Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Four Beginnings (by Nancy Ohlin)


Several years ago, I had the good fortune to land a two-book contract with a publisher.  The first book was my YA novel ALWAYS, FOREVER.  The second was “Untitled” – i.e., an unspecified, open-ended, stand-alone YA novel.

ALWAYS, FOREVER was completed, revised, re-revised, re-re-revised, and published pretty much on schedule.

“Untitled” followed a far less linear path.  In fact, this story—or rather, the story of this story—had four different beginnings:

BEGINNING #1:  I came up with the best idea for a fantasy novel and wrote up a synopsis for my editor.  I loved this idea.  I wanted to marry this idea. 

But sadly, my editor did not love this idea.  So, back to the drawing board.  My editor suggested that I might consider another paranormal retelling along the lines of ALWAYS, FOREVER.

BEGINNING #2:  I thought and thought and thought and thought and came up with an idea for a super-cool paranormal retelling.  My editor gave it a thumb’s up.  I began writing.

I was almost done with the entire first draft when I realized that I hated this book.   Not just “felt mixed about.”  Hated.  Mostly, I hated the main characters.  I tried to save them and it—changing this, tinkering with that—but to no avail. 

I threw myself at the mercy of my editor and told her that I could not go through with this book.  She was very awesome and understanding about it and told me to begin fresh with a new idea.

BEGINNING #3:  At this point I was feeling somewhat foolish and also under the gun—after all, I had failed once and I couldn’t fail again.  I went into my brainstorming Fortress of Solitude and came up with yet another idea for a paranormal retelling.  My editor liked it.  I commenced writing.

You know where this is going, right?  Way into the first draft, I had to bail—again.  My heart was absolutely not in this novel.  I had conceived it not from a place of passion and inspiration, but from a place of “I’m under serious pressure to write a book so I’d better write a book!” 

I threw myself at the mercy of my editor for the second time.  And for the second time, she was awesome and understanding about it.  Still, I felt like a Broken Writer Who Couldn’t Be Fixed.  I was a professional; how could I possibly begin and abandon two first drafts?

BEGINNING #4:   Now, I not only had to come up with a good idea, but a good idea that I loved and could commit myself to—for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, through first draft, revisions, and publication.  Eventually, I thought of two ideas, including one for a contemporary realistic about a piano prodigy.  My editor liked that idea a lot.  She asked me if I definitely, absolutely wanted to write this book.  I said “I do.”

I could go into a whole other subplot about beginnings here.  I began this new novel about twelve different times, with twelve different POVs, voices, moods, and so forth.  I finally settled on an approach that felt right, and soon, I was completely engrossed.  I put my husband to sleep every night with a blow-by-blow of my characters’ problems.  I walked around the house muttering dialogue.  I listened to classical piano music constantly.  I consulted with a therapist about how my damaged heroine might react to life events X, Y, and Z.   I cried as I wrote the sad scenes (as well as the happy scenes and the happy-sad scenes). 

Just recently, I finally turned in the first draft.  Or rather:  I FINALLY TURNED IN THE FIRST DRAFT!!!!   It’s about a hundred miles from perfect, but it’s a beginning.  And with luck, it will weather whatever the future holds, be it a fifty-page revision letter or the harsh winds of two-star Goodreads reviews.  “Untitled” and I will grow old together.  

The lesson for me?   Like marriage, some books are not meant to be.  And like marriage, some books are absolutely meant to be.

Have you ever had to break up with a first draft and begin again?


16 comments:

  1. I think it was very courageous to quit drafts you weren't in love with--can't wait to read the last beginning. <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Kimberly! "Very courageous" is definitely better than "crazy person," which is how I was feeling through most of this process! :)

      Delete
  2. I have a book like this. I may have started it a dozen times and written four or five very different "completed" versions. For whatever reason, I can't let the thing go. I don't have the pressure of an editor or a deadline hanging over me. This is all me playing around. Your situation is a whole other level of pressure. I am vicariously basking in the glow of your completion : )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jody, have you shared your first draft (any of the four or five versions) with a critique partner or writing group or whatever? I'm looking forward to seeing your future post that you've finished this book so I can bask back! :)

      Delete
    2. Oh God yes. They're all very supportive (and/or tired of reading it) It's getting there. 5th 6th time's the charm.

      Delete
    3. I will be rooting for you from the sidelines! :)

      Delete
  3. You're my hero, Nancy! It's not easy to scrap a complete novel when you're on a deadline. Kudos to you for being true to yourself and the story you wanted to send out into the world. And for having the guts to tell your editor. The novel you turned it sounds awesome. I can't wait until it's published.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jen! :) These two scrapped novels will be joining the compost pile of my other scrapped projects/proposals/ideas. Hopefully something useful will come out of this pile some day.

      Delete
  4. Your persistence is awe-inspiring. I bestow you with a gold star!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, thank you for the gold star, Lauren! :)

      Delete
  5. KEEP THAT PILE, NANCY. I just know you'll be able to make use of all of it. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Everyone who thinks we just sit down and throw out words needs to read this post! Thanks for describing the sometimes tortured process.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Tortured" is a good word for it, Tracy! People often say to me, "You're so lucky to be a writer," and on the one hand, yes, but on the other hand, absolutely no. :)

      Delete
  7. Brava, Nancy! This does take loads of courage and, to someone who just threw out a novel I've been working on for a year, is awe-inspiring!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bravo to you, too, Ellen! Writing often feels like a tightrope between courageous and crazy, and this process was no exception. Hang in there and good luck on your new beginning!

      Delete