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.


  1. I've actually set books aside halfway through because they weren't going well. But the idea stayed with me and later on, you actually can write it with a fresh perspective. It's best to move on to other ideas in the meantime, though, because the direction you were taking is still fresh in your mind, if that makes sense.

  2. ...And you never do know when you'll have an "Ah-ha!" moment that takes you back to that old story again. (I've had that happen, too...)

  3. So I won't hit "delete" on my computer yet! Thanks, Holly and Stephanie!

  4. It take so much courage to start over. I salute you!

    If you love Festus so much, maybe you should give him his own book sometime.

  5. Wow, I really love this! I've definitely said goodbye to a book or two, and I think it can be a healthy and freeing thing. :)

  6. Thank you! This might be the most useful post I've read all year. I've been struggling with a YA book and had to back away for a few months. Your comment about world building made me remember why I loved creating the (alas unpublished) series I wrote over a ten year period. It was so much fun to create a new way of looking at the universe and how it was constructed.