Lessons Learned from Wrangling with the Impossible Book

I have spent the last seven months or so wrangling with The Impossible Book.   Never mind the working title, that’s what I’ve begun to call it in my head.  Now, I’ve published 8 books at this point, so I do know the universal truth about book writing: it is freaking hard work.  No author–at least no one I know–shrugs and says, Oh yeah, easy-peasy.  when asked about their work in progress.  In fact, if you’re writing a book now, just go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for being brave enough to tackle the challenge.  Because every book is a challenge.  Every book I write is going to present those moments when I realize that the plot’s timeline needs to be restructured, or a whole chapter needs to be ripped out, or that I need to dig deeper into the hero’s emotional journey.

 But this book–Gah!  It started off as almost a lark–an idea that popped into my head and I thought, Oh, that will be a quick, fun book to write.

Ha.  Ha Ha Ha.  Has anyone out there seen the movie Austen Powers?  You know that scene where he’s trying to kill the evil spy woman who just won’t die no matter what he does to her?  And finally they fall out of an upper-story window together and he has his hands around the woman’s neck saying, WHY. WON’T. YOU. DIE?   I was just telling my husband that that is how I have begun to feel about this book: WHY WON’T YOU LET ME TYPE ‘THE END’?  I have a file of everything I’ve deleted from this book that is now approximately twice as long as the book itself.  And the book is over 100K long!  I’ve ripped out huge chunks of plot threads, changed the voice, the setting, the characters . . . and not just once for any of those.

Why has this book been so hard?  I have no idea.  Seriously.  Seven months into the process and the best I can come up with is ‘some books are just like that’.  Anyone who has thoughts on why some books are just like that, sound off in the comments and let me know!  However, what I have discovered is that the past seven months of book-wrangling have pushed me towards some valuable lessons, which I’d like to share here today.  Because focusing on the positive enables me to suppress the eye-twitch I’ve also developed over the last seven months.  No, just kidding.  Mostly.  I really am grateful for the whole experience.  But in the hopes that maybe I can help you shorten your own impossible-book-wrangle, I will tell you what I’ve learned.

I can do hard things.  I read about this idea somewhere and decided awhile back that I was going to make it my personal mantra:  I can do hard things.  It’s so simple–and yet it’s just an invaluable mindset to be able to place yourself into when faced with a challenge.  And let me tell you, I have seldom needed it more than when wrestling with this book!  Every book reaches a point where it would be so much easier to give up on it, scrap the whole idea and give in to the siren call of a shiny new idea that promises that, No, really, I will be an easy book to write.  Don’t do it!  Don’t give up those characters of yours.  They’re counting on you to tell their story.  And you can do it–because you can do hard things.

Likewise, this is also invaluable when faced with that other inevitable aspect of book-wrangling: editing.  Cutting.  Killing your darlings.  One of the most painful realizations you can come to as an author is that a piece of writing–a sentence, a scene, a whole series of chapters–is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, something you’re just repulsively proud of . . . and yet it has no place in your story.  It’s hard to be brave enough to scrap writing that you love.  It’s hard even to scrap writing that you know deep down just isn’t working and face the terror of having to start afresh.  But you can do hard things.

Go back to basics.  When my work in progress hits a brick wall and I find I have no idea what happens next . . . or when I know something is wrong but I have no idea how to fix it or make it better . . . I find it’s really helpful for me to go back to story’s roots.  Every story starts out with a tiny seed, a germ of an idea.  Ask yourself what was it about your story that made you fall in love with it in the first place? Why did you feel that here was a book that you absolutely had to write?  Remembering that helps me to recapture that initial enchantment with the heart of the book.  And it helps me to remember what the heart of the book is.  That’s really the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you craft your plot: what is the true heart of this story I’m telling?

