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As a discovery writer, how do I complete an unfinished novel (which has highly diverged from the original plot ) after a time-gap?
I am a reader more than a writer, and fantasy is my favorite genre.
I used to write short stories and poems. Some of them are published in magazines and get good reviews.
In 2018 January, I read the complete collection of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus (10 books in total ) in a single stretch, and got highly inspired.
So, I planned to write my very first novel.
By profession, I am a programmer, and I managed to spend 1-2 hours a day on my writing, and started posting it on a Facebook group as small chapters. The response I got was great. I am a discovery writer. To hook my readers in my story, it becomes necessary to make twists and mysteries often. Many chapters create a lot of questions in the reader's mind.
Almost 75% of my story is written, but I have no idea how to resolve those mysteries I created.
Due to some personal reasons, I was forced to take a break from my writing, and got completely busy in my personal and professional life. I let my readers know this, and now, almost one year later, I still get questions from my readers about the unfinished novel, and requests to complete it.
I have the desire to complete it, but I have three main issues:
- I do not have the inspiration, now, that I had when I started writing the novel.
- When I read my unfinished novel, I understand that it diverged a lot from what I planned to write at the beginning, and it disappoints me. I think it's mainly because my writing got highly influenced by readers' comments.
- I don't know how to resolve the mysteries I created or how to answer the questions I made.
What should I do about this?
These are the options I'm considering:
- Scrap everything and start something new with the same basic idea.
- Start to rewrite the same novel, and hope it gets a normal flow till I find a climax.
- Continue from the last word I wrote in the novel (I have no idea how to do this).
- Do not post on social media until I complete the novel.
- Post each chapter, communicate with readers, and continue writing.
I don't know which is the right decision, or how to make it work. Please help.
Especially for a discovery writer, the first draft of a novel is often as much an exercise in planning the final version as it is an attempt to actually produce that final version. It may be best to think of your current draft as serving two distinct purposes: firstly, as an outline for a novel, with lots of detailed information appended to it; secondly, as a collection of prose, the best parts of which can be re-used in new drafts or even in the final version, but only if they fit your evolving plans for the novel.
You could take the first of these purposes literally, and extract an outline from your draft. You have done your "discovering", great, but now create a summary for yourself that helps you see the structure of the story. You can then make improvements to the outline, thinking strategically about the entire story, and return to the draft to adjust accordingly.
Generalising, it's great that you did a lot of discovery writing work, but now you can start analysing. Look at your characters and analyse arcs, motivation, relationships, etc. Look at your plot and your setting, your theme and your pacing, etc. You may find that too much analysis before writing stifles your creativity--so, instead, you are a discovery writer--but that does not mean you should never analyse.
Analysing your current draft should also help you get going again, both by motivating you to work, and by giving you a creative push. It's work you can do without "inspiration", so as long as you are motivated to work on your novel in general, you can get going with the analysis. And, as you analyse, you'll start coming up with lots of ideas for new writing you want to do.
If you don't like the concept of "analysing" when it comes to creativity, think of it instead as taking a 30000 ft view. You have this 1st draft but you are not a slave to it. Read it, think about what is best about it, where you want to go with it in general. Then dive back into the details of writing one word after another. Again, though, you may not be an outliner, but many of the tools that an outliner uses from the start of their novel will be useful to you now. You are at a point where you can start understanding the structure of your novel, even if you did not consciously design this structure to begin with.
The second function of your first draft is the more obvious one. If you have large chunks of good prose, obviously you can re-use it, with any necessary adjustments. But this comes after taking the 30000 ft view and deciding where you want to go.
By the way, a very simple, practical reason to push on and finish the novel is that it's easy to practice writing beginnings, and hard to practice writing endings (because, all to often, people quit before finishing a novel). So, new authors often get good at writing beginnings, while they are still not good at writing endings. Bear in mind the ending does not have to be perfect, especially if your goal is to finish your first draft. It especially does not need to resolve all mysteries, reach a satisfying end for all character arcs, etc. Focus on the main character and the core plot issues, and write the best ending you can. Now, you have a complete first draft to work with, which is much better starting material for the next phase of your work.
As @sesquipedalias says, for a discovery writer the first draft can often be about figuring out what your novel is, what you're trying to say.
You say you have story threads that you don't know where to take, questions the answers to which you don't know, problems you don't know how to solve. Treat those as a writing exercise: find out the answers, solve the problems, gather the lose threads. It's a very useful exercise even if later you decide to scrap the problem and take the story in a different direction for your first draft.
