feel would be good to still have? (It undoubtedly has worked before...)

Then, what if these two characters were siblings? The internal conflict you have now, and that may not be working, would then become external... but still, you wouldn't just kill a sibling (unless you're some kind of biblical person) so there would still be internal conflict anyway...

Always ask what-if questions to explore what you have and how it can be reshaped without being destroyed.

Summaries

You might be helped by writing short summaries of your story (after you've read it completely) bending it in different ways.

One would explore the version you have now, the other the changes you're pondering.

Write a handful more summaries to explore other possible stories.

Don't spend too long on each summary.

After you feel you have explored all possible variations of the story, after a few days to a week of writing summaries, look at what you have. Which version is the best? Can several versions be combined? Can you see a new and improved version arising from the variations you've explored?

Read a book

If you're new to editing, I suggest picking up a copy of James Scott Bell's, "Revision and Self-Editing for Publication."

It contains several chapters on how to write and in the end an editing checklist that refers back to those chapters. You could either start with the checklist and read chapters on stuff you're unsure about, or work through the book from the front to the end.

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Been there. This is one reason that, unlike some authors, I don't think putting new material on pause and going back to edit what you have is necessarily a bad idea. There are definite downsides, for instance it kills the forward progress towards a complete story (which is a bad thing when you have a deadline for draft delivery), but the upsides include the fact that you get earlier material into a steady state you're happy with, before you build too much more on top of it.

Case in point, you went back and edited the first chapter. That chapter may read better, be more plausible, more engaging etc., however it's the first chapter; changing the events, the tone, even the amount of expositional information given up front can change the entire story. I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying the further back you go, the more careful you have to be to avoid breaking changes.

As for how to "fix" it, it depends largely on you:

  • Where do you want the story to go?
  • How much work are you willing to do to get the story on that track?

If you want the story to go where it currently goes for the reasons it originally went there, then you have two options. One is to at least partially revert the edit in a way that restores the character's original motivations. The other is to insert new material that pushes the character from the headspace they currently start the story in to the one that they originally had that justifies where the story goes in later chapters.

If you see the story taking a new direction that you like, then you need to accept that what you wrote will need to be hacked and slashed and burned. It's not out of the question that you may need to set all your existing work aside, maybe blocking in the basic events, but rewriting a completely new way through them based on the character's new headspace.

Understand that ending up with something completely different than you thought you'd have when you started is extremely common in creative writing. How many "behind the scenes" documentaries have I watched for major motion pictures, where basically all that survives of the initial draft is the name of the movie, and there's this entire other movie worth of script and animatics let behind before main production even starts? Sure, there are some scripts that make it through production largely intact, but those are actually rare.

And it's not limited to screenwriting; Tolkien famously wrote his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings starting from Page 1 with every new draft, because every time he got into narrative trouble, rather than salvage or edit his earlier material and risk ending up with a cut-paste mess, he just started over from the beginning, noting what he needed to change along the way to avoid or solve the problem he'd run into. That's not how professional novelists write (there's a lot about LotR that isn't the way a modern career novelist would do things), but it worked for him (again, largely because his publisher wasn't insisting on a drop-dead date for manuscript delivery). I'm not saying you need to follow that same path here, I'm saying a complete page-1 rewrite of a story is not impossible and can, at the end of the day, produce a better result.

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