About two-thirds of the way through my first novel (which you may remember from last week), I got completely stuck. I like to talk through problems, and for about the first year of this project I’d had my best friend Ali around to help me. We’d go to a diner, order french fries and coffee, and I’d read parts out loud or hand them across the table and then ask questions about the characters and their motivations and what might happen next.
But at this point, two-thirds of the way through the novel, Ali was finishing up a year of teaching in Lesotho, and I was alone in Albuquerque where I had exactly one friend (not counting my dog Zeke, who was an excellent listener, but not much for giving advice).
So I wrote her a letter.
[Text has been censored to protect non-abandoned novel project.]
December 12, 2004
I want to talk to you about my novel, but you’re still in Africa, so I’ll say it in a letter. I’ve been working on this novel for two and a half years, but last night I figured out that I’ve only actually worked on it for fourteen months, when you subtract all the time I spent not working on it. Fourteen months, and I’ve written 70,000 words. 70,000 words, and I don’t know how close it is to my original vision.
Remember that time you came to Madison, the summer after I graduated, and I let you read the very first notes I had about it? Or maybe I even let you read the first scene, I’m not sure. What I do know is that I was terrified. Back then, it seemed like such a huge undertaking, like I was standing at the base of Mt Everest, thrilled and terrified by my own audacity in announcing that I planned to scale it. Two and a half years later, I’m maybe half way up the mountain, camping in a little village and wondering why I’m here. Of course, I plan to reach the top – last night Lisa suggested I’ve said what I need to say and maybe I should give myself permission to walk away, and I was horrified by the very idea, because I’ve made a commitment to myself to finish this project. This, after all, is my apprenticeship, though ironically I’ve already finished a novel, so the quest of finishing a book has become rather a moot point. However, I’ve never finished one on my own, and that’s the quest. Plus, I would never forgive myself – or I should say, these characters would never forgive me – for walking away from them, for not telling their story. And that story….. is what?
When I started this book, I had questions of [XXX] in my mind. The question of why [XXX], and the corollary question of [XXX]. [XXXXXXXXX] Additionally, there are questions of what we leave behind when we leave, whether or not we can leave ourselves behind, and whether or not we can realize ourselves if we don’t leave. [Full page-long analysis of how all characters do or do not fit this overall theme.]
I had been thinking that [XXX], but maybe [XXX]. Maybe something happens where [XXX] or something. There’s something I like about that, and it somehow feels more organic at this point, even though I’d been holding the idea of [XXX] for as long as I’ve been writing this, pretty much.
Where, in all of this, does [XXX] fit? There’s something that’s not right, or not enough, between [XXX] and [XXX]. It’s too easy for her. I think we need to see more of her struggle to let go of [XXX]. Maybe she gets more anxious as their commitment grows deeper. Maybe after a few months, she starts freaking out.
I think I need to change it all into 3rd person, so that the middle section can show more of [XXX], and the beginning can have a little more [XXX]. Though I like where he appears, it might be nice to see a little more of him in the first part.
The [XXX] needs to go. Sad but true. I can do the same work in much much shorter time. It was fun to write, but I mainly wrote it in as a present to you, and I think it interrupts the flow in a way.
And then there’s the question of [XXX]. He [XXX], but why did he [XXX]? He [XXX] because he [XXX], and he realized that by doing so he was [XXX], for which he felt extremely guilty, and also he was overwhelmed by all the ties and expectations there were on him between [XXX], he felt like each day he was being trapped a little bit more, and felt that his chance at freedom was quickly escaping him. Also…. he worried that he [XXXXXX] – he felt that from that moment, he could only drop in her esteem.
So he [XXXXXX]. There’s a part of him that wants to [XXX], but realizes that he still has too many unanswered questions hanging over him. Also, [XXXXXXXXXXX], and for whatever reason she [XXX].
So far, we’ve met [XXX], and we’ve learned that she has a pattern of [XXXXX], and that she used to [XXX], but that she stopped when [XXXX]. She decided not to [XXXXXX]. We’ve met her friends: [XXX], the town’s [XXX] who dreams of moving to New York [XXX] and maybe dreams of [XXX]. It was hard for the two of them to [XXXXX]. There’s the tension of friendship vs. romantic relationships, as they try to navigate their way between the two. We’ve met [XXX], who’s a peripheral character who comes in every so often to tell it like it is. Why is he back? What does he dream of? They all [XXXXXXXXXXXX]. We’ve met [XXX], who’s really chill but surprises [XXX] when he decides to [XXX]. We’ve met [XXX], the only man in the whole book who [XXX], who helps [XXX] to break her pattern of [XXX]. But maybe she [XXXXXXXX]. Maybe she [XXX] and wishes [XXX], , maybe she wishes [XXX]. Maybe we should see more of that, that tension between who he is, and whether or not she feels like she’s settling, and who she wishes he were, aka [XXXXX].