Trust that you have a unique story to tell.  I was e-mailing back and forth with my writing partner about this Impossible Book of mine, and she wrote, These books don’t write themselves, you know.  Someone needs to wrestle with them, and for this story, that’s you.  Now, that’s really profound if you think about it.  I knew there was a reason I love my writing partner so much!  It’s true, and it’s vital to remember:  you are the absolutely the only person on the entire planet who can write the book that you are writing.  Take five people and give them each identical plot ideas for a book–and they will still turn out five completely different books, because each of us writes with a unique voice and has a unique story to tell.  And if you give up on your story, it’s never, ever going to be told.

I’m happy to report that (unless of course the Impossible Book yanks the rug out from under me again!) I’m almost there.  I’ve rounded a corner, broken through the clouds, am at a point where I’ve got a draft that I’m truly happy with.  And I’m truly grateful to have gone through all the steps that led me to this point, both for the lessons learned and the nearly completed book I now have.  Even if I wish just a little bit that the wrangling hadn’t gone on for quite so long. :-)

What about you? Have you wrangled your own impossible book?  What lessons did you learn?

Photo by oricpixel.

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Great post! I am afraid I will have to plagiarize and use (share) your personal mantra. Love it!

    Also excellent that you have such a supportive writing partner.

    Good luck with The Impossible Book!

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  2. says

    Thanks, Anna, I needed this. I’ve been wrestling with my wip about 3 years, but it’s my first, so a lot of it has been learning HOW to write a book. As you said, I’m the only one who can tell this story.

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    • says

      It’s really true, Elizabeth–only you can bring your story to life. And learning how to craft a book really is an invaluable step in the process. No book is ever easy, but once you really figure that out, it does get easier.

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  3. says

    Just what I needed to hear – although I had hoped it would get easier after the first book (with whom I have been mud-wrestling for far too long).
    I love your personal mantra, as well as the idea that only you can tell the story in the way you feel it needs to be told. Good luck and may it get ‘easier’…

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    • says

      I don’t know–in some ways it does get easier in that I think with each book you develop a stronger understanding of your own process, an understanding of how to craft a book in a way that works for you. Maybe it just doesn’t feel easier because as your craft develops, you’re inevitably drawn to telling more complex stories.

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  4. says

    Great points. I am currently in that wrestling match with my WIP but I’ve been here before. I have a plot and a crime but have yet to discover my villain. But, I’m not panicing as I know that he/she will appear if I just allow my hero to push for the truth. I believe in my subconscious to keep grinding away in the attic until the thunderbolt strikes and I say, ‘Of course.’

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    • says

      “I believe in my subconscious to keep grinding away in the attic until the thunderbolt strikes and I say, ‘Of course.’”

      I really like that way of thinking of it, Alex! And learning to trust in the process and in your own ability to tell the story is a huge part of writing.

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  5. says

    The only thing harder than writing the Impossible Book is writing it against an Impossible Deadline. Your points are great. I’d add only one: lean on your craft.

    From pitch prep: What’s the main problem? From character building: Why is this person conflicted? From scene structure: What’s the turning point in this scene and how many things change as a result? And from your heart: What the heck do you want to say? Right now. Today. In this scene.

    When focus won’t come it’s not because it isn’t there to begin with. It is. It may be, though, that you haven’t yet done enough twisting of the dial on the microscope.

    And remember, your publisher will wait. I mean, what are they going to do–take a loss or publish a book? 99 out of 100 times it’s the latter.

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    • says

      Excellent advice, Don, and (as usual with your comments) enough food for a whole new post. I think that’s what I was trying to say in my point about going back to basics–try to laser in on exactly what about this story made you fall in love with it. And then use every bit of craft technique in your arsenal to make those elements of the story the absolute best they can be.

      I am really lucky in that this is a purely on spec book and I’m NOT working under The Impossible Deadline. But to anyone who is facing deadline pressure from a publisher, agent, etc., my advice is to ask them (in the nicest, most polite, and professional way possible, of course): Well, do you want a book, or do you want a GOOD book?

      We all want good books, of course.

