Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dear Writergirl: Finish or start a new novel?


Dear Writergirl,

About a month and a half ago, I started writing a novel. I'd planned it a bit, and was doing well for a while, writing half a chapter every day. Then I stopped. I stopped because I wasn't sure how to get to the next stage of the story, and it was close to Christmas and I was busy (I know, excuses, excuses...) and the longer I left my novel alone the worse I began to think it was. After a while, I just thought that my novel sucked and I shouldn't carry on with it. I still wanted to write, though, so I began to form the idea for another novel in my head. But now, I keep thinking of my old novel, and that maybe I should take it up again.

So, I need your advice. Should I pick up my old novel again (and if I do, how do I get past the transition from one stage of the story to the next?) or should I ditch it completely and start writing something else?

Thanks, Hopelessly Stuck

Dear Hopelessly Stuck,

Years ago I lost a good friend to cancer, a delightful, compassionate woman who as much as anyone deserved a long healthy life. Despite many miles between us, we spoke often by phone as she fought and fought and fought. When at last forced to admit she was dying, she confessed to me that she feared falling asleep. The simple closing of her eyes, the release from the day’s worries, the rest she’d once craved – she dreaded it, fearing she’d never wake up.

Right there in her hometown were friends and family who held her through chemo, who helped her down stairs as she grew unsteady, who loved her deeply as they love her still. Yet in the distance between her and me was a strange sort of comfort, an allowance for vulnerability that let her share with me what she couldn’t with people who were right there. We cried together over the phone without having to face each other’s tears, grieving the inevitable day when she would close her eyes without fear and let go.

I don’t mean to leave the wrong idea. A novel, finished or not, in no way equate to a human life. Driven by creative vision, this is no small point to file away. Momentum matters, but it’s not everything.  

And you know momentum, H. S. Half a chapter a day is no small achievement. One sentence at a time. Persistence. Discipline. You get that. Excuses, excuses, you say parenthetically, but in your heart of hearts I believe you know, love, that those excuses carry an odd kind of wisdom. You may fear the finish. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Finishing requires great courage. Once you finish, you have to face the book square on, its truth and its beauty, and also its ugly, misshapen parts.

You’re afraid the book sucks. That’s entirely possible. You understand of course that this has nothing to do with you, or with your characters, or with your plot, or with your understanding of the semi-colon. Whether it’s your first or your tenth or your twenty-ninth book, novels in general have great potential to suck. So do essays and poems and pretty much any words you put on the page, including that email you shot off last week without really thinking.

I commend you for stopping, H.S., even if your excuses were lousy and seasonal. There are writers who fear shutting their eyes to their work. The danger in that is a finished novel that sucks. As simple math would have it, it’s a lot easier to start over from the middle than from the end.  

The beauty of stuckness is distance, the psychic space to be vulnerable and true. You must make the most of this lovely period of rest that’s also called being stuck. You must step outside your half-finished novel and read it like a waitress who stashes quarters in a jar until she scrapes together $24.99 to buy the hardcover edition. Read it straight through. Find where the waitress feels ripped off. Don’t try to fix these parts, just pay attention to them: the emotional flat zones, the sloppy prose, the doughy characters.

But watch too for the places where your waitress jumps up and down on the couch while jabbing the page and screaming yes, yes, this is it, this is why I bought this book. Those parts are your way back to the story. If you left off on page 121, don’t worry about page 122. Return to that place on page 19 with the killer dialogue. Return to page 43 where your character felt so close you could smell her hair. These are the places where your book will awaken. You didn’t really think you had to write straight through from page 1 to page 342, did you, love?

You have many books in you, H.S. Isn’t that amazing? If that impoverished, book-loving waitress threatens to tie you to the chair till you finish book one, you’ll know you must do it. If she demands her $24.99 back, it’s time to move on.

But don’t ditch it completely, dearest. There’s no need. Words travel light. Your novel, half-finished or whole, bears witness to a marvelous journey you’ve only begun.

Truly yours,

Writergirl

Send your questions on writing, publishing, life, love, or anything else to askwritergirl@gmail.com.

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