This wasn't the story you originally set out to tell? No matter, find out where this story goes. Then you can tell another one. You owe that much to your readers - you've promised them a story, and you haven't delivered.
You don't have "inspiration"? Write anyway. Work at it. It's like a muscle that you haven't exercised in a year - you're rusty. You're not going to suddenly "get inspiration" out of nowhere. Work at it until your brain remembers the task, then inspiration might come.
Treat the whole thing as a learning experience. You've learned something working on this project, surely?
About eight years ago, I began writing a fantasy novel. Then something else came up, so I put it down for about two years. I returned to the novel eventually and finished and published it. What helped me do this was the worldbuilding notes (maps, bestiary, Character descriptions, plot ideas) that I had stored. I made many changes to my original conception, though most of the important plot points were the same.
The most important change was stepping back, looking at my heroine carefully, and deepening her characterization, exposing several flaws that would factor into the plot significantly.
Years later, I am at it again. I started a sequel to that novel and wrote the first half (about the trolls that live under Boston's Zakim bridge). I put that aside two years ago to write a nonfiction book. Now that the nonfiction book is published, I am returning to the novel.
The technique that has enabled me to do this has deepened over the years. For my most recent two books, I started using an Index Card app for my ipad. I make virtual cards that can be rearranged at will. I make one stack for each category: research topics, character sheets, setting descriptions, backstory, story timeline, chapter plot ideas, Bibliography references, you name it. I can even attach images to the cards. This enables me to put projects down and pick them up with ease.
The card system is very flexible. I can add ideas in any order when I brainstorm, so I don't lose them.
As for character discovery, I trust my subconscious. I had a throwaway character in one scene in my previous fantasy (A Most Refined Dragon). Her role was to make the heroine a little jealous. But then I got to liking this minor character, so I enlarged her role and put her in a situation where she was vulnerable and the hero began to fall for her. To make things worse, I made it so the heroine needed this woman's father to be her lawyer in her murder trial. All this tension and conflict arose by chance, but as it emerged, I deepened it intentionally. It was better than if I had planned it.
In my current novel, I stopped writing just before the day of a big armored car heist, the disaster just before the climax. All my plans for the heist and how the good guys act as they try to stop it were logical, complex, with interesting plot twists, but emotionally unsatisfying. That is probably why I stopped writing. I knew in my heart that all the good character developoment that I had achieved in the middle of the story would be wasted if I wrote the end as I had planned.
Coming back to it after an absense, I saw a new way. The robbery can proceed mostly as planned, but the hero and heroine will suffer a crisis in their relationship and strike out separately and at cross purposes, nearly destroying everything. I haven't written it yet, but it feels right. So in your writing, make sure that the character relationships have as much drama as the plot.
I'm largely not a discovery writer myself, but many --perhaps most --of my favorite authors are discovery writers. It seems like discovery writers almost universally struggle with endings --for obvious reasons --and I've read my fair share of horribly disappointing endings to otherwise great books. In my opinion, the biggest crime committed by discovery writers when ending their books is rushing to try to tie everything up neatly. Many of my favorite Diana Wynne Jones books fall into this trap, where a compelling, absolutely magical story suddenly collapses into a incomprehensible, illogical mix of deus ex machina and gobblety-gook. But even when discovery writers do find ways to solve their layered mysteries logically and convincingly, the ends of their books often seem flat and lifeless as compared to the vitality of the rest of the story.
In my opinion, the discovery writer who has best solved this problem is Haruki Murakami. True, his endings are often illogical, impossible to understand, and filled with dangling plotlines, but --at least in his mature work --they aren't disappointing, and they don't seem like they belong to a whole different book. I think the secret is that his endings have emotional and psychological resonance. As with dreams, if they make psychological sense, gaps in logic and resolution don't destroy the power of the narrative. Murakami's surreal discontinuities can seem superficially laughable, but the psychological acuity of his storytelling has made him a global literary superstar.
I'd recommend you do put on your plotter hat, just for a moment, and just for the end of your book. But don't waste your time trying to figure out the logic of the plot, or the answers to all your unsolved questions. Instead, analyze your story, like a critic, in terms of overall themes, and the story arc of your characters. What do they need, emotionally and psychologically, in order to have a complete story? Find a way to bring them to that point, and let the rest of it go.
As a discovery writer myself, I do not "plot", but I always write with an ending in mind. I do not WRITE the ending, but I have notes on how the story can be resolved, and I make sure my story will always fit that ending.
Every time I finish a scene, I make sure I haven't done anything that will violate the ending I have in mind. If I have, then I either have to rewrite that scene immediately, or I have to come up with another ending that WILL work. In a full-length novel, I have come up with anywhere from 2 to 4 new endings.
