Monday, July 2, 2007

Quitting, or Knowing When to Move On?

Close to three months ago when I made the decision to write in a committed and purposeful way, more specifically, to write a novel, I found many great blogs about writing and I began reading them religiously. Writers posting about successes, frustrations, struggles and advice have been an incredible source of support and inspiration to me. Early on I read quite a few literary agent blogs too, hanging on to each piece of advice and each anecdote. The literary bloggers helped to round out my efforts to read more and better fiction.

Books have been a huge contributor to my growth. At first, I devoured nothing but books on writing. Novels, short story collections and even some poetry made up the rest of my reading. New works, old works, there are so many I’ve read and so many more that continue to pull me in.

Through it all I was posting nearly every day. Writing the posts has been a learning experience in and of itself. Many times, I had crises of confidence and each time I received wise counsel from those of you who commented.

It’s time to assess where I am, what I’ve learned and where I need to go from here. I’ve learned that everybody has different ways and different challenges when it comes to being able to fit writing into real life. My job requires more of me at some times than others. Summertime is one of the times the job demands more so rather than feeling frustrated at the limited time I’ve had to write recently, I just accept it. I’ve learned that I’m not a seat of the pants writer and that working on my manuscript every day isn’t productive for me if I’ve come to a place where I’m not sure of what to do next or if I don't have the energy or the focus to put into it. I’ve learned that in addition to my job and my writing, my relationships need equal time too. When I neglect my partner, my family or my friends because I’m too busy working and writing, the writing suffers because my life is out of balance. I’ve learned that no matter what else I’m doing, I’m always thinking about my writing and that means I’m still working on my writing. Details come to me and blank spots fill in while I’m doing laundry, checking the mail, sitting on a conference call or having dinner. I’ve learned that for me, reading great fiction on an ongoing basis is just as important as writing is.

In just two weeks, I’ll be attending my first writers’ retreat. Mentally preparing for that experience has brought me to terms with some issues I’ve been struggling with about my manuscript. Despite the year and a half off and on that I’ve spent working on this story, I find that it isn't the unique and compelling novel I first thought it might be. Tonight it stands at just over 35,000 words and 142 pages. I printed out the first chapter, which has been revised many times and although I’m pretty happy with the writing, I’m not excited about where it’s going anymore. I unintentionally filled my first manuscript with many elements drawn from people and situations far too close to real life and it’s become a problem.

A couple of weeks ago an idea for another story came to me. The new story and characters are entirely fictional. Unlike my first manuscript, I know the entire story from beginning to end (for the most part) and there are some concrete internal struggles for the two main characters that I have very clear ideas about.

I initially resisted the idea of setting my first manuscript aside. I didn’t want to quit and thought by not writing through to the end, I’d be quitting. I don’t believe that anymore. I think there is some good writing that I can return to at some point and perhaps reshape into a better novel. I think that trying to push myself to finish a tale that no longer inspires me is not a good use of my time. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time writing what I have. To the contrary, I feel like it’s been an incredible learning experience, but I don’t think it makes sense to take it any further right now.

Many of you have mentioned having first and second manuscripts that didn’t go on to be published, although some were submitted to agents and even editors. How many of you abandoned a novel prior to finishing, whether you are published or unpublished? What made you decide it was time to start over? Did you struggle with your decision to set the unfinished draft aside?


kristen said...

Lisa, I can't wait to read comments on this one.

My first attempt at a novel was set aside for complicated reasons. But simply put, life got in my way. I had a writing teacher who used to say "if you are a writer, you won't allow life to will simply write, every day and then before long, you will have your book." Well, maybe.

When I came back to writing, I had a different, more pressing story to tell. My first novel had lost its sense of urgency for me. I don't know if I'll go back to it. When I read through it now, I really see what works, what doesn't work and all of that has greatly influenced my second attempt. The novel I'm writing now, the one I foolishly started just three weeks before the kids were let out of school for summer vacation, is better conceived than my first attempt was. In this novel, I know the whole story—not all the details, but just knowing the ending is a huge relief. I don't feel so blind. And because I know where I'm going, I feel I can take my time getting there. I've been joking lately that this is going to be one of those books you read about where it took the author 10 years and 500 rejections to get published.

Life is still getting in the way, I struggle with that daily. But I also write every day, whether I have time for 200 words or 2000 words or simply time to go back and edit/revise a section that troubles me.

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I've found that each writer's first novel tends to be more memoir than fiction. It's an attempt at working through the demons, I think. I would agree with you that it's far better to work on a story that has its own life. You may be surprised by how much more compelling it is. Think of the first one as your MFA, you've honed your craft, now it's time to tell a good story.


Writer, Rejected said...

I had a writing professor once who said that every writer gets to have one bad lyrical novel that never gets anywhere. It's a rite of passage. What I find frustrating is how glib those agent sites can be, and sometimes I think they write advice that will help them reject writers more quickly and efficiently. Check out my blog posts on the issue at
I aim to make us all laugh (or cry depeding on p.o.v.) about it all. BTW, I like your blog; glad I found you!

Writer, Rejected said...

Sorry: it's You'd think I'd have that down by now!

reality said...

I initially advised you not to quit; and if you remember my email in a pretty direct manner.
After going through your post, I think you are making the right choice. You have had this internal struggle going on far too long and I would now agree with your decision.
Let the second one rip.

