In a corner of my garden, I keep a compost bin. Next to it is a bunch of things I might reuse at some point—stakes for tall plants, a few cinderblocks, pots of various sizes, some tools I don’t use all the time. It’s a workaday little spot, not glamorous but useful.
Much like a certain corner of my imagination, where I store intriguing facts and that documentary about child hunger, and all the episodes of a BBC show I like and the names of all the Winsor and Newton watercolors and anything else I might need. It’s messy, but it’s invisible. No one knows it’s there but me.
Here’s the thing. I just had to throw a solid chunk of a novel into that compost heap. It was not easy. For two years, I’ve been working on this thing. It was something I loved in about seven incarnations, and loved the last one quite a lot when I sent it to my agent, hoping she’d like it.
She wanted to.
She did not.
I finally had to admit that as much as I loved one of the characters, a character as vivid to me as anyone in my own family, the story was just not going to jell. Maybe ever. It was time to let it go.
I do not do this, just toss things aside. I am a commercial fiction writer with dozens and dozens of books under my belt and I can make anything work. I understand that my readers want women they can root for and perhaps aspire to be. They want escape from their daily life and a chance to be someone else for a day or a week. They want a book they can safely read on an airplane, or at the bedside of a dying loved one, or on the beach. If I weave a little life in there, and make some observations on the nature of being a woman in this modern world, that’s good, too.
I know how to do this. I’m not being arrogant, just factual. The pages contained good solid stuff about friendship and organic farming and community…all the things.
And yet…..after 6 or 7 or 10 rewrites of the first 200 pages, trying to find the story over two solid years, I finally had to admit that my agent was right. The book was fatally flawed in some way I couldn’t locate. My instincts, usually very reliable, were just wrong.
My agent broke the news that she didn’t like it while I was attending the Writer Unboxed conference, where we were also undergoing the agony of the elections. I was very depressed about all of it—not in a clinical kind of way, but in a very specific, situational way. Dear agent offered to send said novel on to an editor, and I was about to agree…maybe a second opinion?
I woke up the next morning (this was the day after the election) and emailed her urgently, telling her not to send it. I had a new idea. One sentence, that was all I had, but she and I both knew it had heft. I told her I’d have something for her after the new year, and immediately started working.
During those dark days when it seemed like Darth Vader was taking over the earth, I spent much of my time escaping into a world where I didn’t have to mention politics, where a mystery needed to be solved and a house had to be taken care of and a woman has had her life upended. By February, I had a substantial proposal ready to send my agent, and while I was in New Zealand, she sold it to Lake Union. I am happily spending my days writing it. (Actually, more than happily. I love this book with a craziness I haven’t felt for quite awhile. It must have been lurking, backstage somewhere, waiting for me to get over my infatuation with the other one.)
Such a big switch! How could I have been so wrong about that other idea? Even in one sentence, I knew I had a better idea on the new book. How could I have missed how off the other one was?
If I’m honest with myself, I was aware that the book was not working, that parts of it were beautiful and strong (that one character) and the rest was either banal or unpleasant. I had the idea that it would be interesting to write about a character who always made the wrong choice, but that particular character never did become likable in any way. Not all characters have to be likable, but in the books I write, the protaganists need to be relatable on some level. This character never was. She took seven or eight incarnations, and never did find her footing.
And I knew it. I knew it every time. I knew it in the first incarnation, and the second. All the way to the last one.
If I’d been willing to pay attention, I would have noticed that it was taking an preternaturally long time to write (for me). I didn’t spring out of bed and rush to the computer to discover what was happening. I labored over outlines and storyboards and sound tracks, all of which are necessary for me in the process, but in this instance, I was using them to procrastinate, hoping to find that magic, living spark to bring it all to life.
It could have happened, I suppose, if I’d been willing to stick with it, keep changing, juggling, whatever.
Except that that’s not how I work. Ever. A book comes to me pretty much whole and my job is to draw it over into this realm as clearly and cleanly as possible. When I fished on the other side for the failed book, I kept pulling over discarded boots and bottles.
If my gut knew the book was a mess, why did I keep going? I was just being…stubborn, maybe? I’d spent all that time, after all, trying to find the center of a story that was stillborn. If I gave up, I’d have wasted all that time.
A foolish economy.
But here is something else—sometimes, as artists, as creative beings, we fail. It’s hard to face that. We really want something to work, and it just doesn’t. From a commercial fiction point of view, that’s unfortunate, but from an artistic one, it’s just how things roll. It doesn’t mean I’m a lousy writer. It doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing. It just means that this time, with this project, I couldn’t find the story.
The failed book is now on the compost heap of my imagination, where the girls in the basement go for inspiration and mulch. I have a feeling the character I love will show up elsewhere, probably some other re-visioned bits, too.
In the meantime, the new book is very much a living, breathing entity. It started breathing on its own the very first day, and has only grown more vigorous these past months. I’m about to roll over into full-on, lost-in-the-book mode, where I wish to do nothing but write, and I’ve cleared my summer schedule to do just that.
Learning to let go of a project is a very difficult part of the writing life. Have you had to face the fact that a book wasn’t working? How did you know?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!