Monday, February 28, 2011

Letting Go

I wrote my first words of fiction in August of 2000. At the time, I had no idea how long it would take me to go from that first scene to a fully-fledged book. Had I known, I probably would have run away screaming. As it was, it took me two years to finish, then four more years to edit the beast. Sure I took time off now and then to do things like get married (wedding planning was WAY too preoccupying) and have two kids (don’t get me started), but there were other factors at play. Learning craft was one thing. But far more importantly, I needed to learn how to finish a novel. In truth, I don’t think it was until my latest book that I really understood what was involved.

For some people, finishing a book is no problem. They hammer away at it and it’s done. For others, the book never seems to come together. They tinker and edit and agonize over every little aspect in a search for perfection –or as close as they can come to perfection. Put me in the latter group.

Taking a vast amount of ideas and scenes and wrangling them into a coherent story can be agonizing to a writer like me. Sounds crazy but suddenly there are options on top of options. Roadblocks shoot up in unexpected places, leaving you stranding in plotting purgatory, and you gnash your teeth trying to figure out what to do, which way to go. Times like this, I’d lie upon the sofa in my writing room, toss a ball into the air and wonder what the hell to do. When that failed, I turned to outlining, look at plot points, highlight different scenes, what went where, who got the most play, etc. I’ve done snowflake diagrams, freeform brainstorming… you name it, I’ve probably tried it. There were moments of thrilling clarity, but most often I’d only end up feeling more confused and pissed off that I couldn't bring the sucker together, or do so in the right way.

This isn’t to say that these aids weren’t of any help. But there was an essential element that was hindering me. I was holding on too tight.

There is that old saying, if you love something, set it free. If you hold too tightly and control every aspect of your love, you suffocate the object of your desire. Thus you’ll slowly destroy that which you love to most. In short, you must let go.

Let go, you say? What sort of hippie bullshit are you selling?

Well there are two levels working here. One is your creativity. The other is your career as a writer.

Creativity. More than anything, your creativity needs to come from an organic place. The muse is a flighty, independent creature. She doesn’t like to be trapped, nor does she show up under duress. Over analyzing a story kills the creative impulse. Suddenly you are second-guessing everything and nothing feels right.

Of course there is a time when you need to analyze your plot. But here’s the trick: you also need to go with your gut. Seems a bit of a Catch-22. The best cure for this is rest and regrouping. Write something new to keep your creative muscles sharp, forget about your story for a bit. In the meantime, learn your genre like the back of your hand. This is done by reading within your genre. Understand the mechanics of the type of story you are trying to write. Then go at your story without worrying about it. All art is like this. The musician learns how to play a piece, practices it, stops, starts, gets it all down, then she plays, she feeds from that knowledge but she also lets go and feels the music flowing through her. A ballplayer (the physical artist) makes hundreds of shots during practice, over and over until instinct and skill become one. At the big game, he simply does it. Why should writing be different? You must let go. At some point you have to.

The Big Picture. Here is where letting go really needs to happen for your sanity. If you want to be traditionally published, you are going to have to learn that your book, your baby, really isn’t solely yours. Your agent or your editor, certainly, WILL have opinions. Further, when talking careers, you WILL have to figure out a path, and that path includes what stories to write. Gone are the days of doing whatever you will. Nope. Sorry. If you get yourself a multi-book deal, there WILL be expectations on what you’re going to write next. Lot’s of WILL in there, isn’t it? (g)

At some point, writers feel that their story is finite. This and that must happen. Only this and that happens first and suddenly you have a roadblock. There is so much we want to convey, but will we? How can we if we don’t do this or that?? Argh!!! And so on. This is where you need to let go of the “have to’s.”

First off, you are God in your story. If a roadblock exists it is because you made it. You can unmake it. But, but, then this and this… No. Stop! Nothing in your story is sacred. NOTHING. Because even if you think it is, an editor might not. You might have to cut it anyway. Don’t hold onto anything in your story too tightly. Let it GO.

Often, the things we think we need, we don’t. Those lovely scenes, witty characters, compelling spells of dialogue, they are beautiful things to us. As are certain plot ideas. But if they create roadblocks, muddy up the flow, then they’ve got to go. Sometimes they have to go simply for the sake of word count. Sometimes they are confusing the narrative. There are reasons upon reasons for cutting, switching. Doing so may suck. Like ripping off a bandage. It might hurt, but once it’s done, you may just see healing skin beneath.

