Our guest today is Virginia Franken. Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Virginia now lives in suburban Los Angeles with two kids, a dog, an overweight goldfish, and one bearded dude, in a house that’s just a little too small to fit everyone in comfortably. She gets most of her writing done when she should be sleeping. Life After Coffee is her first novel.
After getting into a wrestling match with my latest draft and then getting my butt kicked, I spent way too long trapped inside my own head, wondering where I’d gone wrong. So I thought I’d do what I tend to do with all the issues that make me crazy and send me screaming to my keyboard: I wrote it out.
Turn Off the Static So You Can Hear the Tiny Whisper
Last week I hit “delete” on the first 30,000 words of my second novel. A novel that my agent is eagerly waiting for. Trashed. All of it. Ok, I didn’t actually click “move to trash,” but I certainly firmly slid the thing into the “not currently working on,” folder. Same thing. Those dear little 30,000 or so words are not going to become a book.
This is not my first heartless cull. You could go as far as to say that trashing thousands of words is part of my writing methodology. However, since I wrote my first book I’ve obtained one more kid, a longer commute, more responsibility at my day job and I’m starting to realize: If I’m going to continue to do this, I have to be more efficient. Time is precious. My words are precious. My agent is patiently waiting.
So where did I go wrong? And more importantly, how can I—and you—learn from my mistakes.
After a bit of all-night insomnia and a few mopey days off from writing, I figured out there was one major reason why my draft chocked. I realized I was trying to write someone else’s story. The story of a collection of people whose lives had caught my attention for a brief moment. And indeed, they were enthralling in that moment. But it was just a passing moment. Not a whole novel. There was a clueless pig farmer, a woman who ran away from the world to hide in a river house in rural California, baby boomer parents behaving very badly, a cursed hot spring. All good stuff. But ultimately it wasn’t enough. It’s definitely ok to write about what you don’t yet know about. But it’s not ok to write about what you really don’t want to know about! Or, as in my case, are truthfully not that interested in finding out about. I realized I wasn’t interested in learning about homesteading, pig rearing, crop rotation, epithermal veins. At one stage I realized I was going to have to go to check out an actual beehive—with REAL BEES in it—and I just kept stalling. I hate bees! In fact, I’m a bonafide apiphobe. But the way I’d tangled my characters into odd plot knots meant that bee keeping was essential to the story. Yeah, you know you’ve got yourself in a convoluted plot line when you can’t possibly continue on to the next chapter without specifically talking about honey production.
So why am I so much more confident about my next novel? One major difference: I’m writing from personal experience.
Plugging into my “personal experience” file basically means I’m getting a free download from my brain to the page. I find that it’s easy enough to fabricate plots, and character details, but the setting and the force of emotion behind the character action and dialogue, has to be from my own life. Even if I go back and radically change practically every detail later, for me, it’s the only way to get the reader to step into the scene alongside me. And that was the central issue last time around: I was fabricating the emotion.
But how on earth is it possible to bounce back once you finally make the decision to walk away from a flagging draft? Well. All I can say is this: Don’t waste a microsecond beating yourself up. It happens to everyone. Characters get away from you. Plots go flat. Inspiration whistles off into the wind toward a better candidate for the story.
Even so it can be heartbreakingly hard to close the lid on something you’ve devoted a lot of time and all your optimism to. Especially if you were many hours, or words, deep into the project. However, you can always comfort yourself with the huge upside, which is this: You no longer have to drag yourself through it. You’re free to start again and work on something that thrills you. Remember the reason you started writing in the first place? The unexpected jolt of a random twist in the story, the thrill of inserting exactly the right word into the right place on the page, characters who make you feel something or who get to act in ways that you’d never dare to. That. I’m guessing that by the time you bailed on your last draft, you weren’t getting any of that. You weren’t getting what you needed in order to enjoy your craft. You weren’t getting what you needed in order to shine.
And now you’ve ditched the one you weren’t really that into, the best thing of all is that you get to go out and find something new. And maybe this time you’ll find your perfect match. Maybe now your brain is free of all the mental static that comes along with writing something you knew was a little sub-par, you’re finally free to write the thing that Inspiration’s been waiting to slip you this whole time. “Finally!” sighs Inspiration and hands you The Golden One. The one that everyone else is too doubled-up in writing knots to see. The one that shoots you right to the top, leaving the whole world gaping in your wake.
If you find it’s time for you to walk away, then maybe pause and take a minute to listen. Inspiration might be waiting for you to be quiet for just one moment so that you can hear a tiny whisper.
Have you walked away from a work in progress? What have you learned when you’ve listened to that tiny whisper?