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    • says

      Just wanted to chime in to say these questions helped me to push past a sticky bit of revision today, Don. Thank you.

      And thanks for a great post, Anna. I’ve been wrangling with an Impossible Book for a few years now, and really appreciate the confidence-boosting words. I’m also glad to hear the clouds have parted for you!

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    • says

      Great post, Anna, and excellent advice, Donald. I’m going to copy your thoughts about scene and stickem on my forehead.

      As to the impossible book….Um, ten years? There’ve been times when I kept going simply because it would make me ill to throw all those years of work away. I began knowing precisely zip–about plot, POV, scene, summary, the whole thing.

      In my MFA program (which was a great program but maybe no so great if you’re writing a novel and no one but you ever reads the whole thing) I was seduced by the notion that people loved my writing voice, but only discovered later that its structure resembled the Blob in that old horror movie.

      I’m
      getting

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  6. says

    Anna,
    This says it all for me:

    “Ask yourself what was it about your story that made you fall in love with it in the first place? Why did you feel that here was a book that you absolutely had to write? Remembering that helps me to recapture that initial enchantment with the heart of the book. And it helps me to remember what the heart of the book is. That’s really the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you craft your plot: what is the true heart of this story I’m telling?”

    I just made the painful decision to kill my WIP. It needed too much work and it was outside my genre, but the bigger problem was I could never find the “voice” of the main character.

    This is such good advice. I will save this post for future reference.

    Thanks so much!

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    • says

      Ooh, sorry about the death of your WIP, CG, those moments are always incredibly painful. In my experience, though, the essence of whatever attracted you to the central idea of your WIP–whatever part of the story WAS working–will resurface in some future project that this time you’ll be able to bring fully to life.

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    • says

      CG, I just cut and pasted that exact quote into an email to a friend. (Giving Anna credit, of course.) Anna, I think that paragraph speaks to the key of the novel-writing experience– to keep returning to the heart of your story and not lose sight of it in the tedium of all those words.

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  7. Robin Miller says

    What a great post! Even though I am writing a picture book all of your knowledge applies. I was most stuck by going back to the basics and capturing the initial enchantment with the heart of the book. This speaks volumes to me. As a picture book author I need to remember to always keep that enchantment. I think I’ll write it on a 3×5 card for inspiration.
    Thanks

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  8. says

    This has been a helpful post. Thank you! I’m also struggling with my book except it’s with editing the first draft. I’m trying so hard to move into rewriting but that just isn’t happening. “Going back to the basics” is such great advice! Sometimes we forget that the answer isn’t in what we’ve done over the months but what we started with.

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  9. says

    I’m working on my first novel, and like Elizabeth, have spent most of that time “learning HOW to write a book.” As frustrating as it is to repeatedly reassess my end date, I know that I had to do all that work and tear it all up and do it again and repeat and repeat. I had to do all that to learn how to write a book. Perhaps, even with later, difficult books it is the same. Now that you’ve struggled for seven months, maybe you’ve learned some lessons that you now won’t need to learn for future books.

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  10. says

    Thank you for this post..had grown tired of asking, a la Dr. Phil: “What was I thinkin’?!?” for taking the leap to write this first WIP…looking forward to typing THE END.

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  11. says

    What an excellent mantra, thank you for sharing it! I really struggle to focus on one project and flit around between things I’m writing. I like to pretend that that’s just the way I do things, that by changing to a different project I’m still at least creating something… but actually, it’s probably more to do with me not believing that I can do hard things! I’ll have to remember that next time I come across a stumbling block.
    Thanks!

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    • says

      I do occasionally have 2 books going at once–hit a snag with one, start another, work on that one, flip back to the first when I feel I’ve been unstuck. But yeah, I definitely wouldn’t recommend having more than 2 WIP’s on your plate at a time.

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  12. Vivienne Grainger says

    Some days it would be much easier simply to bash one’s head against the wall. But we must like writing, because we keep doing it. Our particular curse may be that we keep trying to do it well … but if I could change that about myself, I wouldn’t.