What are the big questions here? What’s at stake? I think that at the heart of this book, beyond the ideas of American myths, are the ways in which we are tied into our lives by loyalties, betrayals, love, friends, family, guilt, memories, wishes, hopes, and regrets. As [XXX] says in part one:
“Perhaps he’d had no need to trace each twist on the map of his past that led him to this moment, to this life. Or maybe, like me, he’d lain awake at night and considered all the ropes of love and loyalty that kept him bound in his own life, felt the pull of every person in his life, of their needs and wants and expectations, until like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, he realized how inextricably he was tied into his place in this world.”
Those two sentences give me hope for myself as a writer, and hope for this book. : )
What happens next? Right now, they’re getting ready for [XXXXXX], and have just found out that [XXX] . [XXX] is planning to [XXXXX], and perhaps this is the night he tells [XXX] about it. He’s also struggling with [XXXXXXXXXXXXX]. [XXX] is struggling with [XXX]’s predictability and goodness, bored and yearning for a change. [XXX]…. what’s going on with him? Maybe concern that [XXX] seems distant? Homesickness, thinking about [XXX]? Or isn’t he the kind of person who looks backward, ever? Probably not.
So it’s a party, and [XXX] is trying to [XXXXXXXXX], but really she’s feeling penned in and nervous. [XXX]’s trying not to wallow in his broken heart, and is planning to [XXXXXXX]. And [XXX] are wondering if their relationship will survive this.
Then [XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX].
As winter moves into spring, [XXX] starts thinking about [XXX], while [XXX] can’t stop thinking about [XXX], since [XXX] keeps asking her questions about him. [XXX] plan to leave. Meanwhile, [XXX] is [XXX], but by the time he [XXXXXXXXXXXXX]. Slowly they rebuild their friendship? Or maybe they [XXX]. Oooh, that might be good. Maybe [XXX] shows up just in time to catch [XXX] before she leaves to go looking for [XXX].
I’m not sure. It feels more natural than [XXXXXXXX], though. Maybe they [XXX]? What do you think?
I do think this novel still has potential, and I don’t think it’s time to give up on it, not yet. How far can I get before you come home in two weeks? Not sure. Come home and tell me if I should turn the whole thing into 3rd person. I miss you. Thank you for believing in my work, and in me as a writer, and in me as a person. What would I do without you?
I’ve always said I think there are a frightening number of similarities between the road to true love and the road to publication. So since this week is all about keeping the flame lit for a WIP, I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at a few of the adages we’ve all heard about how to keep romance alive and well. But are they fact or fiction?
This girl thinks fiction. So with an eye toward WIPs, here’s my take on a few favorites:
Love maintenance rule #1: Lose the mystery and you lose the passion. Huh? I don’t even know that means. First of all, secrets scare me. I’m not one of those Oh-I-don’t-get-jealous types when it comes to my husband. I get jealous. And while I’m no Alex Forrest, I will admit to several fits of 10th grade girlfriend hysterics and drama. Trust me, I don’t need to think my husband has secrets. Likewise, I don’t want secrets in my manuscript. Call me nuts, but I like flaws. Flaws don’t scare me. Perfection scares me. Or worse, the belief that something is perfect. When it comes time to get down to the business of revisions, I want to be prepared for all the belly-button lint hiding in my paragraphs. Seeing my WIP as something as easily cracked as the spun sugar on a croquembouche doesn’t give me comfort. It gives me hives.
Love maintenance rule #2: Don’t give everything to your love; keep a piece for yourself. This piece you’re saving…are you saving it for your next WIP? Then why not give all of yourself to this WIP? Treat this manuscript as the best one you’ll ever write, heck, maybe the ONLY one you’ll ever write. Like in romance, there is only the now. Your mate will know if you’re holding something back. They’ll feel cheated—and so will your reader.
Love maintenance rule #3: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I know sometimes we have to be apart from the one we love, but I really don’t subscribe to this adage. I find myself more in the out-of-sight, out-of-mind variety. The same holds for my WIP. Putting it away doesn’t allow it to grow brighter and more lovable in my mind. It simply allows it to go away. Unless you and your manuscript are in danger of quitting one another for good and you need a real break, don’t take one. Keep your WIP on your radar and your devotion to it will stay there too.
