Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beginning Over--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

This summer I had a lesson not so much on beginning but beginning over. I had a legitimate WIP, started a couple of years ago when I was between installments in my Watersmeet series. I had about 100 pages of decent writing, a rough plot outline, a main character I liked, and a humorous side-kick, a fat fairy called Festus, who I thought would help me set this book apart from other YAs. Even now, thinking about Festus makes me smile.

It all seemed pretty promising…until I sat down to actually write. Except for the first few pages, every page was a labor. Okay, lots of times writing is a labor, but there are usually periods of joy. Not on this project. I had no interest in doing any of the research that I needed to do. I couldn’t make myself revise early pages even though I could see glaring problems. I regularly convinced myself that my daily journal writing—in which I mostly did not mention the book—counted as my daily writing. Deep down I knew I was in trouble. And though I tried to ignore the fear, I began to question if I’d ever write another book.

And then, one morning as I sat at my journal, I wrote the following: “Maybe I should just give this [novel] up.” A weight lifted. As much as I loved—and still love Festus—he, and the rest of this story, was not working. By allowing myself to consider giving up, I suddenly saw the book clearly. The biggest problem was Festus himself. He was the reason I had started the book in the first place, and he was my hook, the element that made the story unique, i.e. sellable, but he was not germane to the character development and plot. I was constantly asking myself how to fit him in, how to get his voice into the story.

And there were plenty of other mistakes. A series of decisions had led me to see this book as MG, to insist that it would be humorous, and to set it in the contemporary world. But once I had decided to throw the whole book out, I was able to see myself as a writer more clearly. I realized that I’m more of a YA writer, I’m funny in person but that I can’t sustain humor for page after page, and one of my biggest joys—and strengths—in writing is world building, something I did not have to do for this book. I don’t think I would have come to these realizations if I hadn’t been willing to trash the book.

In fact, I have salvaged some of it. I realized within the same day of throwing out the MS that its central conflict had merit, and I am now using the nugget of this idea to start shaping a new book. The new book still exists mostly in my mind—but instead of it being a point of dread, thinking over my ideas fills me with excitement. I still am mostly writing long-hand in my journal, but now the entries are full of thoughts, ideas and chatter about this new book. I still have to do research, but now I can’t wait to get to my research reading at nights.

Although in some senses I did not really start over, what allowed for this productive change was a willingness to. Until I was willing to question every element of my WIP, I couldn’t really see the problems. This has happened to me on a smaller scale in all of the books I’ve written. I write myself into a corner and can’t get out. After many, many unsuccessful tries, a moment comes when I let go of all my assumptions and hold no scene, no character, no plot element sacred. Not even a fat fairy named Festus.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My Other Job

So I'm now entering my twelfth year as a school librarian. And this December will be ten years since I earned my MLS degree.

Recently, I came across some old floppies from that era and (after buying an external floppy drive on ebay), looked up my old papers.

It amazes me how many things I learned at the beginning of my career are now laughably archaic. For instance, there was the cataloging class. We had to memorize the insanely complicated methods of writing out a record for a book. It's harder than it sounds. It was like computer programming. Enter one line in the wrong space or mislabel something, and the entire record is useless.

My first library job was a summer spent converting the school library from a card catalog system to digital. Though my predecessor had started the switchover, I had to finish it and put it into action. I spent many days typing in line after line of title, author, publisher, subjects, etc. But in the end, it was worth it. We went online.

Of course now days, all you do is scan the book's ISBN (that number on the back of the book over the barcode), and the record is automatically uploaded. But I only have to do that rarely. All books I purchase come pre-cataloged, for just a few cents per book. I haven't had to enter a record from scratch in years.

Then there were the reference classes. A library, after all, is a repository of knowledge. Patrons will be coming to you with questions and you need to know exactly where to find the answers. We were asked dozens of questions by theoretical patrons, testing our resources to the limit. It was drilled into our skulls that only appropriate reference books could be used. Online databases were okay, provided they were approved.

Looking over the test questions, questions that could only be answered from the Mizzou library reference section or their databases, I realized a rather unsettling fact: I could now answer 90% of them with a google search. Any question that didn't involve health (librarians are cautioned not to give medical advice), government documents, or private business could have been answered on Wikipedia. And the answers on Wikipedia would have been correct. In many cases there would have been a lot more information than in the databases, and it would have been much more up to date.

