I’ve been feeling cocky lately. Writing this blog to my beginner self of fifteen years ago made me realize how much progress I’ve made since I started. I’ve been smug, thinking I had discovered the secrets to my creative process and confident that I had the tools to take my writing to the next level. And I’ve been feeling generous—eager to share with other struggling writers my wealth of knowledge about inspiration and motivation, perseverance and discipline.
Today, though, I feel like I’m back at square one. It’s 1:34 and I have done absolutely nothing toward my writing goals. I’m stalled. Stuck. Floundering with a first draft that’s really more like a tenth draft. The truth is I don’t know what to do next. My usual little tricks don’t seem to be working for this one—
I’ve put the manuscript away. I’ve read it with a fresh eye. I’ve charted out the whole thing, trying to figure out what I have and what’s still missing. In the process I discovered that what I thought I was writing about has changed. Now this realization doesn’t freak me out. It’s happened to me before. In fact it’s happened every time I’ve written a book. Somehow the point—what you think is the point anyway—sort of morphs into something else. The story takes off. The characters suddenly start acting like real people, doing what they want instead of what you planned for them to do. It’s a pretty cool moment in the process when the story becomes what it really is, and it’s probably the most fun part about being a writer—just letting it go and following along for the ride. Later, you can see what the over-arching story is and that knowledge helps you shape the second draft.
But here’s my problem. I’m not seeing it. I have glimmers here and there but that’s it. Stephen King in his book On Writing talks about how a story is always there somewhere, like a fossil underground, and our job as the writer is to discover it and dig up the pieces. The better writers are able to uncover the majority of the bones and put them all together. Beginning writers might only be able to get a few or maybe they stick the leg bone in the wrong socket. I’m feeling like a beginning writer this week. I’m not finding all my story pieces. Or maybe I have most of the pieces but I can’t figure out how to rearrange them correctly. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as correctly with this book anymore. I’ve written so many versions of it, I’m afraid I’ve damaged it or lost the heart of what it was meant to be somewhere along the way.
Over the past few weeks I’ve gone back and read some of the versions. I’ve kept a journal of all of my questions and problems and plot holes. I’ve taken walks. I’ve read books (a few great ones that made me feel overwhelming despair that I’ll never get this figured out. And a few mediocre ones that remind me that I can.) I’ve gone back and read old rejections/critiques on this manuscript. Here, I’ve been fortunate to have several editors give me some really good feedback on what’s working and not working with this story, one editor going so far as to ask for a revision and giving me specific points to consider. I’ve also talked to my generous, insightful, inspirational writing buddies, as well as to my long-suffering husband who listened to me rant and rave all weekend about my struggles with this book.
But I’m still stalled.
So what’s the answer here? I don’t know. There is a part of me that considered quitting on this book. Just saying, forget it. I gave it many years already. I certainly tried. But there is another part that refuses to let it go. I heard the great editor Patti Lee Gauch speak at a conference once. She said writers can be taught all of the elements of a story. We can learn about setting, characters, plot. We can study grammar and punctuation. We can have editors advise us on revision. But no one can help us with the heart of the story. Some stories have it and some stories don’t. I know this story has one. I can’t let it go. And I believe I’m the only one who can tell it. I have no deadline. No real pressure from anyone except myself. In all likelihood this book will never see a bookstore shelf.
I don’t care.
Time to get back to work.