Deb Molly Sat Right Down and Wrote Herself a Letter

2012 Debutante Molly BackesAbout 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

Dear Ali,

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.


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?



8 Replies to “Deb Molly Sat Right Down and Wrote Herself a Letter”

    1. I don’t actually remember if I ever sent it — I’m guessing I didn’t. But yes, the writing was the important part — after that, I felt like I knew what I was doing and wanted to keep going.

  1. WE MUST KNOW WHAT HAPPENED? Did you send the letter? Did this process help you?
    I often talk out my work with my husband. I tell him I need ‘plot assistance’ and while he glazes over, I tell him what I’m working on and what the issue is. His answer is always “What that book needs, is a car chase.” I have yet to put a car chase in one of my books, but talking it out almost always helps.
    But seriously – we need to know what happened, Molly.

    1. I’m still working on this story, a billion years later. The letter definitely helped me work through the story, and gave me new gumption to go on. But I don’t think I sent it? I’d ask Ali, but 1) she has a worse memory than I do, and 2) she’s currently living in Costa Rica. Maybe I should write her letter… 🙂

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