While I wish I’d been able to finish the first draft of Dream Deferred in 2020 instead of having what promised to finally be the homestretch destroyed by lockdown, I’m glad that long break gave me so much time to clear my head and think objectively again about where I went wrong and the direction I want to take the story in. The lessons I learnt from this experience can be applied to anyone in a similar predicament.
1. You don’t need to have every detail of a storyline nailed down before you start writing, but you should at least know where you want to take it. You’ll quickly lose control of your story if you have nothing but a vague idea and keep changing your mind.
2. It’s fine to do research during the writing process, but you shouldn’t constantly interrupt yourself to go down yet another distracting rabbit hole. I couldn’t stop researching NYC schools, neighbourhoods, types of housing, commuting times, and nearby cities.
3. It’s okay to admit certain characters don’t fit into the entire story, even if your original intentions were to make them important secondary characters. Fictional people, just like real people, often naturally grow apart from friends, or develop a different kind of friendship over time.
4. It’s also okay to admit your characters outgrew a certain area, and admit to yourself that you chose the setting for the wrong reasons. This is obviously trickier to fix if it happens several books into a series, but it’s hardly unusual for people to move when life takes them in a new direction. Luckily, I planted subtle seeds, both deliberate and unknowing, in the first three books. It was just a matter of the characters themselves coming to this conclusion.
5. Go back to the beginning of the book, or at least the point where everything started falling apart, to see what went wrong and how you should fix it. Then you can plot out those chapters all over again, properly this time, along with the remaining chapters.
6. The last quarter of a book isn’t the time to start introducing over a dozen new subplots and characters! If this is strong, important material, you can move it to the next book in the series so it can shine the way it deserves. Otherwise, these storylines will be too rushed, or cause the wordcount to sprawl even further.
7. Remind yourself why you came up with this storyline in the first place. If it truly belongs there, you don’t need to drive it into the ground with chapter after chapter, dialogue after dialogue, arguing in support of it. Who are you trying to convince, yourself or your characters? Likewise, if you start second-guessing yourself, don’t go the opposite direction and bloat the manuscript with chapters and dialogues arguing against the idea.
8. If a storyline involves a major move, and this is historical, think about what that city was like in that era. Not the way it is now or the way it became 15-20 years later. In 1952, NYC was still very much a world-class city with top-flight free schools, apartments one could comfortably raise a family in, a vibrant art and intellectual scene, and a nice standard of living. It was an exciting time to live in the city, not an era of devastating urban decay.
9. There’s a lot of great dramatic and emotional potential if you discover you chose the existing setting for the wrong reasons. Maybe your characters thought a small rural town would be perfect for starting over and healing after bad experiences in a large city, or they moved to a big city because of negative experiences in a small town.
10. There’s more opportunity for big-picture storylines if most of your major characters are in the same location instead of only together for important family celebrations. A lot of my smalltown Minnesota storylines are centered around family and personal drama, whereas when the Konevs are in New York, they’re drawn into much bigger, more complicated dramas.
11. If everyone your characters know and love live in a certain city, AND there’s more opportunity there for things which are important to them (art, higher education, museums, living near other intellectuals), going home seems a foregone conclusion.
12. As the writer, you’re always the one in control. If you don’t like the way you wrote something, the onus is on YOU to change it. You’re not helplessly tethered to your original ideas no matter what. This also includes writing new scenes or chapters to fill in gaps and strengthen the overall story. Meekly writing around and on top of a hot mess will only compound the problems.
13. If you’re overwhelmed and can’t decide which direction to take things in, step away from the story to do more research, plot out a lot of different potential directions, and write lists of pros and cons.
14. If the story has moved on from certain secondary characters, the best thing to do is to let them remain in the background. You’ll make things worse if you force them back into the story. Those scenes won’t read naturally, and will feel like an awkward reminder that these people still exist.
15. If important planned storylines for future books in a series are predicated upon characters being in different cities, just move the locations.
16. Think long and hard about where your characters would truly feel most at home, and if it feels like a natural new chapter of their lives to move to another city and/or type of housing. E.g., many people move home to be near aging parents or downsize from a large house to an apartment when they become empty nesters or only have two kids left at home.