    So, whattaya gonna do. In my case, Submit this Comment, and go back to pondering the ways to remedy an infodump.

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  13. says

    Yikes! This line was pointed directly at me:

    “Every book reaches a point where it would be so much easier to give up on it, scrap the whole idea and give in to the siren call of a shiny new idea that promises that, No, really, I will be an easy book to write.”

    GUILTY! Guess I need to put on the big girl pants and just do it. Then I can get back to the shiny new idea later.

    Thanks, Anna!

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    • says

      Yeah, I’m afraid there’s just no way around it. If you want to write a book, you’ve just got to stick with it to the finish line, even when it’s a total slog. It’s all worth it in the end!

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  14. Jessica says

    Anna, 
    Thanks so much for writing about this. I’m trying to revise my WIP. I’ve tried giving up on it but found that I’m unble to write anything else because the characters won’t give me any peace. I know that I’m going to have to rip it to pieces and figure out what’s wrong with my plot since I wrote the first draft without one. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

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  15. says

    “Trust that you have a unique story to tell.” Thank you for this. It’s difficult when my ego keeps attacking my muse with this fear of being unoriginal.

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    • says

      We definitely all have those nasty ‘I’m not good enough’ voices whispering in our heads at times. Anne Lamott says to visualize them as squeaky mice, then pick them up by their tails and drop them into a screw-lid jar where you can’t hear them. :)

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  16. says

    I’m writing an “Impossible Book” now too, and it feels a lot like raising an impossible child. My first novel was a sweet, well-behaved girl; she did exactly what I asked and grew up right on time and flew out into the world. But this WiP…he’s the rascally middle child. He’s stubborn, difficult, and slow-moving. I have to tape my mouth shut to stop myself from screaming, “Your sister was on Amazon by this age!” No, I have to be a good parent. I can’t compare my kids and assume something’s horribly wrong just because he’s developing more slowly. I have to coax him, help him grow, nudge him in the right direction. It’ll take longer, but he’ll get there.

    Another tip I’d add: get some outside help. I just had a couple of friends read my first chapters and tell me, in no uncertain terms, exactly where and how I got lost in my own words. The criticism prompted me to think again about the message I’m trying to convey, and to isolate the themes I wanted to develop in the first place. It’s rough on the ego, to be sure, but sometimes a shake-up is just what you need to find your voice and purpose again.

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  17. says

    I found this post to be very inspirational, Anna. Especially your reference to what is at the heart of the story and working to make that clearer. I have not wrestled to the extent you have but your experience will be worth remembering when I do. In other words, it’s bound to happen and articles like this one really help to do the hard things when they present themselves.

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  18. says

    Great post. I have fallen out of love with my WIP. We’ve just spent too much time together, much of it in disjointed segments. Sometimes I feel like the impossible book is like weathering a relationship in a rough patch. I’m frustrated and fed up, and can’t find time to give it the care and feeding it needs.

    It’s a plot driven suspense caper, one called “awfully ambitious” by the first editor to see it, and “awfully different” from my first novel. I fell in love with it precisely because it was complicated. My final edits center around making the heart of each scene clearer, so hopefully I’m on the right path.

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    • says

      I completely agree–it’s like weathering the rough patches in a relationship. You just have to tell yourself you’re in it for the long haul, even when your WIP just will NOT stop leaving its socks all over the bathroom floor. :)

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  19. says

    Thanks for sharing that post, Anna! I’m glad to hear that the clouds are parting :)

    And I just have to commiserate because several of my books had that huge document adjacent to the ‘real’ book, with twice as much in it as the book I’d actually written. It’s a natural part of the process, which maybe it’s good not to know about (or remember, like childbirth), before we start.

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  20. says

    I’m wrestling with an impossible book, too. Some of it has been that there’s been things that I needed to learn — but it resulted in revision. I finally thought that I had it done with only some minor tweaks. Then I got it critiqued — and had three more things to do, all of which have been very challenging. I’m sick of the revising and want to be so done!

