This has nothing to do with Pitch Wars. I want to set that straight right off the bat. I love my PW manuscript with the fiery passion of a thousand supernovas, even though I’ve read it and rewritten it so many times I’ve lost track. No, this is the story of another book I wrote, and it’s about self-analysis and having reasonable expectations.
In 2013 I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. I decided to dust off an old manuscript I’d started three or four years earlier, then shelved because I couldn’t figure out where I was going with it. I’d worked on it off and on for a long time, and the story–a Young Adult novel–had been generally well received, but I think my friends were starting to treat it like another stray cat: oh, that’s cute, but I don’t want it living in my house! Still, we must persevere! We have the stories in us, and they want to be told! Isn’t that why we write?
This thing had so much dust on it I was amazed, but I managed not to die in the resulting cloud flying off it. I sat down every day and worked on it, and lo and behold, I added 50,000 new words to the story. I was elated! It was finished! I loved what I’d written! It was a mystery wrapped up tightly inside a teen angst burrito, and hot damn, the pieces all came together! It was exhilarating. Liberating. Then I sat down to reread it and oh my sweet everything, you guys, the beginning was so bad. That was the part I’d written half a decade earlier, and it showed. It sucked.
Lesson #1: We’re constantly evolving as writers.
Our craft level goes up. Our interests change. Our stylistic quirks evolve. At one point I was completely in love with semicolons. Now I rarely use them, and they bug me when I do. Beyond that, the way we craft our stories changes. What worked for me five years ago doesn’t work any more. Hell, what worked for me last year doesn’t cut the mustard now.
Lesson #2: The story elements we find important change over time.
This goes along with Lesson #1, but it’s so important that it deserves its own number. There used to be a time when I found it important to include all the details, all the movement, all the tilts of the head, all the personality quirks. As my writing has matured, I realize that those are often things I need to know, but not things that need to be in the manuscript. Now instead of including a laundry list of what my character was thinking or feeling, I prefer to be evocative. That’s a good word. Google defines it as “bringing strong images, memories, or feelings to mind” and that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to give readers a connect-the-dots but let them draw the lines, especially when it comes to emotional content.
Lesson #3: Not every story idea belongs in every story.
As writers, we often like to torment our characters. I remember one of the first books I wrote (um, no, no one gets to see it, thank you). My poor main character’s background was so filled with every tragic, horrible thing I could think of, and I was proud of that! All those terrible things justified the person he’d grown up to be! Look at all the odds he’d overcome! Look at his sad, twisted tale! Now I look at it and see excuses and stereotypes, and I’m embarrassed. But hey! I’ve learned that yes, bad things happen and yes, sometimes a lot of bad things happen to one person, but fiction can be a lot more powerful when fewer things happen. That way, we can focus on the main storyline instead of hacking our way through all the twisted vines that end up hanging there oozing poison.
Lesson #4: It’s okay to let the characters lead the way, as long as I have final say on what happens.
That NaNo draft from 2013? That’s the first time I ever worked with a loose outline. I figured it worked for the short stories I’d sold, so why not apply that to a novel? Me, the confirmed pantser, working toward an outline? It worked, it worked, it worked. It helped me avoid the pitfall of Lesson #3. In fact, I used it again in 2014 when I wrote the (decidedly not young adult) novel that’s since evolved into my Pitch Wars entry. I didn’t know enough about plotting and outlining to do it the most complete way (I had to save something to learn from Pitch Wars), but at least I had an idea. The characters still had the run of the place, but I gently guided them toward the conclusion.
Lesson #5: It’s also okay to say “I think I’m not going to keep working on this book.”
This is the most difficult lesson of all. Remember I said the beginning of my 2013 novel sucked? That was no lie. I persevered. I workshopped it. I rewrote it. I started it again in different places. I entered it into first page contests. I queried it. And the whole time, I had a nagging feeling that this was not the book I was supposed to be shopping. I mean, I knew this wasn’t the book I should be sharing with the world. Oh, sure, it picks up around Chapter 5, but I couldn’t see clear to fixing the first four chapters. I lied to myself. I was convinced of their necessity. But every time I read it, I couldn’t wait to get past the first few chapters and into the meat of the story.
A few months ago I decided to spring for a face-to-face agent critique at a novel intensive I’d signed up for. I sent off the first ten pages of that novel. Since I was querying and getting requests but all the requests were followed by form rejections, I wanted to see what an actual agent would tell me to my actual face. Sent it off, rewrote my Pitch Wars novel (aka NaNo 2014 novel) and entered it in the contest, and when it was accepted I shoved the YA novel out of my mind. By the time the novel intensive workshop came around, I’d decided I was no longer interested in the YA novel, and I’d also come to the conclusion that I am really not good at writing YA. Still, I went to the face-to-face and got my feedback. As I sat there listening to the agent (Molly O’Neill, a perfectly lovely lady who I’d submit to in a heartbeat if I was still interested in writing YA), I nodded along. She confirmed everything I knew to be wrong with the opening. Luckily for me I’d shelved the manuscript and was able to listen to her excellent feedback with a neutral heart. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t sting. She even had some great suggestions on how to improve it, and for a minute hope flared in my chest that maybe I could salvage this book.
But it also confirmed that I’d made the right decision. By not bashing my head endlessly against the confines of that story, I’d freed myself to move along and write better stories, more appropriate coming from me.
Lesson #6: Learn when to let go.
Not every book is meant to be published. I had to learn to let go of that one. Wow, did it feel good.
I realize everyone’s writing journey is different. I’m not trying to force my rules on anyone. These are simply the things I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. I hope the insights are useful, but if not… get back to writing! That’s what I’m about to do.
With much love to you all.