I’d spent a lot of time editing my work, but I found I wasn’t trying to make the story better, I was trying to preserve what I had written. Murder your darlings is more than just cutting the dead weight. It’s cutting the bits that work, but don’t work as well as they could as well.
I remember the first time I’d finished the second book of the series I was working on and then when back to look at the beginning of book one. This is an impossible thing to do if you publish everything as they come out of the pen. I took a year to just write, not even thinking about publishing anything, and when I realized just how generic my main characters felt at the beginning of the book, it almost broke my heart. When that first book goes to print, it’s set in stone.
There was so much work left to be done with the characters. I started to go back and rewrite the book from the start as soon as I had reached the end of the book, and that made a huge difference. Then I started to complete the second book of the series and then go back to make the world’s problem bigger from the very first page.
I wasn’t changing much of the plot when I was rewriting, but even shifting the motivation by 10% made it impossible to try to piece together the new bits and the old bits.
I’m sure if I had left the second draft alone, only a small percentage of people would have noticed the difference, but I would have known it could have been better. Rewriting a book from scratch when the previous draft isn’t completely wrong is really, really hard. But if you don’t put that effort in, someone else would. You want your writing to appear absolutely effortless in its flow, and effortless requires a ton more effort. But ultimately it is worth it. Not for the readers, but for yourself.
No matter how much you preplan, you are always going to end up knowing more about your characters at the end of the book as you did from the beginning. After about the half-way point, your characters should be taking on a new life above what you’d planned them to be. Going back to the beginning and put in the characters you know they evolved into, minus the insight they’ve learned on their own journey. No matter how much you think you know about the characters in the beginning, they are always going to feel like a generic version of themselves until you’re elbow deep in their POV.
I’ve read dozens of unpublished books by my friends where by chapter 14, I was absolutely enthralled with the characters, but people who are not reading it as a favor to the author cannot be expected to wait that long for the characters to evolve into someone interesting enough to want to read about.
I get that’s a hard job writing characters that are already interesting but still have room to grow in the beginning of a novel, but if writing publishable work was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s going to hurt, but you have two choices when you have a chapter 14 takeoff. You either cut all that has come before and start with the character being interesting, or you rewrite what’s on the page and make that character appear in chapter one.
You can go back and edit characters in and out, you can delete plot points or add them in, but you absolutely cannot edit words on the page for a change in motivation. Motivation fuels the story on a sentence level. Every sentence has to reflect your character wants and needs, and going back to edit that in without changing everything leads to Frankenstein-like scenes (frankenscenes) where a character would act one way during one set of circumstances and a completely other way in the unedited bits. That bit of inconsistency will confuse the reader and lead to wanting to throw the book across the floor.
While you do want to create an emotional reaction inside your readers, the one you want to avoid is the desire to throw the book across the floor. It might get tidied up the next time the room is cleaned, but it’s not going to be put back on the books-to-read pile.
It’s true that some readers might give you another chance and as a completist they may actually finish the story, but once they’ve paid for a book, they’re not going to let themselves be tricked again. Getting a reader to buy your book is only step one in the how to write business. Getting them to want to read your next book should be job 1 the moment the reader sits down with your book.