On some of them, I have gone back and fixed numerous scenes in order to support a new ending I did not want to give up, basically re-read the whole book so far in order to do it.
I have also changed the beginning of a book, discarded the whole original scene, in order to support a new ending.
It is for that reason I never get a reader until I think I am done with a book, and even then I get one reader at a time, just in case I really do have to make a significant change. (It has happened).
The same protocol works if I am going to introduce a riddle or mystery: I have to know how it gets resolved, or at least ONE way it could be resolved, so I can write "in that direction". I am not, I should stress, coming up with the plot and scenes and turning points, I will find them as I go, but I have to know at least one way to resolve such issues.
I think that is what you failed to do. That approach is likely to kill your effort, because you are doing the easy part and postponing the hard part, making your final third or quarter of the book almost impossible to finish, the collection of difficulties is too daunting.
You have to do the hard part WITH the easy part. You may come up with a better way to resolve the mystery, but if you don't you have at least one way.
I wouldn't try to finish your current work. What you might do is start it over, keep the idea of the characters and situation they face, but write anew, without adding complications you cannot figure out how to solve, and from the beginning knowing at least one plausible ending to their main problem. Write it in a more disciplined manner.
You can still be a discovery writer, but discovering the plot as you go includes both ends of the plot, how it begins and how it ends.
Since you have the friend-group, you can crowd-source some of them. List some of the problematic mysteries, ask how they would solve them, and then run with whatever you like best (or perhaps a new one will occur to you.) (On SpaceBattles, this collaboration is often called a Quest -- sort of an RPG, but no dice, just collaboration with one person at the head.
When I had my students do a "Write-O-Rama" (like NaNoWriMo, but smaller wordcount goals), I'd challenge students to do just the WORST version ever, just to get through something. The stupidest fight between protagonist and mentor. The most pointless final battle. So I advise you to just write the least satisfying ending that occurs to you the day you choose the challenge. Setting a timer may help -- whatever you can do in 30 minutes, say. or several 10 minute sprints over a few days, then that's it.
Why? Because then you have something which is always better than nothing. It may not suck as much as you feared. Or it will be as awful as advertised, and that gives you an idea of some more promising directions to go.
Once you have something resembling an ending, and some potential solutions to tricky mysteries, my personal recommendation is to shelve it and then write the book again from scratch. (Ideally, if sharing, share larger chunks than before -- chapters, not scenes, or every 10,000 words, not 2,000. But since sharing led you astray some last time, you may want to work privately this time, and just report progress in general terms to supporters.)
Why? You've grown. This was a useful pre-writing thing, but it was also a little more chaotic, as you responded to an audience by adding extra cliff-hangers, or maybe you had some fluff because you wanted to provide people with something on an update day.
If you look at your original draft, you'll be tempted to TWEAK, and make smaller changes. Starting over can free you from that -- your brain can regenerate the best of the earlier things (and you can always re-read the original before editing), but draft 2.0 will allow new directions, or drastic pruning.
Example: in Senior Year of college, we have January for writing our Essays. Mine was originally about Puck and Ariel (but I ended up dropping Ariel, due to having so much on Puck.) I was dutifully meeting my advisor every few days with some new paragraphs or re-arranging, but it now wasn't it's OWN thing -- it was just like when you work with cookie dough so much it becomes tough, like stale bread. So I started a NEW file (I think even on a lab computer so I couldn't just browse to my original document), and rewrote from scratch. I still had some edits, but it was like I pulled NEW cookie dough out from the mixer, and it now rolled smoothly and the cookie-cutter made crisp cuts when shaping it.
Or like if you keep trying to support legacy code, instead of just starting from scratch in a newer better language where you have modules you can call - a little more work at first, but by freeing yourself from COBOL, you can adapt everything else more smoothly, and use module libraries for outsourcing some details in coding -- in writing, it may be that you use an outline and some key character beats or scenes as your "library" that you will stick with.
This is the first ever draft of your first ever novel. If you were able to simply pick up where you left off and bring it to a successful conclusion, you would be a phenom.
The novel is a highly complex construct. The complexity may not be apparent when you read a good novel that works well. (As in so many things, when it is done well, it looks easy, but it's not!) When you start to write one, however, you begin to discover just how complex it is. Discovery writing and plotting are two different responses to the complexity of the task, but neither of them is a complete solution.
