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Knowing When to Walk Away

mdlsantos [1]Please welcome Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of four novels for adults, including (most recently) The Precious One [2], Love Walked In and Belong to Me; and one for middle grade readers, Saving Lucas Biggs, which she co-wrote with her husband David Teague. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware, with David, their two children, Charles and Annabel, and their two Yorkies, Huxley and Finn. Connect with Marisa on Facebook [3] and on Twitter [4].

I’d never been a person to walk away from a commitment, and every novel I’d ever started writing, I’d finished and delivered when it was due. But eighty pages into my fourth novel, I walked away and tried something completely different. I’m not a risk-taker, and this was a huge risk and hard, wrenchingly hard, but it was exactly what I needed to do.

Knowing When to Walk Away

About eighty pages into writing my fourth novel The Precious One, I found myself in a state I’d never been in before. I wasn’t blocked, if being blocked is the complete inability to write. At eighty pages, I had faith my story, and I was already in the mode of experiencing my characters as real people. Not only did I have the two, very different narrative voices down cold, but also I loved my protagonists, Taisy and Willow.

And I could write, eking out a few paragraphs a day. The problem was that I didn’t want to. I confess that I have always enjoyed the act of writing. Sometimes, of course, I’ve hated it, but on a pretty regular basis, it makes me happy, and there are occasional whole stretches of time when it is sheer exhilaration. And even on the most desperate days, it has always felt like home.

Except that eighty pages into The Precious One, it stopped being home. I was slogging, dragging out and slapping down one sentence, then another. When I didn’t feel abject fear of the process, an icy dread, I felt numb. I had lost my joy.

About this time, my husband David Teague, a picture book author, and I started talking casually about what it might be like to write a book together. It was all a series of what-ifs: what if we wrote a book together; what if our narrators were thirteen years old; what if the book were for readers who were around our kids’ ages; what if we put history in it, and time travel, and Quakers, and a cool grandpa . . .. We began to text each other ideas at odd hours and to come tearing into the house blurting out plot twists or historical tidbits we’d dug up. We began to think in the voices of our characters. But it was all a game. How could we write it when I had another book to write, one under contract and with a deadline? We looked at each other, told each other we could not do it, it made no sense, the book would have to wait for another time, another year.

And then I walked away from The Precious One.

PreciousOneCover [5]David and I got a contract (with a headspinningly quick turnaround time) for a middle grade book called Saving Lucas Biggs, and we threw ourselves into it. The first thing we did was create an outline, a chapter-by-chapter, exquisitely detailed one. I’d never written an outline for a book before, had actually been adamantly anti-outline, but I’d also never written a novel with another person before. This was a complicated time-travel mystery and we were telling it in alternating chapters, with two separate narrators. We could not possibly fly by the seat of our pants and expect the story to hold together.

When we actually started to write, the surprise was this: I loved writing with an outline. With my other three books, before I wrote the first word, I always knew my characters very, very well, but knew only a tiny handful of facts about the plot. Mostly, I listened hard to my story and my characters, took my cues from them, learned my story as I went. On good days, this was exciting; on bad ones, it was scary, like I was starting every day standing on the cliff of my last sentence, with one foot dangling over the abyss.

[pullquote]But now the outline was a godsend. I suspect it was because the rest of my life, with my kids now in middle school and high school, had become more complicated. I don’t know. All I know is that I loved having my day’s work spelled out for me. I loved standing on the edge of the cliff with a bridge in front of me instead of nothingness. [/pullquote]But now the outline was a godsend. I suspect it was because the rest of my life, with my kids now in middle school and high school, had become more complicated. I don’t know. All I know is that I loved having my day’s work spelled out for me. I loved standing on the edge of the cliff with a bridge in front of me instead of nothingness. Of course, I still had to listen to my characters, still had to let the plot grow organically. David and I made major changes to our outline as we went along, but there was something there to change. I loved it, all of it. I hadn’t had so much fun writing a book since I wrote my first novel, back when everything was new.

When we were finished, I returned to The Precious One. It was mid-summer, and I had to deliver on December first, which meant I had to write faster than I’d ever written in my life. The first thing I did was outline the rest of the book. And then I wrote like a woman on fire. Full-tilt, full-body, living-and-breathing immersion. I wrote almost four hundred pages in four months. In my entire writing life, I’d never been more exhausted or more grateful. I had risked a lot in walking away. Sometimes, I still can’t believe I did it. But while I was gone, I learned vital new things about myself as writer and remembered why I loved being one. I’d walked away, but I ran back, and every day that I sat down at my desk was a homecoming.

Have you ever walked away? What did you learn from the experience? Do you use outlines?