I also had to take a statistics class. I got a B. If  you had offered me a million bucks to explain anything about statistics the next semester, I would have had to forfeit.

I'm not saying my classes were useless, far from it. I couldn't have survived those first few years without what I learned. It's just kind of sad how quickly all my skills became obsolete.

But I learned new skills, which mainly involve getting gets to love books. And that's something that will never become dated.

Of course the books are now on electronic doodads, but what're ya gonna do?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beginnings (by Margie Gurevich Gelbwasser)

A few months ago I quit my job to write full time. I was ready. I was excited. I was gung-ho to start anew and finally make my dreams a reality. And I still am. Usually.

Sometimes, though, this fear of "What if I don't make it?" "What if things don't work out?" runs through my head. It's normal. I know that. But that doesn't mean I like it. Writing and dreams are funny things. I can do all possible on my end, but there are things in this business that are out of my hands.

So what do I do when the fears get too noisy? I think of why I'm embarking on this journey. Why now? Truth is, I've tried this before, but each time I had a little amount of success, I'd think it wasn't enough and look for a "real" job. This may sound hokey, but I believe in the universe working with me, listening to my thoughts. And by looking for a "real" job, the universe was all like, "Huh. I guess writing is not her real job. Pause."

Last year, I had thought about going back to school for another teaching degree. I started classes and got stressed out and depressed because there was no time to write. Finally, my patient husband said, "What are you doing? If writing is what you really want to do, stop making excuses. Own it. Call yourself a writer and stop looking for other careers." He was right. It got me thinking. That was all I ever wanted to do. And I've never been truly happy giving my all to another field.

So he and I talked and talked and talked. We planned. It's all about new beginnings this year. I have a series out with Capstone now. It's an MG called Chloe by Design, and that's new for me because it's my first MG. The second book comes out in February. I'm also working on another YA I hope to find an agent with. I have more ideas for MGs and YAs, and the difference this year is that I can fully focus on all my projects.

My goal is to make this beginning the start of something amazing. The path I was meant to be on all along.

Wish me luck. :-)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A sense of urgency: beginnings (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," an old man stops three people on the street. He has a story to tell. They’re on their way to a wedding and don’t want to listen to this stranger, so he physically grabs one of them (prompting one of my favorite lines: “‘Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’”). Then, pinning the listener in place with just his eyes and his voice, the ancient mariner tells his story of guilt and horror and penance. “And till my ghastly tale is told,” he says, “This heart within me burns.”

We begin the writing of any story as the “grey-beard loon,” hoping the wedding guest will stand still long enough to listen. No wonder a blank page can seem so daunting. We can’t pin the reader in place with anything but our words.

With that in mind, I’ve assembled a few examples of favorite opening lines from recent books:

“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs?”
--Leila Sales, This Song Will Save Your Life

“I lie in pieces on the floor. A hundred different things surround me: shards of a destroyed wooden jewelry box, some cracked CDs, a few ripped books, a shredded picture of Connor and me. I think my insides must look like they do, all churned up and cracked and unrecognizable.”
--Amanda Grace, But I Love Him

“For as long as anyone can remember, the students of Mount Washington High have arrived at school on the last Monday in September to find a list naming the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade.
This year will be no different.”
--Siobhan Vivian, The List

“When I said it, I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to go home after another long day in the ICU. But then, I didn’t know it was really the end this time.”
--Jackson Pearce, Purity

“The surge of chattering, pointing, gawking people pours into the massive auditorium, and I feel a shiver crawl up my arms. Rather than stand here, watching the watchers, I’m going to do some torchwork.”
--Tanita S. Davis, Happy Families

Each beginning raises questions: what prompts the desire for change that Sales describes, the fury that has shattered Grace's character, the shiver of Davis's narrator? Where is the rash promise of Pearce's character going to take her? What fallout will there be for the students at Vivian's fictional school? How will all these characters change? What is meant by "the end" (Pearce), "torchwork" (Davis), "a person who makes sense" (Sales)? 

