Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?

These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.

So let's say you've invested a large amount of worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed, and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery and doesn't feel right.

Walk away.

Don't just leave it alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.

Yes, it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this! How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's something you haven't done before.

When I walked away from my first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels, and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another. Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections started getting better.

Then I picked up a new novel. Totally new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time. Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!

Because it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.

For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.

I wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to them.

1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along, and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.

2. The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.

3. The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact that Tagret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot, why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary). The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of the entire novel when I get back to it.

When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.

How do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste. They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest. They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I loved, I can go back.

Here's the reward. Even before I've finished For Love, For Power, I can tell it won't die in the middle this time. I write a chapter in the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I can feel it's better. I handle everything more confidently and more subtly because I'm a better writer now. I can even feel ideas coming together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to draft something worth sticking with this time.

It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.


  1. Excellent advice. I saw a major improvement, too, when I put my novelwriting aside and tried other forms for a while. It's easy to get into a mindset of pushing forward to publication, when the right path might actually be a more wandering one that lets you learn stuff.

  2. I'm in a similar place, with a novel I started in 2006, gave up on several times, ignored for a while to write (and finish) other novels, and returned to in 2009. It's finally working now, thanks to the experience I've gained. I might actually make it to the end this time!

  3. Heidi, I hope your wandering gets you to a new and better place.

    Wonderer, thanks for the comment. I hope you make the novel work!

  4. Very good point on the advantage of walking away for a while. I have a couple novels that I wasn't good enough to bring to full form when I wrote them, but the stories are still good so I plan to redo them based on the skill advances I've made.

    Another side to this is something I've learned which is don't wait to write the story that calls to you until you're "good enough." A start, even if broken, is something to work from and which will help recapture the heart of the idea. I've lost one novel possibly forever and "saved" two others because the first I didn't write when I was in that headspace and my mind is different now while the others needed serious triage, but one is getting good comments from agents (no takers, but still...) and the other I'm just finishing up the changes which were radical, but the heart is there.