Lost in translation

By PD Martin

About a year ago I came up with an idea for a new novel. It was the kind of idea that kept eating at me, kept calling to me “Write me”. I knew it was an idea I’d get to sooner rather than later, that it would ‘jump the queue’ in terms of the projects I had planned. This is the order I’m supposed to be doing things in:

  1. Books 2 & 3 in my Guardian and Wanderer series (Pippa Dee)
  2. Book 2 in my new “RB and The Committee series” (as a follow-on to Hell’s Fury)
  3. Another mainstream drama project (I was hoping to have an agent and a sale by now for my first mainstream drama novel, but alas it hasn’t happened yet).

Then, and only then, would I move onto this ‘new’ idea, something that’s completely different again to what I’ve been writing. It’s a post-apocalyptic YA thriller/action adventure.  I know…I’m all over the shop.

However, when I was in bed at night, I’d literally think about scenes from this book. I’d see and hear them in my head, compose the sentences and dialogue. I had the character down — a tough 18 year old who’d been imprisoned since she was 10 because she was a ‘danger to society’. But I didn’t write any of these scenes down. I trusted my subconscious and conscious to let the idea brew, to fully form. But now, I’m not so sure…

I’ve finally answered the call of this book and put all of my 1-3 points above on hold. After a little bit of initial but essential research, I started writing last Thursday. In fact, it’s the first thing I’ve written since we collected Liam in Korea a few weeks ago. And I am also aware that my writing stints are going to be an hour here, an hour there, and then one full day (Thursdays).

Now here’s the problem. The book isn’t coming out at all like it’s been in my head for the past year or so. The main character, instead of being a kick-ass bad-ass chick with a major attitude problem, is turning out to be a young woman who wants redemption for ‘her kind’, who wants to prove she can do more than only destroy society. But I just don’t know. Is the book lost in translation or is this how it is meant to be, how it always would have turned out even if I’d answered its call twelve months ago, or even six months ago? It’s not that I’m not happy with what I’ve written so far and I am only 5,000 words in so it’s hard to tell. But still, why is it so different to what I’d envisaged?

So, Murderati…for those of you who write, has this ever happened to you? Found a book comes out incredibly different on the page to what it was in your head? And for the readers, do you ever get the feeling a book is different to what perhaps the author first thought?

And finally, any thoughts on whether I should go with the flow, what’s coming out on the page, or ditch my 5,000 words and start again trying to be true to the original vision. 

9 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. Sarah W

    I've read a few books (and have seen more movies) where characters and/or plot lines have changed markedly halfway through,and depending on the deftness of the transition ("Twist" vs. "Whoops!") and the skill of the writer, I'll go along or not.

    But if the entire book is written differently from the writer's original vision, how are readers to know? A character can start with a badass reputation (maybe one she believes, too) and reveal a little later that her motives are different and the readers will assume this was the plan all along.

    I think if your 5,000 words are good, if different, and there are more to add, you might keep going. After all, you can write the 'original book' next time—there's nothing to stop you from writing the same premise from a different character's POV (or is there? is there a rule?).

  2. Jake Nantz

    James Thurber: "Don't get it RIGHT the first time, just get it WRITTEN."

    I've had projects turn around on me like that, and they normally come out better for it. The badass chick is still in there, but it sounds like she's becoming less a caricature and more like a living person. She can still be badass, but is now more well-rounded. I'd say run with it and see how it comes out. You can always edit later….

  3. Alaina

    I don't know if you're used to pantsing or not (NaNoWriMo term: write by the seat of your pants), but it sounds like you are. No solid outline, no complete unfolding, and so forth. I do it a lot, though I haven't gotten published yet (and I have a new critique partner who's got me believing it's because I can't edit well enough), and I write YA fantasy, so I have some idea of where you're coming from.

    YA characters rarely come onto paper like they seem in your head. So, here's my question for you: can that 'major attitude problem' be the same thing as wanting redemption? To the authorities, to her parents (if any), to society at large? Because a lot of YA has to deal, however it seems, with the way things look to children versus adults. It's a time when you have ideals and convictions and knowledge that, in many ways, equal and rival the adults… but don't get any of the respect or acknowledgement that goes with it.