Which brings me to the last aspect of letting go. I am the type of writer to absolutely, positively falls in love with my characters. I want them to live on and on. I could write endless books about them. By the time I finished my first book, I had two more outlined for that story –and about 70k words written for them. That book did not sell. Did I waste my time? Does it mean I gave up on them? No. But I let go and moved on. And found an equally compelling story. At the time, I thought there was no way that could happen. I’d found the loves of my life. How to go on?

Here is the thing: I realized I was a writer. Not the author of Character X and Y. I write stories. Not just one story. Stories.

Now you may be a lucky duck. You may write a series and go on and on with it a la Diana Gabaldon. Or you may not. The key is to be able to let go if needed. If you’ve beaten a story to death and it still is not working, walk away for a time. Let it go and try something new. If you worry that just can't get your plot right, stop over-thinking and finish the sucker. We'll tell you if it failed. I've been in both places. These places suck the suckiest of sucks to ever suck. (g) But I've gotten out. You can too.

There is nothing solid or guaranteed in this business. Adaptability and the freedom to let yourself fail is essential. If that doesn’t work, there is always that one last rewrite. ;-)


  1. Great post, Kristen! I'm going to have to learn this lesson sometime soon. In fact, I think scene number four has already gotten the ax in the last week. ; )

  2. You know I've been thinking and thinking and pondering these very points lately, and your experience is always in my mind.

    An interesting thought occurred to me this morning about that abandoned book so may authors have. It's the one thing every single published author has in common, isn't it? A first book. Some publish that book, many don't. But all have to write it to get where they're going. I think the most painful thing about the idea of letting it go is the thought that all that time, energy, love, all those words, might be wasted. But like you say, it's never a waste, no matter what you do with it.

    For that reason, I think it's the first really, truly finished book we're talking about here- and that's where it's important to get the sucker done to a point where you can assess whether it's going to fly or fall into the sea. For a few years there, I went around feeling safe and secure because I *have* a completed first novel that won't ever see the light of day. The one I'm working on now *is* the new shiny idea that stole my heart away. Except that the first novel never meant so much to me- and that means it doesn't quite fit the criteria for the blinding obsession we're really talking about here (g).

    So! I'm gonna write on for now, keeping my eye out for any shiny new ideas that might pop up...

  3. Er, what if you have a pile of manuscripts behind you? I don't want any more of those - I want one that's going to be *the* one.

    I think that's why I'm burning the candle at both ends (thank goodness I still love the story) and I hope I'm finally finally getting somewhere with it, even if it feels as though I'm moving at tortoise pace.

    Four years?? I want to be done now! But that's never going to happen. One word at a time...

    I like that idea Kristen - of being a writer of stories, not characters.

    I'll have to relearn to let go of some more of my darlings if I want this *story* to be the best it can be.

  4. Claire - well, it is true that first books fit a lot of what I'm talking about. But I certainly had these issue with my second book too. I'll go so far as to say I learned to let go with the second book, not the first. I held way too tightly to ideas and scenes in the first book. While I love that book, I don't think I approached it realistically. So really "letting go" applies to a learning experience rather than a book. Whether you learn how to let go in the first, second, or even third book is dependent on the person.

    Saying all that, I really hope people understand that I am NOT talking about giving up. That is very different than letting go. Letting go involves talking your overactive brain out of the equation and using your gut and innate skills. Giving up means stoping because it gets hard. :)

  5. Great post. I agree with you on going with your gut. If it doesn't feel right, it can be better.

    You are right on the books starting out as our babies, but we release them into the world where editors and agents all get to poke and prod. Letting go is essential.

  6. We're saying the same thing- I'm just not saying it very well :) What I meant was, when we talk about a "first" book, I think there's a possible distinction between your first book-book, and your first real love book. It's hard to be realistic when you're head over heels. And I think, like you say, that the same thing can happen whether it's your first or fiftieth book (though hopefully by that stage you're much better at figuring out when it's not working (g)).

  7. Tee hee. We do that a lot. ;)

    I'd like to think I'm better at it, but probably not. My consolation is that I'm more able to realize when I'm holding on too tightly and remind myself to stop. I wonder if our hangups ever really go away.

    I know I really had to struggle with just letting go this summer with rewrites. Remember how torqued up I got? Over thinking. A nightmare. (g) Then I thought, fuck it, I'm sending my revisions in. Seems to have worked out, tho. :)

  8. Excellent, excellent post, Kristen. So very true, and reminds me of a couple of passages about "letting go" that I found myself highlighting *and* underlining the other day, in Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD:

    "You get you intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn't nourish you. You assume that is gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating."