…And lest this post come off as me sounding contrary, let me throw out a few pieces of love advice that do ring true when it comes to WIPs:
Set the mood for love. Oh, go on! Light those candles, pick that Pandora station, open that box of Trader Joe’s English toffee and feast! There’s nothing wrong with atmospheric enhancement.
Don’t be afraid to fall hard. Sure there’s a chance this one won’t work out, but you can be sure your WIP won’t see the light of day if you don’t let yourself fall as madly and deeply in love with it as is possible. Love (and write) with everything you’ve got.
* * * *
Okay, friends. Now go take that WIP of yours out and show it a good time. Then get a room and get busy.
(Oh, and feel free to leave any additional love advice in the comments. The more, the merrier!)
This week’s theme is ‘Preserving It: keeping the flame alive for a WIP’ (Note to my Mom: WIP is short for Work In Progress). I’m sure anyone here reading this knows that writing is work. Hard work, and that means sometimes it’s a frustrating slog and you just want to chuck it. I’ve definitely been there. As you may have gathered from last week’s post and how many unpublished projects I have languishing under my bed, I’m a work it and move on kind of girl, so it’s not really my style to work and work and work on a project (although I finish more than I don’t, something I’m pretty proud of). I bore fairly easily, which also might explain why a lot of my books are about very different things (except the romance stuff, because I NEVER tire of love stories). So digging in and working on a WIP over several drafts can be very tough for me.
And it’s not that I tire of my characters, because I love them all, even the rotten ones (maybe I even love the rotten ones a tiny bit more). But I get tired of reading the same stuff over and over until it feels like my eyes will start bleeding and I no longer have any sort of distance or objectivity. And there’s this weird imprinting phenomenon that seems to happen to me, where when I write a book, it imprints in my head and later on, if I cut out scenes, I still remember them as being in the book. So going back to edit seems extra hard because I honestly don’t know what’s in there anymore. A few weeks ago, I had to ask my husband if a particular scene was in SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE because I couldn’t remember if it made it into the final cut of the book—turns out it was in the YA version, but never made it into the MG one, but I still remembered it as being there. How crazy is that? you say. And it is crazy, but my brain just ain’t what it used to be. This is my writing handicap and might explain why I hate shoehorning stuff in and out of drafts—it totally screws with my head. Anyone else have this problem?
So how do I keep the flame alive when I’m struggling with editing a WIP (because I almost never struggle when drafting—to me, that’s the VERY BEST part of writing, where all the joy and discovery are)? Well, I think the brightest and hottest flame that burns inside me isn’t for a particular WIP or even for a character or scene, but for my dream of being a career author. When I think about how much work writing and re-writing and editing is, I remind myself that it’s still the only thing I want to do, the only job I’ve ever had that I truly love and have a passion for, despite how freaking hard it can be. That gets me going. That keeps me going day in and day out. And like they always say, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. Now, I really need to get back to that WIP, so I’ll leave you with a question: what part of writing makes you lose your flame or makes it flicker?
Congrats to Charlotte, winner of a copy of Alex George’s A Good American!
Congrats to Erika Robuck, winner of a signed copy of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters!
From the 2012 Debs…
Deb Joanne is pleased to announce she finally updated her website to a non-ugly and easy to update one: www.joannelevy.com. Also, the giveaway for an ARC of SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE is now live on Goodreads. Go ahead and enter – she’d love it if one of our faithful Deb readers won! Sorry, Mom, you’re not eligible.
Deb Erika knows of a lot of wonderful writers headed off to AWP (including Deb Molly!) and wishes she was joining them all.
Deb Molly is busily preparing for the AWP Conference (the biggest writing conference in North America!) this week, & especially looking forward to her panel, “Queer Voices in Young Adult Literature,” with fabulous fellow YA writers James Klise, Alexandra Diaz, and Meagan Brothers. And ALSO a certain former Deb will be in the Chicago area on Tuesday…
Deb Rachel will be reading from MWF Seeking BFF tonight at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago. If you’re in the Windy City, you can also tune in to her appearance on WGN Midday News on Thursday!
Past Deb News
Deb Elise was at the Passion and Prose Romance Conference on Saturday in Long Beach–we wish we could have been there!
While Deb Eleanor continues her touring schedule, THE WEIRD SISTERS hit #2 on the Indie Bestseller List and #5 on the New York Times List! Brava, brava!
Friends of the Debs
Deb Guest Sarah McCoy has been on the road promoting her new release THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER and getting rave reviews! Including this write-up in USA Today!
