The more I edit, the more I tend to agree with the statement that putting your first draft away for at least a month (and longer if you can) is a must. I also recommend writing something else to clear your head in the meantime, preferably in a different genre. That way, when you come back to your story, it feels like a stranger and you rediscover it like a reader would. Let me tell you that all the flaws and inconsistencies will jump right at you from the page!
Another realization I came to after almost 2 years of doing this and 3 completed first drafts in various stages or revision is that I have a much clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer now. It’s one of those weaknesses that I want to talk about in this blog post.
Let me be plain – all my first draft endings suck. The last third of each story always requires the most changes to beat it into shape. I was flabbergasted by this realization at first and ran to my beta extraordinaire for some advice. Well, okay, it’s more like I ran to her in a panic saying, “Oh my God, I suck! Why did I even think I could be doing this for a living? I want to burn all my drafts. Somebody shoot me now!”
Thankfully, she managed to pull me off the ledge and screw my head back right… and she also explained why I kept dropping my endings. She said, “You’re too nice to your characters.”
I went back and thought hard about it and realized that she was spot on. I like my characters so much that when I need to let them go through something painful, I cringe and pull back. Yes, I spare their feelings and their lives sometimes, but I also lower the stakes, kill the conflict, but most importantly, avoid that cathartic moment that’s the lowest low before the character’s final rise. Because I love them so much, I don’t let them crash and burn like they should. But a phoenix can’t rise unless it immolates itself first, right?
That’s why my advice today, for myself and for my readers is “Write what hurts.”
Yes, you love those characters, of course you do! You wouldn’t have decided to stick with them for months, telling their stories if you didn’t. That’s precisely why you can’t soften the blows when something in your story will hurt them. In fact, that’s precisely why you SHOULD write it. Don’t just light a bonfire, burn the whole damn house down. Make your characters go through fire, flood, heartbreak and despair. Sink them low, because that’s the only way they can rise as better human beings.
You can’t wrap your characters into bubble wrap and expect to write an interesting story. If your readers like your characters, they need to be worried about them. They need to cry with them and for them; they need to rage against the injustice they are facing with them; and they need to be released for them once they emerge victorious. This can only happen if the stakes are high and the odds are seemingly insurmountable.
And for that to happen, you have to write what hurts. In fact, if it doesn’t hurt to write something, then it’s a good indicator that your story took a wrong turn somewhere. I admit that I still cringe at the thought of doing that to my characters, but I reassure myself with the idea that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for them (and no, it’s not an incoming train), and all the suffering only makes the ending more sweet.
And now I just need to dive in and totally rewrite the last two chapters of Mists to make it right. Then I need to go back and rewrite the ENTIRE last part of Broken Things as well. I’m in for a lot of pain… But isn’t that what writers do? They suffer with their characters.