A beginning can burst upon us, or it can whisper in our ears. It introduces questions, hints at fears and desires. Whether the urgency is overt or subtle, it is there, the energy that will carry writer and reader through hundreds of pages. When I get lost in the writing of a story, I try to remember what compelled me to start it in the first place, what made the “heart within me burn.” A beginning says, “Listen. This is important. You need to know what happens next.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Babies and Books and Beginnings, Oh My!

You can never go wrong with a little Wizard of Oz.

It's serendipitous that "Beginnings" is the theme of the month for my first time blogging at YAOTL. No brainer, right? I should hit this one out of the park.

I've been thinking about beginnings a lot lately, anyway. I always do around this time of year, mainly because as a student and later as a community college English teacher my years have always been organized around the school calendar, so I think of late August/early September as the real beginning of the year, even though my own birthday is in January, so you'd think I'd have more of a pro-January bias. 

This is the first year in a long time...wait, in ever—my mom, also a teacher, had me in some kind of school from the beginning—that I haven't been going back to school.

Instead, I'm having a baby (due September 15) and handling the release of my debut novel, a YA historical fiction titled The Last Sister (releasing October 15). You can't get much closer to beginning than a new baby and a new book. Except for all the hard work of pregnancy and writing, revising, and editing that came before, of course, which I guess supports the old cliché that every beginning is also an end.

I'm also querying a new (and totally different) novel, so it's time for a new beginning for that project, as well.

It's no secret that beginnings can be scary. In both my writing and my personal life, I often struggle with procrastination, with getting started, because I'm scared I won't be successful at whatever it is I set out to do. I'll think about a writing project for days (weeks, years, whatever) before starting. I'll think of a million organizational tasks that need to be completed before I can possibly work. 

I've gotten raised eyebrows from more than a few people about the baby/book debuts being so close together, but in a weird way, it's perfect timing for me. You know how I feel about both of them? Excited, apprehensive, terrified, thrilled. You know how I feel about the project I'm querying? Excited, apprehensive, terrified, thrilled. 

The thing that grabs us at the beginning of a story is the same thing that grabs us in life. When we open to the first page of a new book we don't know what's going to happen. That's how I feel about all these beginnings: I don't know what's going to happen. That's really scary. And also really exciting, because how boring would it be if I knew exactly what was going to happen? I might be less terrified, but I'd also be less thrilled.

I'll tell you something else about having a first baby and releasing a first novel at the same time: I don't know what I'm doing with either one, but both of them arriving together means that they conveniently distract me from each other so I can't get too obsessed (read: totally crazy) with either one.

What's just beginning for you this fall? How are you feeling about it?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Beginning: A Love/Hate Adventure -- Natalie D. Richards

I’m currently five weeks away from a deadline for my third book and I just can’t imagine a world where there is anything other than this book.  This bad boy has become my Neverending Story and, frankly, I'm a bit miffed that Falcor hasn't showed up with a tall, four-pump no-whip mocha.

Since my entire universe is consumed by the desperate race to the finish, thinking about beginnings for this blog was a challenge. How do I feel about beginning something new? 

Right now the idea of anything that isn’t this-book shaped sounds like sweet deliciousness.  Because this book?  Right now it's like that guy you dated way longer than you ever should have.  This book picks his nose!  He takes me to the auto-parts store and calls me Babe though I’ve repeatedly told him I don’t care for that particular endearment.  I’m pretty sure this book implied that my butt looks big in certain jeans. 

You know what, screw this book!  I want to begin a new, shiny book with great hair and a nice, steady plot-line that won’t ever leave me sobbing at two in the morning.  That book sounds great.

But, here’s a dirty little secret about me.  I kindofsortofactually hate starting books.

Now, I love the idea of starting.  You know, when this totally butt-kicking idea grabs you by the chin and proceeds to tell you that it is the most awesome idea in all of Ideatown?  And at that point, it really is.  That's the magic of writing to me, and I live for those sparks of inspiration, but it’s not what I consider the beginning.

For me, the beginning comes when I open a Word document and the idea becomes reality.  Suddenly, there’s all this pressure.  Where do I start?  Why will the reader care?  What is my main character like? (Hint: She annoys me.  Well, at some point, anyway.  It is the one thing I can count on all my characters to have in common.)