Recent Deb Guest Alex George‘s A GOOD AMERICAN made the Southern Indie Bestseller List this week. Cheers, Alex!
Deb Dish - With Oscar night upon us, what book do you think needs to be made into a movie–and who would you cast?
Deb Joanne – oh this is a tough one for me because I see books and movies as such different media that until I see a movie brought to life on the big screen, I can never really imagine it. I’m going to cop out here and say how much I’m looking forward to THE HUNGER GAMES movie because I do think that it’s going to be awesome and it has all the elements for a fantastic film.
Deb Erika–I think The Silent Land by Graham Joyce would make a wonderfully eerie film. I read it recently and loved it. It’s part ghost story, part love story, and all kinds of spooky.
Deb Molly — Kat Falls’ book Dark Life NEEDS to be a movie! Come on, Disney, quit screwing around & get on this one!
Deb Linda — I think it would be a hoot and a half to see Deb Rachel’s MWF Seeking BFF made into a movie. It would be like the Friends meets 50 First Dates, and could star Keri Russell as Rachel. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Deb Rachel loves Deb Linda’s idea! And LOVES Keri Russell. (Thanks Linda!!) She’d also like to see the film version of Cutting for Stone. Naveen Andrews could do the role of Marion justice.
AC Gaughen has been a lot of things in her life. Freelance writer, wrapper, hotel concierge, retail flunkie, telemarketer, non-profit board member and personal shopper are just the beginning of the list, but young adult novelist is without a doubt her favorite hat to wear. Her debut young adult novel Scarlet, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, released on Valentine’s Day, 2012 from Bloomsbury/Walker.
About Scarlet: Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past.
Sounds amazing! And now, from AC on this week’s theme of knowing when to pack it in:
When I was a kid, I always wanted a sister. My brothers tended to pair off–two of them, one of me–and I wanted someone to pair off with. Primarily, I wanted someone to play Barbies and American Girls with. I loved dolls–they seemed so interesting!–but playing by yourself, they’re sort of boring. And boys just don’t play well with dolls.
I started this habit of narrating the doll’s life. Giving her a backstory, what she had done today, where she was going now, who she was talking to. And without a sister to carry on the conversation, I just kept going. Pretty soon the physical bodies of the dolls became irrelevant and I just kept going on, and on, creating elaborate and lengthy stories in the quiet of my mind.
It honestly seemed supremely clever and totally indispensable–despite not having a personal DVD player, iPhone, iPod (iAnything) or many of today’s exciting technological toys (Tamagotchi, anyone?) the biggest punishment my parents meted out was to take something away and force me or my brothers to sit quietly. I thought I was so smart, because instead of idling by, I kept telling myself story after story in my head.
Eventually, I started writing them down.
This may sound simplistic or irrelevant, but it goes to illustrate a main tenet of my writing process–write first to entertain yourself. These stories have always been my clever response to any punishment life has to offer, the way to defend my heart and keep it warm. The stories I publish now aren’t wildly different from the stories I told myself as a child.
The opposite is true as well–stop writing if you’re bored. There’s some quote that roughly says if you can do absolutely anything else OTHER than be a writer, do that; I don’t think writing is something you choose. It chooses you, and it obsesses you, and if you can stop, do so immediately. This is true of your career and your work in progress.
If you can stop, STOP. If you can’t stop, then you’re on the right track, because you’re writing something you’re desperate to write–and equally, you’re writing something that you’re probably desperate to read. I think that’s the only way to write.
So throw in the towel early, and throw in the towel often. Clear out the dusty stories that clutter up your mental shelves and make room for the one that is going to grab you like a poltergeist and haul you around. It’s there. It’s waiting for you to become so deeply obsessed with it that you realize this is what you should have been writing all along.
Forget the rest, get totally obsessed, and write to entertain yourself. It’s the only way to play it.
Thanks so much for being with us today, AC!
If you’d like more info about AC or to follow her online, check out:
And for one of our lucky commenters, AC has offered up one of her awesome Scarlet T-shirts! Just leave a comment telling us which member of Robin Hood’s band (real or made up – be creative!) you would be.
In a Fix is the second novel I wrote, and the first one I sent out into the world.
I’m very lucky (A) that it got me a wonderful agent (the amazing Never-Say-Die Michelle Wolfson) and (B) that it sold. (Yay, Tor! Hooray, Melissa Frain, Editor Extraordinaire!)
Not that I didn’t rack up my fair share of rejections with it, both on the agent front and, later, on the editor front. Believe me, I have plenty of battle scars. (If we ever meet in person, we can compare, if you like. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. *grin*)
But since this post is supposed to be about the books we left behind, I guess I’ll have to tell you about my first baby.
