How to abandon a draft without feeling like a failure

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Sometimes, learning what doesn’t work is the key to learning what succeeds.

I scribbled my way through the first six and a half chapters of my latest project, The Princes of Antarctica, when I ran out of gas this week. The feeling was just like the shock and disappointment I had in 1987 as I drove up Interstate 5 from Redding, Calif., to see my girlfriend in Ashland, Ore. With no warning, the motor in my cherry red ‘66 Impala gave a few lurches and quit, forcing me to the shoulder. Gas was not reaching the carburetor. I was going nowhere. The same happened with the draft. Halfway through chapter seven, the motor in my head failed. I had to abandon 30-odd pages by the side of the road.

Inspiration is a devil armed with false promises. It shows you a shiny object but doesn’t tell you its worthless until you’ve played with it, sometimes for weeks or months. You can see the result in any writer’s trash, virtual or otherwise. Disgusted with what he sees, he rips the “half a page of scribbled lines” from the yellow pad and tosses it into the pile of other “plans that have come to naught.” (Thank you, Pink Floyd.) Understanding that the story is implausible or the characters boring can tear at a writers’ confidence. He may think the dream is lost, that the great thing he wanted to say is not so important.

Is a false start a sign of failure? No, it’s a signal for patience. You’ve left the starting block prematurely. Your idea may be sound, but the execution is broken. It’s okay to quit and begin again. For one writer’s perspective on false starts, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “One Hundred False Starts,” published in 1933. For him, starting over was part of the game.

Fitzgerald advises to start with a compelling emotion from the writer’s experience. He doesn’t mean autobiography, but it helps if you know what you’re talking about. That’s what I did with the latest re-start of The Princes of Antarctica. With the emotion in mind (no spoilers), I plunged into a new opening on Thursday, and found the words flowing from my fingers. Here’s hoping for a fair start.

Tell me about your latest false start.

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