That starting pistol part is full of wonder and possibility for many writers, but I’ll admit it’s brutal for me.  I call it the “Finding My Feet” phase.  The whole book feels wobbly and slippery and sticky at the same time.  Imagine walking on a Slip-N-Slide that been stretched over a mile of marshmallows and filled with lime Jell-O.  Technically it could be cherry, or any other flavor, but you get the point.  I’m not exactly graceful.

But there is one beautiful thing about the beginning.  Eventually I do find my feet.  At some point, that new shiny idea fleshes out into something bigger than I originally conceived.  Those characters that were once names on a page become flawed and brilliant and wonderful and annoying as all crap, which makes them infinitely easier to write.  The beauty of the beginning to me is that it brings me to the part of the book I love, and that's worth all the clumsy stumbling in the world.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drive By Beginning - Carrie Mesrobian

Figure 1. You see some pretty interesting stuff if you slow down a little bit

Being a writer means I don't have to go anywhere on the regular. Except the library. And the grocery story. And my kid's school. I wear a pretty  nice groove between all those boring places. You'd think having such a predictable life would mean that I lack ideas for stories. But it's not actually true.

Because, while I'm not an idea factory like some writers I know, it really doesn't take much for me to start cooking up a story idea. It usually starts with a question or a character with a particular problem I've never had. Sometimes a song will make me think of an old memory and I'll wonder, what if.

Sometimes, though, I get lucky. I see something in the little groove routine of my life that fascinates me like nothing else and I can't get it out of my head.

Perfectly Good White Boy started with one such lucky image.

I was driving home (from Target? from the bank?) in my usual way. It was around dinner time and it was spring and the sun was out, expansive in that luxurious way that spring brings after a long Minnesota winter. I was driving past the high school by my house and going slow - I'm a rule follower and the school zone sign says 20 mph - when I saw it.

Right behind the bleachers. A boy and a girl, standing there, holding their athletic bags. Wearing their practice clothes. One of them had a water bottle. They weren't alone - there were kids still on the soccer field, kids running around the track, kids waiting on the sidewalk for rides, talking on their phones - but they were apart from everyone else.

And I slowed down, even more than 20 mph, because I could sense something - maybe I've got some kind of voyeur's sixth sense? - and that was just when the guy grabbed the girl and kissed her.

I nearly braked! I was so surprised and delighted! I saw the girl wobble a bit - she was also surprised. But then they kept kissing, and holding their bags and balancing the water bottle, and I wanted to stop. Park the car. Jump out and say, "Was that your first kiss? Was that what I just saw?" I wanted to grin and congratulate them for being so cute. I wanted them to go to Prom. I wanted them to grin back. I wanted to know what they'd do afterward. Would they call their friends and tell them the whole story? I wanted to know what made the boy do it.

But of course, because I'm civilized, I kept going 20 mph, kept driving home. Kept wondering what those two kids' story was. And since I'll never know, I built one for them on my own.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Once upon a time (Patty Blount)

All this month, we're blogging about beginnings.

I may be insane but I truly love the beginning of a new story. The blank page always makes me tingle. What will I fill it with? Will it be mystery, romance, contemporary or futuristic? The blank page makes me feel omnipotent.

I've never done a scientific study but I wonder if that blank page tingle is what makes us writers? I know many people who despise the empty page with its cursor in the corner demanding words with each blink like a child in the grip of a tantrum.

"Type. Type. Type.Type."
"Now. Now. Now. Now."

For them, the blank page is a stage, the blinking cursor a spotlight, and potential readers an audience armed with rotten food to toss.

For me, that anxiety sets in somewhere around the middle of a story. At that point, the shine of that new idea, that new story, wears away and doubts creep back in. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? Starting a new story is easy; finishing one?

Now that's scary because as it turns out, finishing the writing is the beginning of a new process, a new adventure -- releasing a book. Letting it go, out into the wild, where readers will love it or hate it or sometimes both, and you wish you can take it back, rock it and wipe away its tears (which are really your tears) but you can't. So I play games with myself. When I get stuck, when the doubts overpower me, I pretend I'm starting over. A new blank page. A new beginning. I write scenes that may never be seen by eyes besides mine. I put characters in ridiculous situations ("What would L. do if he were a contestant on a game show?" or "What if L.'s entire life were an episode of The X-Files?") and see what comes out of it.

