Think about your own work. How many times have you begun a book with A Great Idea, a plot filled with Great Characters, Wonderful Setting…and several months later, the only thing you have left is the title (maybe) and a couple of characters.
For the most part, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my titles have stuck as well as the basic premise of the books. From there, however, the finished product has always varied in several degrees from the original concept.
My favorite example was the plot for Forsaken Soul. This book was originally meant to be the introduction of Sir Hugh, Prioress Eleanor’s eldest brother, who had just returned from crusade with King Edward. In that same book, I also wanted to bring back Juliana, the somewhat crazy (or maybe too sane) friend of Prioress Eleanor, who begged entrance to the priory as an anchoress in Tyrant of the Mind.
Have you ever been at a gathering where there were two people of such strong personalities that conflict was bound to happen? Same thing can be the case with characters in a book. Hugh and Juliana warred with each other to the point that the book became less a story about (spoiler deletion) than about their dislike for each other. One had to go, along with his or her subplot. At the same time I was struggling with this, I also experienced six weeks of sciatica. That gave birth to a character and her back-story which hadn’t been part of the original plot at all. By the time I finished tossing Hugh, placating Juliana, giving depth to this new person, adding a new killer with a new motive, and reworking the first half of the story, I had a very different book.
None of this is a bad thing. In fact, if you aren’t under some hellacious deadline, it can be fun. Over time I have learned to listen to my characters. In Tyrant of the Mind, I could not get the story going until I put Brother Thomas in the first chapter instead of Prioress Eleanor, a change he was demanding. In Forsaken Soul I had to choose between characters (Hugh got his book later) and let another one in.
While listening to what your characters are telling you, don’t discard your original ideas. Record them. Muses don’t toss ideas at us without at least expecting them to become mental compost. An idea, character, setting, or phrase can be helpful later. With Sir Hugh, I was able to expand on his character in A Killing Season because I had kept notes on him and mulled them over for a couple of years. And don’t think discarding ideas, rewriting most of the book, or even changing the focus are indications of failure. Part of craft is experimentation and learning what works.