Kristina Riggle lives and writes in West Michigan. Her debut novel, Real Life & Liars, was a Target “Breakout” pick and a “Great Lakes, Great Reads” selection by the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Her other novels have been honored by independent booksellers, including an IndieNext Notable designation for The Life You’ve Imagined.
Her new novel of 1930s Broadway and today, Vivian in Red, is about the clouded history of how a famed Broadway producer’s most famous song is connected to a woman from his past.
Kristina has published short stories in the Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, and elsewhere, and is a former co-editor for fiction at Literary Mama. Her flash-fiction short story, “Chips“, was one of two finalists in the 11th round of NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest. Kristina was a full-time newspaper reporter before turning her attention to creative writing. She likes to run and read, though not at the same time.
Setting One Book Aside to Heed the Call of Another
I’ve never left a novel unfinished before.
I usually refer to an unpublished manuscript called CONNECTION LOST as my first novel attempt (I later salvaged it as a short story, published in Cimarron Review). That’s because it was my first serious, grown-up attempt at writing something publishable and novel-length. It was the first time I tried to land an agent (I didn’t) and the first time I was joining writing groups and finding critique partners to hone my craft.
But there was a project before that, and I’ll call it “Xander”, for the protagonist. (I thought it was super-edgy to call my cynical-outside-but-secretly-sweet guy Xander instead of Alex. Yeah, I know.)
It was terrible, and I realized that in real time, as I was finishing it. The prose was painfully amateurish, the hero a paper-thin caricature and not half so clever as I’d thought, when I started. Yet I plodded through and finished every cheesy, melodramatic, overwrought page.
See, I was raised to tough it out, see it through, put on your big girl pants and march on. A need to reach “the end” burned in me, though I knew I would never, ever try to publish it. I’m pretty sure I never let anyone read it, not even my husband or my parents. Yes, it’s that bad.
I tell you the story of Xander as a point of contrast to what I’ve just done, now. I have set aside a project that’s been a labor of love for the past two years. A stack of research books looms over my laptop. I have notebooks crammed with notes, outlines, ideas, timelines and character sketches. I have created new characters, gender-swapped others, constructed elaborate narrative structures involving epistolary sections and shifting time. I’ve purchased and read entire non-fiction books. A whole world exists in my head revolving around this sparkplug of a young woman, a feisty natural talent with more attitude than sense.
And I’m telling her to wait. Now is not her time.
For a woman who has built her entire life—identity, even—around finishing what she started, sticking to it, and never giving up, this is radical.
The reasons I’ve set aside that project are complex, but here’s one important piece: a new idea has seized me. I scribbled a “What if” statement in a journal one sunny afternoon while writing outside, and I felt a shiver run from my gut up my spine. I jumped out of my chair like I’d gotten an electric shock. I emailed my agent the next day, and she loved it, too. A new character has sprung to vivid, ballsy life, but she’s too fresh to share with you. She’s still only mine and she has to stay that way for a while.
I’m sad about my put-aside novel. A pang crimps my heart when I look at those research books. I apologize to her in my head. My “finish what you start” Midwestern farmer ancestors shriek in my mind, “What’s wrong with you?! You lousy quitter, get back to work!”
And yet. Almost fifteen years after poor melodramatic Xander and eight years since my first published novel and forty-two years of life, I’ve finally realized that there’s wisdom—not to mention giddy, glorious freedom—in changing my mind.
I’ve promised Cecilia (I decided to tell you her name after all, changing my mind again!) I will come back to her, one way or another. I suspect she won’t settle for anything less.
My consistency and desire to finish everything has served me admirably and it certainly can be a worthy trait. But in many cases, it was really a fear of the unknown, masquerading as puritan virtue. Looking back at my adult life from this midlife vantage, I can see many times I have trudged along a path that I no longer wanted to be on, simply because I’d set off in that direction. Turning around, even turning at all, seemed so impossible that it didn’t even cross my mind.
This ability to change course in work and personal life has made me braver, too. Now that I’m not wedded irrevocably to every decision, the first question I ask myself is, if I don’t like it, can I still change my mind? In almost every case, the delicious, thrilling answer is YES.
This is why, in fact, I’m training for a half marathon. If I hate it, I’ll quit. Just like that. Because I can. Before, I’d have been too afraid to try, worrying I’d be sentencing myself to months of misery. If misery rears its head, I’ll say, well I thought this was for me, but I guess not. Oh well. And the world won’t spin off its axis! People won’t judge me! Or if they do, why the ever loving heck should I care?
Conventional wisdom for creative types says that you never, ever give up. A reflexive sense of shame kicks in when we ponder putting aside an agent search, a manuscript, a project. There’s a kind of macho ethos, a certain swagger, tied up in working a project until your fingers bleed, come what may.
But here’s what I’ve finally learned to embrace. Saying “no” to mindless struggle becomes an emphatic “yes” to the thrill of possibility.
Have you ever had to set a novel aside to heed the call of another story idea or character? How did it work out for you? Did you go back to the story you put on ‘pause’ and finish it?