Usually, these little games spark something in the main thread I can fix or improve and then I'm back on course.

Beginnings are full of hope and possibility and excitement. By treating every aspect of writing a book as a beginning, I keep that hope and potential and excitement going because if I'm not feeling those things, how will my readers?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

(Never) Endings vs. (Shiny) Beginnings (Lauren Bjorkman)

As I revise my WIP--a contemporary YA with one or more characters that happen to be dead--all I can think about are endings. How my book will end. How blissful it feels to type THE END. I’m racing towards the final chapter this week! Yay! Uncork the champagne!

Oh wait. Stuff the cork back in the bottle. Next week I have to revise from the beginning because of all the ideas that occurred to me while I worked. When that’s done, I’ll show the manuscript to one or more trusted critique partners, which will mean more changes. Then I’ll be finished!

Oh wait. My agent will see it next. She’ll probably want some spiffing before sending it out to editors. And—if we’re lucky enough to sell it—the editor will want further changes. Then there’s copy-edits, page proofs, etc. Whew! When that's over, let's celebrate!

Oh wait. Then there's marketing. Doom. Doom. Doom. Marketing is not my favorite.

No wonder everyone loves beginnings. They are untainted by reality. In fact, I’m toying with a brilliant idea for a novel right now. It’s shiny. Fun. New. Break out the champagne!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Alissa Grosso's Patented Dog Walk Desk

The other day I wrote the first three chapters of a new novel. I mapped out a rough idea of where I wanted the book to go and toyed around with some ideas for a surprising twist. Not only that, but I did this while simultaneously cleaning up dog poop, observing waterfowl and getting some much needed exercise. Amazing, no?

Okay, full disclosure: I did all of the above completely in my head. There was no actual writing be it pen to paper or hands to keyboard, but this is because no one has gotten around to creating a dog walking desk yet. That is, until now.

I present this year's must have Christmas gift for writer's everywhere, Alissa Grosso's Patented Dog Walk Desk:

So, maybe my engineering skills and my Photoshop skills leave something to be desired. This is why I should probably stick to writing, but even writers need to walk their dogs and leave the comfort of their desks once in awhile. In fact, I often find that when I do this is when the inspiration strikes. 

Surely, a Dog Walk Desk would help me capitalize on these moments of brilliance, or would it? Maybe the reason I've mentally written the beginnings of countless novels while my dog is busy marking every tree we pass is because I'm freed from the limits of my keyboard and that glaring blank Word document not to mention pesky things like grammar and proper sentence structure. 

Imaginations are free to wander when we are otherwise engaged with mundane tasks like dog walks, long distance drives or the occasional shower that writers take when they are forced to shed their grubby writer sweats and venture out into the big, scary world.

With this in mind, and because I'm worried about what would happen to my computer if my dog happened to see the border collie that he loathes with an all-consuming and completely unjustified passion during one of our walks, I think I'm not going to invest in a Dog Walk Desk. I'll stick to my tried and true method of mentally writing the beginnings of novels during our walks aware that most will never be more than a thought in my head or a note scribbled on the back of a receipt, that when consulted six months later will mean absolutely nothing.

That's okay because every once in awhile one of these beginnings will actually turn out to be something halfway decent, a book perhaps or the idea that sparks the creation of a piece of mobile furniture that will revolutionize the way people write books and walk dogs.

Hey, there, I'm Alissa, I'm new around these parts, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on each month's topic here at YA Outside the Lines. Also, is it wrong that I'm inordinately proud of myself for managing to use the word 'poop' in the first paragraph of my first post?

Sunday, August 17, 2014


My third YA, FERAL, releases next week.  It honestly doesn't matter how many books I do, each book feels like a brand-new beginning.  New reviews, new bloggers to meet, new readers to interact with.  Part of the reason why each book feels like such a new beginning is that with every single release, I've attacked a new genre: I've published YA and MG, contemporary realism, romance, and now, a psychological thriller.

As I look forward to this new beginning, a sneak peek reading of the opening chapter:

Help me celebrate the new beginning by pre-ordering FERAL.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Writer's Beginning by Jody Casella

Today, on this date forty years ago, my father died. He was thirty four years old. I was seven. His death meant the end of a lot of things.