*sigh* I still love that book. Warts and all.
When I finished writing it (let’s not go into how long that took me), my hubs made me a special manuscript box for it:
Wasn’t that sweet of him? He found letter stickers that look like typewriter keys to spell out the title and my name. The paw on the upper left side is kind of self-explanatory, and this . . .
. . . is a singularly appropriate sticker he came across. Catspaw is paranormal suspense, and the characters would do well to put safety first. Though, of course, they don’t. Wouldn’t be much of a book if they did.
When I finished Catspaw, I had every intention to start shopping it around. But I just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I didn’t think it was ready. However, I knew I was still too close to it to be ruthless enough with the revisions, so I decided to put it away for a few months, to give myself some distance.
(Distance is the best revision tool I know of—nothing makes problems with a manuscript visible quite like not staring at it for a while.)
To keep myself busy while I was waiting for those ms faults to float to the top, I decided to write another book. As luck would have it, while I was in my car traveling down the Fairfax County Parkway one day, I happened to spot a vanity license plate with the name “Ciel” on it, and bingo, my new MC was born. She was quick to blurt out her whole story while I feverishly took dictation.
Frankly, I had so much fun writing In a Fix, I never went back to Catspaw. The poor thing is still languishing in its box, waiting for me to fulfill my promise to it. (GAH! The guilt!) I decided to shop In a Fix instead, just for grins. And now I’m almost done with Quick Fix, the second book in the series, and have ideas bopping around in my head for the next one after that. (Gosh, that makes it sound all fast and easy, doesn’t it? That’s only because I left out the boring part about how many times I rewrote it for CPs and my agent and my editor along the way. Trust me, it was work. Fun work, but still work.)
But anyway, it’s not like I intentionally abandoned Catspaw. I still think I’ll get back to it someday, when my fling with light urban fantasy has run its course. I just hope it’ll forgive me when I do.
So, do you have anything tucked away out of sight making you feel guilty?
If not a book you wrote, maybe one you bought on impulse but haven’t gotten around to reading?
Or perhaps an outfit you bought but never wore? A half-made quilt? A boyfriend overseas you said you’d get back to but then somehow married somebody else instead?
(Not that I *cough* have personal experience with any of those. Much.)
Forget writing books. I don’t even know when to stop reading them.
It’s true. I don’t quit books. Even if I can’t stand the story, the characters, the sentences, the dialogue. Doesn’t matter. I plow through.
I’ve been told over and over that this is a mistake. “Life’s too short,” they say. “So many great books out there, don’t waste time on bad ones.”
Yeah, yeah. I know.
But I have my reasons. And they are four-fold:
1) The book might get great right after I put it down. This is my major fear when it comes to quitting books. What if I give up one page before the big car chase scene where everything gets turned on it’s head and suddenly it’s the Best Book Ever. Take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Everyone knows you need to give that one a good 100 pages. Maybe 125. If I’d quit 50 pages in I would’ve missed one of my favorite literary characters of the last five years. (Lisbeth, not Blomkvist.)
2) Quitters never win. Or something. I keep a running list of the books I read (started in September 2002 and still going strong), and if I don’t finish a book, I can’t add the title to my list. Feels like cheating. And I crave adding to my list. It’s the Rachel Bertsche version of the gold star.
3) Someone put their heart into this. It’s totally cheesy, but when I consider quitting, I can’t help thinking that someone out there sat at her desk day after day, pouring every ounce of her being into this book. I feel like I owe it to that writer to at least finish the story, even if my final verdict won’t be so positive.
4) If I don’t finish it, I can’t speak to it. Since MWF Seeking BFF hit shelves, the reviews I find most frustrating are the ones from readers who didn’t finish the book. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t get to a book’s end, you can’t comment on the story as a whole. It’s not an informed opinion of the entire book if you tossed it aside after 50 pages. So when I read, I want to read to the end. Even if I don’t like the book, I want to be able to say why. I hate coming to book club with only one comment to offer: “I couldn’t get through it.”
So that’s my story. I finish books. I took an extremely informal Twitter poll once and learned I’m in the minority, but at least I have my reasons.
All that said, I wouldn’t mind changing my ways. I get the sense that I’d read a lot more if I didn’t force myself to stick with books I didn’t enjoy. I move through the tough ones mighty slowly.
So, now’s the time. Please convince me to start quitting books. Ok? Go.
What about you? If you don’t like a book, do you put it down or suffer through?