I’ve written the first half of my first novel roughly six times. Six. 6. The number above five and below seven. The legal drinking age in a working man’s club when you’re there with your grandad. You get the picture. Six.
- This is not me wildly exaggerating how many times I’ve done this.
I still have the shortcuts in my Scrivener folder for each attempt – each one a reminder of when I gave up or cut the project short, just to restart it again later.
- This was not six half-arsed attempts.
These projects were fully written, not barebones planning and bullet points. Each attempt was roughly 40,000-50,000 words before it got scrapped and restarted.
- This is not me showing off.
Because these words are gone, I didn’t just abandon these projects, I deleted them forever. Despite my wife ordering me not to, despite the fact I regretted it every time.
I did it because I was frustrated, I realised halfway through that what I’d written was terrible or that my writing had actually improved so much in 40,000 words that it was almost unrecognisable from the beginning. I did it because I was afraid that it was so bad it couldn’t even be redeemed in a second or third draft. I did it because something shinier came along and I lost my momentum. I did it because I don’t know… Does this sound familiar?
I’m not alone in this – I’ve chatted with lots of creative types (writers, artists, musicians – even DMs in D&D) who scrap their projects halfway through and they almost all regret it.
I’ve now thrown away roughly 250,000 words and the real crime of it is, I’m not entirely convinced my newer drafts are THAT much better than my first ones! But I’ll never know now, I’ve wiped away the words and now I can’t compare or even reuse all the material that I’ve dreamed up over the past few years.
But it’s not all bad. I’m genuinely obsessed with the story I’ve got to tell and the churn has really helped me refine the story to something much better than what it was originally – that said, I probably could have reached the same point through editing the first draft rather than constantly re-writing it!
Either way, please please please don’t make the same mistake as me. You don’t want to be haunted by a quarter of a million words – those sort of numbers will keep you up at night. If I can convince you to do anything, consider:
- Something can always be redeemed
You could absolutely hate every word of something you’ve written now, but who knows what hindsight will bring? Maybe there is one sparkling gem of a sentence that can be reused in another draft? Maybe a character that would otherwise be forgotten is hiding in one of your scenes? The important thing is to remember that inspiration can come from anywhere, even from your terrible old drafts!
- You should always have a backup
Setup a backup in something like Dropbox so you can retrieve deleted files. Email a copy to yourself every now and then so you can retrieve it from your old sent items. Give your partner a USB drive of all your copied files and instructions to never let you delete them. Protect yourself from yourself (I may be making this more dramatic than it needs to be, but this annoys me dammit!).
- Dammit, just have a rule!
Just… don’t do it. Never press the delete button. Have a rule like me that you will never delete your old work. Just have a folder for old drafts and embarrassing poetry – then password protect it so nobody knows your shame and move on to your next project.
Last bit of advice – DO NOT IGNORE THIS ADVICE. I think I read it in the first writing book I ever bought and thought ‘that doesn’t apply to me’… Its taken me years to learn this lesson, and now I’m actually making real progress on my projects. Sure, I’m still not happy with the majority of what I produce, but at least I have something to work on now and not just another empty page/screen that needs filling with a whole bunch of new crappy words.