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    • says

      I totally, totally know that feeling of just SO wanting it to be done. And yet you know you can never compromise and declare something ‘good enough’ unless it truly is. Best of luck to you, Linda! I know you’ll get through the revisions and make it shine.

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  21. says

    I think a bad or impossible book is not effort wasted if you learn from it. (Of course, it’s realllly easy to say this while I’m still unpublished and deadlines don’t matter.)

    My second/third books were impossible, because I tried to be too ambitious for my skill level at the time. There were too many characters and plot threads and so on. One of the weirdest things I learned was that you can have too much character development, if it’s happening through scenes that don’t move the general plot forward.

    In my current WIP, I reached a moment that almost made me panic last week, but then was lucky to have some insight that allowed me to save it rather than watching it turn impossible. I think I’ve made it through the worst part, and I’m sure some of the simplification techniques I employed were learned as a result of those earlier impossible books.

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  22. says

    Absolutely brilliant advice, Anna. THANK YOU. It’s so true that when you get into the thick of the middle of your novel and things are not falling into place and you start to panic, remembering the initial love, the spark, and the reason you’re writing it in the first place, gets you through the dark moments.

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  23. says

    Great post and great advice from Don! I really needed to read this today as I struggle with my sequel with the deadline clock ticking away in the background. I think the more you wrestle with a book the sweeter it is when you finally tame it! Good luck with your Impossible Book, Anna. Glad you’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. :)

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  24. says

    I have written five novels. The third and the last went through ‘impossible’ stages. The answer in both cases—although the reasons I arrived at that stage were different in each case—was to put the book aside for literally a couple of years and work on other things. In both cases I came back having practically forgotten everything I had written, with a fresh head and a new voice and both books were finished if not easily then earier-ly [should be a real word]. My first two novels were written, back to back, within six months. The words just flowed out of me and although it took me five years to clean them up and make them publishable the grunt work was all done. When I started that third novel I assumed the process would be much the same but I hit a brick wall and had no idea where to go next. The fourth, although not quite a quick as the first two because it involved a great deal of research (more than any other book) was a relatively uncomplicated affair; it was also the only book where I knew how it had to end which I suspect helped. During the writing of the fifth I fell ill and couldn’t work so not writer’s block as most people think about it but the simple fact was the break made a huge difference to the shape of the book. Every book is different. It helps having written five because now I know I can complete a novel but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll be able to finish the next one because, based on what I’ve written so far, it’s nothing like any of the others. Luckily I have no deadline. It might help some but I’m not that kind of writer.

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  25. Claire Perry says

    Wonderful advice, comments – thank you all. As a chronic “pantser”/”snowflaker” I’ve learned never to start without knowing where I’m going, and on this first WIP that I think I’ll be proud to finish I go always back to Twyla Tharp’s wonderful “Creative Habit” chapter on Spine, and her firm commandment never to start without one. She writes when you find yourself asking “‘What am I trying to say?’ That is the moment when you will embrace, with gratitude, the notion of a spine.”

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  26. Mike says

    Nice to know the editing process isn’t always the nice sequence some lay out. I feel better about my editing now.

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  27. says

    I soooooo needed to read these words right now. I was in a great groove and then my son’s bar mitzvah struck. I am at 89k, and I’ve found it really difficult to get back into my story. I think I’m king to try to write my second to last chapter. I know the crazy mess I want to have happen. And if it needs finessing later, that’s fine. But I’ve just got to finishing this baby. She’s been in the oven for too long already. So thank you for the nudge.

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  28. says

    The mantra is an excellent one, applicable to all manner of things – thanks. Your post is timely for me as I start a new book. I discovered last night that the beginning, which I wrote several years ago, is pretty much rubbish but there area few slavageable ideas. Your section “Go Back to the Basics” was a gem for me.

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