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Admitting Defeat to Find Success

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Photo by Flickr’s cobalt123

I haven’t had an easy time with my second book-in-progress. I came up with a concept just before my first book sold, and fell in fast love. Others have called the concept ambitious. I’m going to get back to that in a bit — that word: ambitious.

I worked on the draft for two years before submitting it for a first read, feeling less than confident about the whole thing because something wasn’t clicking and I didn’t know why. My editor at the time sent back notes, with suggestions aplenty for taking the story to the next level.

I saw the value in many of her ideas right away and got to work, eventually rewriting about 80% of the text over the course of roughly ten months. When I turned in my rewrite, it was to a new editor, as my prior editor had moved on. I felt good about the story–it was better, tighter–but I knew something was still not right. It needed fresh eyes again.

My new editor gave it a read, and her diagnosis was that my “ambitious” premise wasn’t working. I would need to try to find a way to make it work, or I’d need to let it go. So, I’d try again, I thought, feeling a mite desperate, because the premise was the whole story, and ack!

I tried one of my compromise ideas.

And then I tried again with another compromise idea.

And then I pulled some hair out, because at this point enough time had passed that I could better see why my editor was concerned and realized the damned premise–ambitious or not–wasn’t working.

I won’t sugar coat this. I had a rough few weeks. I thought, my book is dead. I thought, I’ve wasted years. I thought, I’m going to have to go on Writer Unboxed and tell everyone I’ve failed. (And etc…)

I went to bed one night sure it was finished, and woke the next morning with a new idea–a kindred concept that would mean I’d be able to save much of what I’d written and even skirt the edges of my ambitious premise. I wrote it out, carried it through the first few chapters, sent it to my editor, feeling good, feeling that click, and… She gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

I spent the following few months pulling those changes through the manuscript, and then waited while my editor read through them. When a note from her landed in my inbox, I held my breath. The news was good. The story worked, just needed some polish here and there. To say I felt relieved would be the largest of understatements.

I wish there were an easy lesson here, but nothing about this was easy. Here are a few of the takeaways I do see:

Multiple pairs of fresh eyes are crucial. We say it here often, and I don’t think anyone would disagree, but I know I would still be chasing real and imagined problems around the page if a fresh editor hadn’t told me outright that my premise was not working. Valuable CPs had read the story and hadn’t suggested this. My agent and my prior editor noted things I might change but hadn’t suggested the problem was the premise–which isn’t to say their ideas weren’t valuable because they were. My point is, at least seven sets of eyes grazed over that story and it took my current editor to see what was at the heart of the problem, why the story wasn’t working.

Fresh eyes. Get them. Use them.

It’s okay to find and recognize your limits. Time to revisit the idea of being “ambitious,” with a little help from Dictionary.com. It’s the 4th definition I’m interested in, so I’ll jump to that here:

am·bi·tious   [am-bish-uhs]
4. requiring exceptional effort, ability, etc.

For a dozen reasons, I didn’t want to let go of my initial idea. It had made me feel shivers-on-the-arms magical when it came to me all at once. Everyone I told loved it. I loved it. I didn’t want to fail.

But I did.

This pill wasn’t easy for my ego to swallow. In fact, this pill grew fists and punched my ego in the face. But story doesn’t give a fig, not even an exceptional fig, about ego.

Now I know that it’s okay to find the edges of your talent, to say “Oh, that’s what a wall feels like.” To realize maybe a more experienced writer could’ve made it work, but that you didn’t have the skill right then to do so.

There’s always room to grow. I first opened a Word document with the intention of writing a novel for adults ten years ago. That book is now published. When I look back on my first takes for that story, I’m well aware of how far I’ve come in terms of craft. Even though I do feel I hit a wall with this second book, I know walls can be knocked down over time, and skills can be learned and perfected. I’ll keep growing until I’m dead, and I’m not dead yet.

You can entertain ideas while hanging on to your old ones… I often “trick” myself into thinking I’m not going to make changes to my manuscript, that I’m just going to consider making changes. I’ll save a troubled scene, then open a new Word doc. This is to play with an idea, I’ll tell myself, just to see, no big. Most of the time, that play/work ends up becoming the new scene, but because I’d set up a safety net for myself, it feels easier. I experienced something similar when my editor initially gave me the opportunity to make my original premise work; I felt the safety net.

…but sometimes you have to burn the safety net. When I realized none of my ideas for saving my initial premise worked, it felt like more than an ego punch; it felt like a dark moment of the writerly soul. Like sucking the bowels of defeat. (And that’s not very nice, Precious. [1] ) But I think I had to get slammed down to the floor, have my head knock up against the wood to rattle things around a little in my cranium, to see radically different, no-safety-net-here options. I had to experience a personal dark moment.

Maybe, sometimes, a writer has to be torn down for a book to be born.

Have you hit any barriers with your own writing? What lessons have you learned?


[1] Anyone else looking forward to The Hobbit?

About Therese Walsh [2]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [3], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [4] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [5], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [6] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [7] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [8]). Learn more on her website [9].