When I was young – by which I mean 12 or 13 – I decided to write a fantasy novel. The sort of book I enjoyed reading myself at the time. I didn’t know anything about story arcs or characterisation or POV. It didn’t even occur to me that there might be more to writing than picking up a pen and getting started. On the other hand, I had read an awful lot of books, which at least meant I had a reasonable vocabulary and a vague understanding of how to construct a sentence.
So, I had my idea and I set off with it. There were numerous false starts and obstructions along the way, of course: other writing projects I started and abandoned, little hindrances like school and homework and exams, periodic cases of ‘rip it all up and start again’. Getting my first computer helped; falling in love with a totally unavailable member of the opposite sex didn’t. But finally, I had something that could justifiably be called a completed novel.
It was rubbish.
Yet despite the clichés and the one-dimensional characters and the plot contrivances, the basic idea remained a good one. It was just my execution that was at fault. And so, with a few more years’ experience behind me and a better understanding of what I was doing, I set out to rewrite the thing. And I improved the language and tidied up the POV and added depth to the plot. And that was Novel Mark II.
It was OK, but still not brilliant.
So then – well, I think you get where I’m going with this. The book went through iteration after iteration, and each time it improved to a greater or lesser extent. But the problem was, by then I’d grown attached to certain scenes or characters or ways of putting things. So whereas someone coming to it afresh might have cut out a vast chunk here and changed an entire plot point there, my progress was a lot more incremental. The book was evolving. But it was evolving very, very slowly.
By then it was ridiculously long and I’d pretty much lost all sense of what I needed to do to make it right. So I tucked it away on a high shelf and began to write something else instead. And this time, because of all the experience I’d gained on the first project, I knew what I was doing.* I plotted in advance. I set my POV characters and my word count up front. And then I went for it. Instead of years, it took me a few months. I edited once for logic and once for nitpicks and that was it. Done.
So what’s the point I'm trying to make by telling you this little story? Well, the evolving novel was obviously a good thing in some ways. I think it taught me a lot more than if I’d started a completely new project each time, because it allowed me to see how what I was changing affected the book for the better (or worse). In addition, I know that world and its characters inside out. I’ve spent so long in it that I probably know more about it than I do about reality. Yet what I’ve also found is that it’s very hard to pick something apart once it’s written. The first draft is by far the most important. Like a pearl around a grain of dirt, everything in a book will build on that first set of words. And if those words happen to have been written when you were 12 years old and pretty clueless about writing, you won’t have an easy task ahead of you.
Evolution is a useful process. But sometimes you have to accept it won’t be the evolving book that gets the full benefit of it.
* Relatively speaking, of course. I don’t ever claim to really know what I’m doing.