I have a document with that title in one of my many subfolders in Google Drive, where all the half-baked ideas and partially written novels and long abandoned characters live in silent digital graves waiting to be revived. “What am I Doing” is about a page and a half long, an attempt at new first chapters of a book baby I’ve been working on since 2013. I started in a different scene, in a different point of view, and now in present tense (my favorite). I hoped I’d springboard off it to breathe life back into a story I reluctantly shelved. I felt lost after completing a manuscript and polishing it for querying, so I wanted to return to my first story, my first love.
When I started writing, I was overwhelmed by the advice to trunk a novel that isn’t working. That was my masterpiece. I would never dream of putting it to the side. My idea was good! Beta readers loved it! I would stray for a while, but I would always came back to edit it, breaking it apart, rewriting, reassembling, reimagining.
The editing process isn’t hitting the backspace on a keyboard a couple times and calling it a day. It’s a grueling process. Mine is to open a clean, blank document and start from the beginning, evaluating every single chapter piece by piece. It allows me to be unaffected by the current words and loosens the creative space. It’s amazing what you find when you take the time to nitpick. Characters reveal things you didn’t notice before. These little epiphanies within subplots and arcs appear. I discover characters who don’t advance the plot and can be eliminated. I tighten, I suffer, I agonize, and I have something better at the end. And this has been a tried and true process for every work in progress.
Except my book baby.
I can’t bring myself to look at the first draft of my first story and I’m ashamed to say I let other people read it. First problem? Too long. At 180,000 words, I had an extra book worth and a too big a concept for one novel. Second problem? Didn’t start in the right place. Third problem? I didn’t know how shape the narrative without telling the reader of the story how to feel. I revealed a major plot point. In a flashback. In the first act. [Puts cone of shame around neck]. I couldn’t fix this thing I created, like having half the ingredients of a recipe. I tried editing and tweaking but it never worked. My husband suggested breaking it up into smaller pieces and making it a series. That alone solved an enormous amount of my problems.
Over the next several years, I wrote separate projects, finished a few novels, but I always came back to that first story. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s because I love the main characters so much I can’t see fit to let them go. But I got real with myself, found some mentors, and rewrote it in its entirety, completing it about this time last year. I queried it to resounding rejection and worked on something else.
The follow-up project is now in varying stages of querying and after all the emotional exhaustion of sending a manuscript out into the world, I needed to forge ahead with something new. I worked on a third story until I burned out about 40,000 words. Then my two favorite characters showed up on Memorial Day weekend.
And they had a new plot.
I panicked. Nothing was the same. The characters’ personalities, professions, and backstories were different. I had no sense of where the story would go, could go, how it would end. I talked to a trusted friend, explaining the premise of the old plot. The more I went into it, the worse it sounded. Taking time away from it, saying it out loud, and being truthful with myself, was all I needed to break free from the old plot and put my characters in a brand new adventure that finally made sense.
I have tens of thousands of words and hours of time invested into this story and all its many iterations. It is painful for me to realize some of my favorite scenes will never make it into this cut. They don’t fit anymore. Some of my best writing is in those scenes. It could feel like all of this was wasted time.
It’s not. Here’s why:
Writers are attached to our concepts and our characters and our words and recoil in horror at considering the time we spend hammering out our stories. If it’s not published, seen, beta read, posted online, we’ve failed.
I’ve played piano since the age of seven. I worked on and perfected numerous pieces I’ll never play again, but in each piece I learned something: technique, theory, fundamental concepts. These all built the foundation of something better. I couldn’t get to the masters, Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms, if I didn’t play a simplified Ode to Joy and learn how to read one note at a time. I never lamented all the musical pieces I struggled to master in the graduated soft cover books. They got me to where I am now.
Writing is the same. Am I devastated the waterfall scene may never transpose into this new reboot? Absolutely. Am I relieved to be free of the old constraints of the story to create something new? Without a doubt. The greatest part is I can see my own progress. I’ve gone from clunky, awkward phrases and plodding pacing to an energetic writing style I wouldn’t have achieved had I not had a messy five, six, seven drafts and rejection as icing on the pain cake. Writing is sculpting words into pictures. It takes practice.
Keep at it, fellow writers. Write your hearts out. Put it aside. Try something new. Lift your book babies out of their current situation like a mechanical crane and dump them into a new plot. Nothing is ever wasted if you learn from it.