It was also a beginning.

I heard an interview with Alice Walker once. She was talking about her childhood and why she thought she became a writer. She said that the age of six or seven can be a turning point for some people. Before that age, you're at home, and whatever your situation might be--good or bad--it's the norm for you. You don't have anything to measure your experience against.

But at age six or seven, you venture out into the world. You go to school. You visit friends' houses. You notice how other families live. If it's very different from your own experience, you question yourself and your place in the world.

It can be kind of traumatic. If you're a reflective type of kid, you turn inward. You read a lot. You write. This is what happened to Alice Walker.

Hearing that interview struck me because of course I was thinking of myself, at age seven, losing my father. I was too young to process that loss. Most of what I remember from that time is blurry. Chaos. Confusion. Fear. Other emotions came later.

Sadness. Anger.

I hate to admit this, but another emotion I had was shame.

I didn't want people to know that my father had died. I didn't want to have to explain. I didn't really know him, which is a sad thing to me now. The loss I felt was more about the general loss of a parent and not the specific loss of my father, the person.

I coped the same way Alice Walker did. I escaped into books. I wrote stories--because that was a form of escape too. When people praised my stories, I wrote more.

I never wrote about my father.

My book Thin Space is a totally made up story about a boy who loses his twin brother in a car accident. He's heard about the Celtic belief in thin places, where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinner, and he becomes obsessed with the idea. If he can find a thin space, he can see his brother again.

He teams up with a girl who has her own reasons for wanting to find a thin place. She wants to see her father.

There's a passage in the book where the girl, Maddie, is telling the boy about how her father died when she was younger. She can't remember him.

"Do you think that's stupid?" [she asks the boy] "Wanting to see someone you didn't really know?"

"You must've known him a little," [the boy says].

"Not really. If I didn't have any pictures of him, I don't know if I'd remember anything. And sometimes  I think it's just the pictures I remember and not real memories...I have this one picture where he's helping me button up my coat. I can see his fingers on the buttons, you know, and his face bending toward me. He had this very pronounced Adam's apple and a pointed chin. But here's the thing--that's all in the picture. So do I really remember him or am I just imagining that I do?"

I wrote this bit of conversation and never thought anything of it. A few weeks ago, an aunt (my father's sister) called me. She mentioned this conversation in the novel and said it made her cry.

The other day I was doing a bit of decluttering and I found this picture.

It turns out that I wrote about my father after all.

Friday, August 15, 2014

When Your Beginning Isn't Your Beginning (Amy K. Nichols)

Last night I ran into a friend who recently finished writing her first novel, which is such a huge thing. I mean, how often do we writers start projects and never finish? Getting to The End is a feat unto itself.

She's revising the draft, she said, and has started to make progress now that she figured out the beginning of her novel isn't actually the beginning.

She cut the first three chapters, starting the story with chapter four and tucking the necessary bits from what used to be the beginning into later parts of the book.

Which is such a smart move.

And a courageous one, too.

It takes courage to cut, period, let alone entire chapters of your book. Especially chapters you thought were the beginning. Writing a novel can take a long time, and that opening chapter has likely lived in your brain as your first chapter a while. For it to suddenly not be your opening chapter? And to quite possibly not be in the book at all? That can be disconcerting.

And liberating.

I worked on my first novel (Now That You're Here) for a couple of years before selling it. I'd lost count how many times I reworked the opening chapter. Imagine my surprise, then, when my editor suggested that chapter eight was actually my opening.

I set the edits aside, waiting a couple of days before scrounging up enough courage to open the document. I remember taking a deep breath, selecting the chapter eight text, cutting it, pasting it into pole position and renaming it Chapter One. When I read through the manuscript again, it was so, so obvious. My editor was right: chapter eight really was the opening.

Maybe all that toiling over my original first chapter was a sign. Maybe that was the text telling me it wasn't in the right spot, I don't know. But I do know, left to my own devices, that first chapter would have stayed my first chapter. This isn't horrible or anything; but the manuscript certainly wouldn't be as strong as it is now.

It makes me admire my friend all the more for seeing her beginning wasn't her beginning and for having the guts to make the change.

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?