Here’s a drafting scenario for you.
You’ve come up with a pretty killer idea. You’re sure it’s gold. You’ve got the premise, and you’ve got a few key scenes you know you need. So, heart racing, headstrong and certain, you charge in, doing a bit of outlining, a bit of drafting, a bit more outlining, and you’re still feeling pretty good, but after a while you look back at what you’ve got and a few of the scenes you had in mind don’t make sense anymore, but you’re sure you have to have them. They’re the meat in this burger, after all. So you plot and plot and draft and draft, and more time passes and you feel like you can make a few of these scenes work, but they don’t feel right with everything else anymore, and, weirdly, even the premise is beginning to feel flimsy. So you plot and you plot and you draft and you draft, and you get maybe a quarter of the way into what’s supposed to be your book, your burger, and the bun is stale, and the meat is weird and gray and limp and cold, and you’re pretty sure this whole thing was a bad idea from the start. This isn’t a burger. It’s some kind of rancid fish. Into the trashcan it goes.
First, the good news: you aren’t alone. This is common. It’s fixable.
Secondly, the bad news: your process needs work.
There are many reasons a project refuses to get off its feet, but one of the most common is that we hold too tight to our original ideas. See, by putting an idea down on paper, by outlining it, we immediately lose certain elements. Think of it this way: when you’re a kid, you have your whole life ahead of you. You can be an astronaut. You can be a lawyer (if you’re into that). You could be a very rich teacher—sure, why not? You can be a professional dog whisperer, even! But as you get older, you get C’s in math, turns out you don’t like physics and your eyesight is too poor to be a pilot, you’re a terrible liar, teachers get paid in rat turds, and after Sparky died, you discovered that you don’t like all dogs, just Sparky. All these ideas of the things you could have been drop away, and you’re only left with what you are. That can be difficult to face.
Now, you have two approaches to this existential crisis. You can freak out and scream until you pass out and wake up in a padded room, or you can keep trudging forward, figuring everything out as you go, constantly asking yourself, “Okay, so where next?”
Can you guess how this translates to writing advice?
In case you can’t, I’ll tell you: it’s better to take the second approach. If you hold too tight to your initial concepts—the things that drew you to the project—and refuse to let those concepts evolve, you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself getting lost or terribly frustrated. This is because our ideas tend not to come to use fully formed and perfectly logical. They come in emotional spurts, half-formed and barely coherent. They just don’t fit together.
I think of plotting a story like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Except, as a writer, you get to cut your own jigsaw pieces and throw out the ones that don’t fit. Nice, right? Well, only if you’re paying attention to the puzzle. Play it loose. Don’t worry if your original idea changes or becomes almost unrecognizable. Many times, I’ve found myself abandoning a story only to recycle the characters into another story later, or the central place with different characters, or the same characters in the same universe, but at a different time in their lives. The only way to get there is to be comfortable playing it loose, approaching each story with curiosity and sensitivity rather than certainty and stubbornness.
So, let's go back to our drafting scenario. What do you do when those key scenes start to feel a little moldy, a little off? Easy. You throw them out. You stop looking at what you wanted to have, and you start working with what you have. Maybe the character isn't who you thought she was, and the ending isn't shaping up to be anywhere near what you expected, but if you're drawn to these new things, these little surprises, there's a good chance they're leading you in the right direction. Stop fighting and go along.