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. ;-)