The fundamental thing that you have to do in a novel is maintain tension continually over a work that can take between 6 hours and a day or more to read. Tension is that sense that something interesting could happen to someone you care about. It is like watching your kid's first recital. They could screw up, and if so they will be devastated and you will have to spend weeks comforting them and trying to rebuild their self confidence. Or they could play the piece flawlessly and bask in the applause. That's the feeling you need to give your readers on every page.
The problem is, you don't have the same tension at your kid's eighth recital as you do at their first. Yes, technically, the same stuff could happen, but the highs and lows are not as extreme. You will probably spend most of the time in the back row covertly checking your phone.
So, to maintain tension, you have to up the ante. You have to get from a grade school recital to a Juilliard audition if you want to create the same level of tension.
But the problem of getting your kid to the Juilliard recital is that life if full of distractions. Such is the problem for the discovery writer. All of those distractions can hold the interest for a while. But sooner of later interest will lag again. By the time you have gone to first recital, first soccer game, first science fair, first dance, etc, the tension in the next first just isn't there. So then you have to get back on the track to Juilliard. Except now you have all these other threads that don't have anything to do with Juilliard. They have lost their inherent interest and to pursue them further would simply take attention from Juilliard. But to drop them without any resolution seems lame.
For the plotter, on the other hand, the danger is that there are not enough distractions. The kid aces every audition, gets into Juilliard, graduates top of the class, and becomes the next Leonard Bernstein. But there is no tension because it is all too easy. To create and sustain tension, there needs to be a rival that has its own arc of tension, that could derail the Juilliard career. (How many times have we seen this movie: boyfriend/girlfriend vs. career.)
So, yes, you probably need to throw away a bunch of your subplots, focus on creating rising tension by both upping the stakes and creating a credible rival. And no, you probably shouldn't post chapters on social media as you go, because you may have to throw some or all of that stuff away, perhaps more than once.
Starting over is almost always a bad idea, especially on your first project. The same goes with rewriting. It's just like software - don't think starting over will work out better. Finish the book, and refactor. The tempation is always there with any enterprise - just starting over. It's almost always a bad decision, and it tends to make you even more eager to start over the next time - you'll be stuck in a "never finish anything" loop.
There's a few tricks to continue on a project you left for a while. One of my favourites is breaking the thing, going away for a week or two, and coming back. In a book, this would be something like deleting half of the last paragraph (make sure to delete half of the last sentence too - don't end on a period!). When you clear your head a bit and come back in a week, you know where to continue. This should be enough to get your flow started.
Don't worry too much about inconsistencies that come from forgetting what you wanted to do or what you already wrote. That's what the refactoring is for. You'll have plenty of opportunities to re-read your book before it's ready for publishing; keep bookmarks to important things in the story, and make sure those are aligned. The small stuff can be cleaned up later.
I've also had trouble with forgetting the resolution to mysteries. Don't be afraid to rewrite portions of the book to make the mystery solvable! Books are just as flexible as code. If you can't figure the solution out based on what you already wrote, you probably didn't drop enough hints to make the problem solvable for the reader, which is quite important for a good mystery. If you can't figure it out, too many of your readers probably won't be able to either. I've had some wonderful mysteries with wonderful solutions, but they turned out to be too much out there to really work, even with extra hints dropped here and there. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality can afford some extra hardcore mysteries, but that has much to do with the readership, which contains plenty of people who are hardcore into rationality and puzzles :) If you're aiming for a more general audience, don't overdo the hard mysteries.
Don't be afraid to delete whole chapters if they don't work. But if they do work, but need some tweaking, don't delete - tweak. It's too easy to delete everything and start over, but it's almost always a bad idea. If you do it now, what prevents you from doing it over and over again? There's many books that have been continually rewritten over years. Are there any that have been scrapped and started from scratch and actually got finished? (I don't know the answer, but my guess is the former far outnumber the latter)
Not all mysteries are there to be solved. Some may be left for the readers to make their own explanations, without a resolution in the story. Some may be left for the sequels to deal with (though in that case, give yourself detailed notes on what you were intending to do and why - you no longer quite have the luxury of rewriting the past to fit your explanation in the future). Just don't overdo it.
Good luck :)
Good writers pay it forward :)
Scrap everything and start something new with the same basic idea. NOPE.
Start to rewrite the same novel, and hope it gets a normal flow till I find a climax. SOUNDS LIKE WRITERS BLOCK.
Continue from the last word I wrote in the novel (I have no idea how to do this). WHY NOT GIVE IT A GO OR TWO?
Do not post on social media until I complete the novel. WHY PUNISH YOURSELF?
Post each chapter, communicate with readers, and continue writing. <--- also take advanage of the "review" function. maybe summarise what you've done so far?