This is one of my favorite stories.
In mid-1865, Fyodor Dostoevsky was preparing to work on a novella he had tentatively titled The Drunkards, about the way alcoholism destroyed families. Then he happened across the case of the self-styled criminal intellectual Pierre François Lacenaire, and the center of the work shifted — seismically so, you might say — to this new character. What emerged was nothing less than Crime And Punishment.
The way Dostoyevsky thought about the whole situation is best described by way of a letter he penned in 1866 to his friend Alexander Wrangel:
At the end of November much had been written and was ready; I burned it all; I can confess that now. I didn't like it myself. A new form, a new plan excited me, and I started all over again.
Emphasis mine. Dostoevsky was not being metaphorical, by the way. He literally shoved his earlier manuscript into the fire. This was apparently common practice for him, not least of all because he was a convicted felon and the Tsarist secret police could still give him any amount of grief over some perceived something in his work. Burning his notes was a habit, because he'd already been in prison and it had sucked mightily. (This is one of the reasons we don't have early drafts of his work, and sometimes why we don't have any original manuscripts at all.)
This past week, while working on my next book (working title: The Fall Of The Hammer), I did something approximately as radical. I didn't throw things into the literal fire, just a metaphorical one. The plot I'd saddled myself with for the story was not working, and I found myself wriggling around with it like I was clad in a suit jacket a size too small.
I didn't throw out absolutely everything, though. I kept the basic premise, boiled down to its abstract outlines, and many of the same characters (albeit only provisionally). From that I decided I would have to begin anew.
In some ways, discarding everything is even harder. You want very badly to return to the comfort of what you already know, even if you know full well it's dysfunctional and a dead end. You may even blame yourself for not making it work the first time. But sometimes you have to cut everything loose and start anew to see the one thing that helps it all click.
This is actually something that's already happened once with this project. The first version of Hammer was something I started writing in, I think, 1996-1997 or so and abandoned about two-thirds of the way through. It had one interesting central conceit, but no real story, no real throughline of action, and after a while I realized I was headed nowhere with it. I no longer have a copy of that manuscript.
It would be almost another ten years before I would attempt to write another book, but that one was Summerworld, and that kicked off my renewed and rejuvenated interest in creating fiction.
Very little of the original idea remained, just a few basic components of the central premise, and notes towards a character or two. Some of that I used for the second time around, but they gave rise to a far more interesting premise that I am now keeping for the third go-round. So at this point literally everything about the original, except for the title, has been scrapped not once but twice.
This is why I'm a big proponent of keeping many ideas a-simmering on the back burners. Eventually, one of them will come to a boil.
Now I need to go back on myself for a moment and talk about something I've mentioned in the past: the need to step away from an idea when it's clearly not working, because it was the product of an earlier, and perhaps defunct, version of you. Some ideas just aren't worth trying to bring to a boil if they've been simmering for that long, because they are reflections of something you may well have outgrown, and needed to outgrow.
Am I doing this? I hope not. I've discarded far more than I've kept, and the story only has the most tenuous connection to its original incarnation. But the most important thing, I think, is that it is not the same kind of story. The first version was — I don't want to say mindless, but the sort of thing where the sheer scope of the goings-on was supposed to make up for the fact that I didn't really have much to say about all of it. Very much the product of someone younger and less experienced with how to construct a story, or to what end. Things are, I believe, different this time around.
I could be wrong. But there's only one real way to find out. And maybe this time I won't have to burn it again.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind