The Pain of Starting Over (And Why You Need It)

I was talking with a writer friend of mine, and I had an interesting takeaway from it.

It applies to writing, but it could really apply to anything creative or that takes consistent effort. Take any mention of book, story, writing, etc. and feel free to reinterpret it for whatever you are pursuing in life.

Not all effort leads to visible results, either…

You see, I like to stay in touch with other writers and see how they’re doing with their projects. One thing that pisses me off is when writers insinuate that we’re all selfish and interested only in our own work, nobody else’s. I think that’s bullshit. I run a writing group in my area, and the more I see of somebody’s project, the more I get interested in it. It doesn’t have to be the kind of story I would read or write for me to care.

So, for that reason, I was checking in on a friend from the writer group. She has been struggling with her first novel, which is part of a very grand, complex fantasy setting, and which she had many books in mind set in a series based on that world.

Sound familiar? A huge number of fiction writers fall into this camp.

My Feedback Serial project certain qualifies, and in fact, so does pretty much every main project I’ve come up with or wanted to do, excluding the occasional short story that I didn’t publish, or Noctiluca, which was long but a one-off idea.

This person has gotten a lot of feedback and put a lot of work into figuring out and optimizing her first novel in this world and the general plot and timeline. However, it became clear after a while that she was stuck in a situation I have been in before: wanting to perfectly figure out certain rewriting details before charging ahead to finish the first book.

That is not a good place to be. Your latest place in writing a new book, compared to how it starts and the desire to make it as strong of a beginning as possible, are two very different parts of the project to deal with. This is why it’s generally advised to get the first draft out in its entirety before focusing on rewriting.

The reason I bring this up is for context. I spoke to this friend yesterday, and she said something interesting when I asked about her writing.

“I’m starting over the whole mythos.”

Naturally, that wasn’t all she said. A lot of it was about how difficult it was to reinvent the basic elements of her fantasy world and retool what she had written so far to work with that. It was painful and frustrating, having to basically start over and redo so much.

But why do writers, and creative people in general, do that? Why not just get the project done as is?

The answer, at least for a legitimate writer, is that they can’t. Once you see a better way your story can be put together on a foundation level, you have no choice but to take that route, even if it means throwing away what you had previously to some extent. To do anything less would mean compromising on the work’s potential.

Making a Story Kick Ass

I’m a big proponent of enjoying writing for its own sake, but the fact is that most writers don’t stick to that philosophy by nature. Most are really invested in the first idea that really sticks with them. Especially with fiction and long-form writing. A writer with potential will usually imagine something substantial that will take quite a while to finish up.

If they do in fact stick with that idea and see it through, it will be for two key reasons:

1: They’re committed, and not willing to get distracted when the going gets tough.

2: The idea means enough to them that they need to see it to fruition.

The second one is what really counts. When I first started writing the novels that would later become Feedback, I just really, really wanted to have a completed novel set in the silent world I had envisioned. But it couldn’t be some flimsy half-done version of the idea. I couldn’t let it fade its focus over time or become too confusing. It had to be the best I could possibly imagine it.

That means that once you uncover some way for the creative work to be made better, in the process of still finishing it, you suddenly want to go back and undo everything.

As long as you know the limits of how often to reinvent and go backward, this is a good thing.

What I find really interesting, though, is that this doesn’t apply retroactively to finished books. Not to me, anyway. If I’ve finished a book, but look back and see a way it could have been made better, I feel no desire to go back and change it. I released it in the best possible shape I could make it at the time, at that current skill level. Now that’s it’s done, it’s kind of precious to me as something representing my skills at the time.

I, like most writers, could critique my own stuff, especially my older work. But that doesn’t inspire me to go back and try to create some redux version with improvements. Instead, it makes me focused on avoiding mistakes or capitalizing on missed opportunities in FUTURE works.

Put simply, starting over an unfinished creative endeavor, whether it’s writing a book, starting a business, or whatever it may be, is always going to be painful. But you should be proud of yourself if you’re willing to see yourself through that pain.

That’s a sign that, whatever it is you want to make, you’re going to make it as good as you possibly can. That is always going to be a rare and special thing, so be proud of it and capitalize on it.

Most people who do what you do are mediocre. That’s what the definition of mediocre entails. You, however, are not. Go out and prove it to others.


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