    I can see what you said is coming out as looking appealing. At the same time, try this: go back and reread those 5,000 words from the POV of a police officer of the time. A teacher. A politician. A ten-year-old. Does it change?

  4. Reine

    Hi PD,

    I'm fascinated by the sound of your YA character, as she has been revealing herself through your writing. I suspect the most interesting characters of fiction have developed in their very writing. How can you predict every nuance or turn without seeing results in front of yourself? Even in academic writing – even in the writing of research results – the putting of all on paper and having a thorough look, often reveals the previously unnoticed.

    Do write this. I need to read it.

  5. Lisa Alber

    Makes me wonder if being a new mom to Liam has softened you for the moment, know what I mean? It could be lack of sleep, for all you know–hah!

    That said, seems like going with the flow, not fighting yourself, might be the best bet…Your first visions from a year ago are those of a different person than you are today. We're forever changing.

    I'm one to talk–I fight my instincts all the time, questioning myself, when really, the subconscious knows best. Besides, would it be possible to add a little of the kick-assed-ness to her during revision?

  6. PD Martin

    Hi Sarah. True that the readers won't know it's different to my original vision. And I definitely won't be changing character or character motivation half-way through – I agree, that is annoying! I don't think I could write the story again from a different POV, but I have been thinking since I posted this blog that I could/should write the opening scene again more like it was originally in my head and then see which one's better!

    Jake I'm a big fan of editing later, too. It's easier to edit SOMETHING than start from scratch. Still, I like my idea above about re-writing the opening scene with more of the bad-ass and then comparing the two.

  7. PD Martin

    Alaina, I haven't heard of the term pantsing (very official sounding, by the way…I like it!) but I do a lot of pantsing in my writing. I don't tend to plan much, not until I'm about half way into the book and need to sort a few things out. And even then, sometimes I do the plot tweaking as part of the editing process at the very end. But I haven't had a character and first few scenes come out so differently to what I'd planned/heard in my head. I wonder if it IS the YA thing. Interesting.

    Actually, the more I think about it, the more I can see one possible problem. Really, the main character's arc goes from bad-ass and defensive to realising she wants/needs redemption. So maybe because I've had this book in my head for a while, I'm writing the character as she should be at the END not the beginning.

    And interesting that your new critique partner thinks you haven't got published because you don't edit well enough. I should also say, it IS getting harder (much harder) to get published these days. And there's always a bit of luck in there, too – being in the right place at the right time, which in our biz means getting it to the right editor or agent at the right time. But on the editing, I highly recommend Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King. You got it?

    Good luck with your writing and editing!

  8. PD Martin

    Reine, I'm glad you think the book sounds intriguing! It's actually the concept (which I don't want to go into in too much detail at this early stage) that's got me really excited. Anyway…

    Yes, writing does change but I'm not sure if that's it in this case. As I said in my previous comment, I've just realised that I think I'm starting the character arc at the end not the beginning. Still, I am prepared for the fact that it may change! I'll re-write my first few thousand words and see what happens. Who knows, maybe I'll decide to keep my current draft.

    Lisa, you have got me thinking re being a new mum again! Maybe that is part of it. And anything is possible with lack of sleep 🙂 I'm definitely suffering there. I was oscillating before about going with my instincts and what was coming out on the page, versus going with the original vision. And a big part of me was thinking – go with the flow. But then writing this blog and the comments have given me a few things to think about (thanks, everyone) and I think I know what I need to do now. And yes, a rewrite later could bring more bad-ass back but I would prefer to set the tone/voice in the first draft for this project. It's such a strong part of everything and has consequences on plot, too.

    So, my task for this week is to re-write the opening scene/s 🙂

  9. Reine

    PD, I will be happy with the story. I'm just anxious to read it! I read a lot of YA fiction and very happy to find an author I like writing YA. Did you know your comments are not showing up here? I have been reading them in email.

    — And children, especially of the new variety, mmmm yes… can cause all sorts of tired things and such.

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