I recently got the writing itch again, the one where characters start to pop up in my brain uninvited, where themes and plots replace sleep, where my fingers felt antsy and wanted to tap at the keyboard once more. It had been about nine months since I’d wrapped The Theory of Opposites, and well, I guess it felt like time.
I’m not one of those writers who can juggle multiple manuscripts at once, and I’m also not the type of writer who can back into a book…meaning, I have to have an enormous lightening bolt of an idea before I feel that tug toward writing. I’ve written a book (just one) before when I didn’t feel that incredible urgency, that “aha” moment, and that book remains very firmly my least favorite of my work. Not coincidentally. Thus, when the writing itch started to worm its way into me, I waited and waited for the idea to come to me, and when I thought I had a pretty strong (albeit not earth-shaking) lightning bolt of an idea, I opened up Word and set out on my way. When I’m working on a manuscript, I insist that I write 1-2k words a day. And so, after a few weeks, I had fifty pages, and I sent them off to my agent for a read. I liked the pages, almost loved them, and she did too.
Then…life got busy. I got inspired to start a kids’ book website (if you have kids who love to read…or even who don’t, swing by Parents Read Best – it’s a forum/site for parents to share book ideas with other parents — we are having a lot of fun with it), and that took up a lot of energy and time. I had a few semi-emergencies at home (all fine now); I had to fly unexpectedly back east for a few days; we had relatives visit, then more relatives visit…you get it. Basically, life got busy, and I lost track of my idea and my characters and my passion for the book. (Which I usually don’t allow for. I’m usually super-diligent about my writing when I’m in the thick of a book, so my break, in and of itself, was a little worrisome too.)
And now that I have the time to get back to it, I’m wondering if, indeed, I should. Should I pick this book back up? Or should I consider another germ of an idea that has planted roots in my brain over the past few weeks and started to crop up instead. So. It’s the question that every writer should ask him or herself when starting a new book, namely: do I have 300 pages of this idea in me? Is this the book that I should be writing? Because it is so, so, so easy to start something. Arguably, that’s the easiest part of a novel. Much harder is completing it. So here’s what I’m asking myself right now, and here’s what I suggest you do as well:
1) Is this idea sustainable? One of the easiest traps to fall into, in my opinion, is to start with an idea that is, well, too small. (And I guess I’m only speaking for myself here, because maybe other authors take a different approach. So keep that in mind throughout.) When I start a book and proceed full steam ahead, I can only do so if I am certain that the themes of the book – not just a great, grabby opening scene, for example, or a kick-ass, full-of-momentum first few chapters – are something that I can explore for months. For Theory of Opposites, this was the notion of free will and how much control we have over our lives. For me, personally, this is a HUGE idea, and one that I would probably never grow bored with. At the same time, it’s a specific enough idea that I wasn’t just writing about say, a woman who was facing a life crisis. Because that’s too large of an idea. An amorphous idea that never allows to pin down what makes your book and idea unique. You need something specific and interesting and hopefully a little bit different without it being too myopic OR too generic. Is that making sense?
2) Are your characters interesting enough? This follows point one, but remember that you’re going to have to live with these characters and their lives for the better part of a year (or more). I’m not sure that you always have to like your characters, but they should be interesting, not just to you, but to readers. Of course, it’s easy to wrap yourself up in a bubble and assume that if you like them, so too will everyone else, but we all know (just read some Amazon reviews) that this isn’t the case. I stepped away from this manuscript and I found that I couldn’t remember some of my character’s names…or much about them. That, to me, says that they might not be characters worth keeping. Be honest with yourself: who is filler? Any of them? All of them? If I can’t remember my characters after a few weeks, how can I possibly expect my readers to? Taking that one step further: I have always found my best writing to be about and with characters who have sparked something almost fanatical inside of me – my passion for bringing out their voices, my devotion and affection to their personalities. (Again, even if I wouldn’t choose to be friends with them in real life.) When I think back on those initial 50 pages that I penned, I’m not sure that I yet have this affection for these characters. Maybe that will come. Or maybe I should start over.
3) How difficult is the writing? Look, I’ll be honest: I love being an author. But my least favorite part is actually spending the time every day hitting my word count. I love spending time in my head, concocting scenarios and creating drama; I love turning a blank page into a book. But the writing itself? Eh. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. Writing is hard. But I think when you’re working on a book that is the book, as in, the book you’re meant to be writing, it’s not impossible. It’s not agonizing. In fact, when I’m working on a book that’s clicking, I find that while I dread the notion of starting my daily word count, once I’m writing, I kind of enjoy myself. :) But when I’m working on a book or project that isn’t meant to be (ergo, that one book I really don’t love), the daily work is painful. There’s a difference there, and it’s smart to lean in and pay attention to it.
4) Is there enough conflict behind this idea? When I was just starting out, an editor was kind enough to share this advice, and that is: when in doubt or when you need to move the action forward, add conflict. And it is almost always true. Sometimes, when I read books that I don’t fall in love with (reading is subjective after all, and hey, that’s okay), it’s because there isn’t enough action (for me), and essentially, the author pulls out all the stops too early (or doesn’t have enough stops to begin with) (or pulls out stops that are implausible, which leads me to wonder if the stops were thrown in so that the book could be finished, not because they make sense in the plot). I write without a map, meaning that I start with an idea, a few characters, an opening scene or two, and then I go. I don’t plan where I’m going to be at chapter 20 or where I’m going to be when I type: The End. But from the start, I do really consider if my initial concept (say, with Theory of Opposites, the exploration of free will) is going to allow for enough obstacles to sustain all of those chapters. Again, this speaks to an idea with roots – digging a bit beneath the surface to discover that your storyline and characters stand out in a crowd. (Mixed metaphors, sorry.)
5) Are you okay starting over? This is really one of the more interesting questions I’ve been asking myself. Am I okay tossing out 20k (or whatever) hard-won words? I don’t doubt that I could go back to this manuscript and finish the book. And I very well might. But I’m also sort of psyched about another idea, and I also sort of think this other idea could be an even better book. Which leads me to think that I’m entirely fine abandoning my work. And if I’m okay with that, then I have to think that maybe this isn’t the book. Though I can’t say for sure. I set THEORY aside for six months before returning to it, and the book was all the better for it. Once I dove back in, there was no chance I could ever let it go. I think that shows in the writing and in my love for the characters (see point #2). But much like a lost love, sometimes, you have to set something free. And if you’re okay with that, then the book probably wasn’t meant to be to begin with. Remember: some manuscripts are just tools to make us better writers. They don’t have to make their way into the world to be considered successes.
What about you guys? How do you know if a work in progress is meant to be?