BTW, I have always been dejected at one point or another while writing my MS. Even the current one; where I tend to lose focus and feel I should write something else. You know the rest.

Best of Luck.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Hey Lisa-

Let it fly with this second one--I had a first unfinished novel that petered out after 100 pages. I stole chunks of it for my now published book which I started in the same mindset you're now in--I had a sense of the whole story arc and just sat and wrote it (the first draft in 6 weeks!). I'm a firm believer that you write what you're meant to write and you need to tell the story that needs to be told.

Good luck and keep us posted.

Therese said...

Lisa, you're following your gut and that's almost always right--especially for someone like you, who clearly thinks the feelings through and comes to a sensible conclusion.

A writer does NOT need to write every single day, nor meet a word-count goal, nor push to finish a work that's not engaging her any longer. The best stories come from the writer's enthusiasm, interest, and belief in the story. You are indeed wise to set aside the first effort.

Did I tell you I'd re-written from scratch the novel that got me my agent? And my very first novel was surely revise-able, to the point of likely representation and probably sale--but I wasn't in love with it and had decided I didn't want it to be my debut.

Some famed author (I forget who) said you need to write about a million words before you "deserve" to be published. I probably got darn close to that million mark by the time I was done with SOUVENIR.

Try not to worry. Follow your instincts. You'll get where you want to go.

Lisa said...

Wow! I must have hit a nerve with this subject and I'm really glad I did. Great comments from everyone.

Kristen, I think we're very in sync when it comes to trying to write around the demands of life. I manage to write, revise or make notes every day but I know I just can't stick to an X number of words per day goal because it doesn't get me what I want. I don't have any kind of a schedule in mind right now. I suppose I feel like I'm writing at the pace that I need to be and the story will be done when I'm happy with it.

Amy, I absolutely agree with you. Although I never intended it to have so much "me" in it, it did and consequently it was much darker and heavier than I wanted it to be (ironic since I'm really pretty funny sometimes -- no I am, really!). It also really tied my hands because since so many characters and places were inspired by real people, I couldn't seem to break away from that. I find with my new story, my creative juices are flowing like crazy and I'm able to really craft the characters in a way where who they are and everything about them makes sense for the story. It's incredibly freeing.

Writer, Rejected, I'm really glad you stopped by and glad you like the blog. I should probably clarify that I actually enjoyed reading many of the agents' blogs, but decided that since I'm not anywhere near the stage in my writing that I need to concern myself with the daily ins and outs of querying, submissions and the current publishing climate, I couldn't continue to spend time there. It's all about the writing baby ;)

Reality, I absolutely remember your email and owe you a response. More to the point, I truly appreciate the time you took to write such a supportive and encouraging note. Had this not been my first manuscript and if I didn't feel like I'd been able to step back and objectively assess whether or not I should carry on with it, your words would be spot on. I hope we continue to support each other as you go through the (congratulations) process of revising your completed first draft and as I begin again.

Judy, your previous words about you first unfinished manuscript stuck with me and helped give me the confidence to know I've made the right choice. I do envision a much smoother writing process with this one because so much about it is so much clearer to me already. I will surely keep you posted and undoubtedly continue to seek your wise words of advice.

Therese, one of the most important things I've gained over the last few months has been the confidence to know myself and what I, as a writer need to do for my work. Processes, rituals and goals vary widely and each of us needs to find our own rhythm while occasionally surfacing for a little outside help. You, as one of the people who has helped me most, may note this as fairly significant progress. I sincerely thank you for that.

You've also given voice to another of the doubts that had been building around my first manuscript. Although I still believe there may be something there, it had occurred to me that if I'd finished it and managed to attract some interest (lots of ifs), I wasn't sure that I'd want my first exposure to the world to be that type of story.

Your comment about writing a million words before deserving to be published resonates strongly with me. Scott has taught painting on and off for many years and one of the things he frequently says to frustrated beginning painters is -- how many paintings have you painted? Paint 100 and then you can be frustrated -- or something along those lines, but the sentiment is the same.

Patti said...

my first novel is a piece of embarrassing pap that if it were ever to see the light of publishing i would die on the spot, BUT, it served a valuable purpose. it helped me to see the road to take. it purged me of my doubts of "can i do this?" it made me believe there was something i had to say (but lordy, i sure didn't say it with #1).

listen to your will lead you to wherever it is that is right for you.

an interesting aside, the first year i did nano i wrote the first half of a novel and it was written in a furious 21 days. then i let it sit for a year. when the time came to do nano the second year i started where i had left off on that first nano novel. that year i completed the second half of the novel in 15 days. it has about 100,000 words total. the surprising thing is that it ISN'T crap. it surprises me to this day (it's the new novel I am tweaking as i write). my point is that i pushed myslef and got a result i had no idea was lurking inside of me. so write. and do what is good for you. you never know where it's gonna lead.

(i missed the discussions on my trip...thanks for the thoughts today)

Lisa said...

Patti! It is so good to have you back. I appreciate your first novel story -- and am glad that it seems to be confirming a trend for lots of writers. The nano experience is a surprise. I'd thought about doing it in the past and I may try it in November (depending on what I'm working on then). I now think that maybe if you have the story in your head and there aren't too many unknowns that need to be worked out, the challenge of just bulldozing through and getting it written may work (for me) -- obviously it worked for you. That is very cool.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf