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It’s Always in the Last Place You Look

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My five-year-old chose a Little Mermaid birthday cake this year solely for the toy it came with: a little plastic Ariel riding a little plastic ocean wave. To minimize chaos at the house, we had the party at a park, and afterward, we packed everything up in various bags, boxes and purses and toted it home. For 20 long minutes, we could not find the Ariel. Did it get put by accident in the trash? Left behind? Taken by a party guest? We went through every bag (including the trash bag, ugh) and thought we were out of luck… until I looked in my purse, where someone, probably me, had thought to stash the toy so it would be safe. Toy was reunited with child, happy ending achieved, yay.

It’s always in the last place you look, goes the joke, because once you find it, you stop looking.

Sometimes writing feels like this kind of blind, semi-panicked hunt. Should I try third person instead of first? Add a subplot or subtract one? Make this character older, younger, more flawed, more likable, more active, funnier, smarter? You don’t know what’s right because you’re searching in the dark, hunting for something you think might be lost, uncertain whether you’ll find the right answer in the next 10 seconds or, well, never.

It’s not fun when you’re searching for a toy you know your daughter wants desperately and it’s not fun when you’re trying to make your book the best book it can be.

As a writer who takes at least five or six drafts to really nail a book, I often wish I could skip straight to that fifth draft. Would I be able to cut down on the rewrites if I outlined more? Outlined better? Sat down with my editor or agent and workshopped the synopsis? It seems like I could save everyone, primarily myself, a lot of trouble that way.

But no matter what I try, it just seems to take me a while to get those drafts where I want them to be.

The fifth draft is stronger because of a detour I took in the second, and even if the detour doesn’t last through the final version, it produces something — a more developed character, smart dialogue that could be used elsewhere, better insight into where the plot should go along with where it shouldn’t — that makes for a better book in the end.

And I’m starting to finally be OK with that. Would I love a more efficient process? Sure. But if this is the process that works for me, I might as well own it. And if it works, it works.

When we searched for the Ariel doll, yes, if I’d just thought to look in my purse first, I wouldn’t have spent 20 minutes searching. Except that in the process of searching, I emptied every other bag of things we’d brought home from the party and put them away to make it easier to see what had been searched and what hadn’t. So actually, at the end of the 20 minutes, I’d accomplished way more than I meant to.

May all your writing detours, drafts and decisions be so fruitful.

Has a story element ever evaded you, again and again–until it didn’t? What was it? We’d love to hear your stories in comments.


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.