    And this:

    "If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you'll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it."

    And then, this:

    "But be careful: if your intuition says that you story sucks, make sure it really is you intuition and not your mother."


    Thanks for the food for much thought!

  9. Yes...I find it hard to let go. Or at least to identify what SHOULD be let go. But critiquing has really helped me face up to some ugly truths ;)

    I too have sequels. and a LOT of them.

  10. I really have to get that book. Those quotes are great. Love the bit about the rational mind being the golden calf that the culture worships. SO true. Snort at the last one! Mother indeed.

  11. Deniz - most writers have a tower of manuscripts collecting cobwebs beneath their beds. So you're in good company. :) I often think of the interview we did with Deanna and how many manuscripts she went though before hitting it. I'm so glad she didn't give up.

  12. A very, very interesting post, thank you. I'm nowhere near as experienced as many commenters here but what is helping me is, although I adore my two current MCs, I've told them 'This is it! Your tale with me ends with 'X' and if you want more, you're on your own!' I've given my story a definate stop....just hope I can pull it off!

  13. Awesome post! Letting go is essential. It opens the door for the imagination to sneak through. . .that intuitive story teller who likes to discover things as it goes.

  14. It's odd, but I don't *think* I have trouble letting go, and letting the story flow where it will - in theory. It's the actual hard work of changing the same scenes over and over again that sometimes had me running for the hills...

  15. I have been lucky so far (if we ignore the one I tried to write 2oyears ago!) in that both books have finished where they needed to - they are part of a series but each were easy to finish - polish - let go - and the next was already jostling in the wings with a brand new tale to tell. But I do worry that I will not now when one should move away from the series into something else- will I know?

  16. Great post, Kristen. Sometimes we try too hard, think too much and let the inner editor sit too close.

  17. Enjoyed this post, Kristen. I know having a mountain of failed manuscripts behind you is almost a prerequisite for publication, but have to admit I STILL hope I'll beat the odds. Don't we all?

    Still, I do have my one almost-finished MS which I was, at the time, very in love with, and which I spent at least six years on...I think that was my learning-to-let-go apprenticeship! When I go back and look at it, it's so riddled with problems I wouldn't know how to start editing...but I learnt a great deal from the mistakes I made.

    My next MS had a very different genesis, and I like to think I approached the project in a more professional way from start to it was written more quickly (just under a year for first draft). Doesn't mean I didn't fall in love with it too, but I was much more willing to see if and when changes needed to be made, and make those changes, rather than clinging to every word and scene with lover-like blindness.

    I'm still having trouble moving on though! My MS is envisaged as part of a trilogy, and I have sworn to myself that I WILL NOT write a word of book two unless someone wants to buy the damned thing. I'm working on something completely different instead. But little tendrils of thoughts about things which could happen in my sequels keep sneaking back in and disrupting my thought flow...

    Wow, sorry for the essay, I think that's enough for now!

  18. I was once one of those people who couldn't let go. Then somewhere in the process of editing I learned to love (yes, I said "love") cutting the fat. The tighter I saw the story becoming, the more addicted I got to cutting out all the unecessary in my stories. Sometimes I have to pull back and make sure I'm not cutting too much!

    Funny, the changes you go through in this process from that first moment you sit down at the computer to get the story out of your head onto paper (or screen, whatever)

  19. @ Adina. Yeah, beating the odds is good. :) What does Han Solo say? Never tell me the odds, Kid. Don't apologize for the essay. I love reading this stuff. So nice to see we're all connected in some way to this craziness.

    @Tracey I went from a 585pg manuscript to 385pgs. Snip. Snip. Snip. I bleed at first but now I just take a breath and do it. Still not loving it, however. More like resigned. lol.

  20. Kristen,

    This is post is sooooooo good. And SO right on. I think that's the hardest thing to do, to slacken up on the reins a bit. It's definitely something I struggle with. I remember when I finished FI, and inevitably, the first rejections started trickling in. I felt like a complete loser. If the world didn't love THIS story..THESE was I going to do? I had so many ideas swirling around in my head for sequels upon sequels and I was completely convinced that no other story would ever be able to replace it.

    Then I began working on BTPM and fell head over heels in love with writing YA.

    Uh, yeah. I wouldn't say my other stories have replaced FI in my heart so much as FI was forced to make room for them.. (g) My books are like my children. I love each of them differently, but equally. If one doesn't succeed, I know another one will. I just have to keep plugging away.