Tag and Bag It: Giving Up on a Novel


Two years ago I started work on a novel that I thought would be easy to write. I’d dreamed the entire plot and cast of characters. It seemed the only work would be in getting it onto the page.

In reality, it revealed my deficits in understanding plot structure. So, I spent time learning and applying the lessons and continued to write on. It revealed I needed software. So, I purchased Scrivener and learned how to use it and continued to write on. It revealed I didn’t know if I was a “pantser” or an “outliner” so, I spent time as both and crafted an extensive outline. I wrote on.

Halfway through the second draft I got stuck. The image that came to mind was of my manuscript as a boat, churning in the Bermuda Triangle. My momentum disappeared. I gazed back at the pages and grew to hate them. Despite the outline, I couldn’t drive the sentences forward.

Just before Christmas I saw an ad for Jerry Jenkin’s writing guild, with the teaser, “do you want to finish your novel?” I signed up, plunged in, and eventually asked the question, “how do I know if it’s doomed and I should move on.”

The answer was optimistic. Unless I was certain that extensive rewrites and hard editing would still result in a manuscript that remained flat, keep going. I wasn’t sure of that at all. I hadn’t spent any amount of time editing yet.

In February I printed out the 50k words I had so far. It felt nice to hold in my hand and see the chapters. I read them on the plane during a 4 hour flight. On the return trip, I read it again, this time red pen in hand.

I still hated it. For some reason I still don’t understand, working on that story brings me down. It doesn’t flow. It’s not creative. The characters are caricatures. It’s possible it reads better as a screen play. There is some dialog in there I love. But, as a novel, it’s nothing I’d want to read.

That ended up being my decision point. I don’t want to write what I wouldn’t read. I want to write the book I long to read.

The Replacements is tagged, bagged, and catalogued away. I’ve set it aside next to my screenplay books. Maybe it will resurface at some later date.

Our writer’s guild had a short story contest last month and I participated with an entry inspired by a snip of a travel ad in the New York Times. It poured out of me, the satisfying follow-the-muse story flow that feeds the writer’s addiction to words. It felt good to write and the feedback was encouraging. I hadn’t thought of making it a novel project until a week or so after it was finished when the story world dawned on me.

I’m going to write it by the seat of my pants. I’m going to follow the mystery of not knowing what happens next.

I don't play the piano. But when I write, I feel music.

Dreams as Plot Lines

I discovered something interesting about writing as a practice this week.

First, my disciplined habit: It’s my practice to get up early, usually around  5 or 5:30, in order to write in a quiet house before our days get started. Most days this hour will be the only hour where I am completely alone, which ups the ante of making sure I have it. Introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries. If I never write see commercial success with writing, I will still need to get up and write every single day. Most days, it feels essential to my survival.

Still, I’m not a morning person so how this practice came to be was the first series of steps. Coherent thought before dawn is not my forte. Getting up early hasn’t been productive enough in the past to make the lost sleep worth it. When I started working full time a year ago and my teenagers cranked up the velocity of their own trajectory into their wild beyonds, I started feeling out of breath and out of time. My waking hours are simply just very, very full. No two ways about it. Writing and time alone had completely vanished except for my time spent driving between the last carpool stop and the office and then again in the evening, navigating a hairy rush hour home.

When I got sick of rotating through loud pop music stations on my commute, it dawned on me that I could listen to books and podcasts that could at least keep the craft on my mind. And, one of the first themes I heard when I got this new habit underway was the value in setting a regular time slot in place in order to hammer out words. It’s a practice, a discipline…decidedly not inspirational or focused on a muse. It’s just getting up and grinding it out so that the muscles are trained and the space is created. When the muse does decide to show up, so goes the thought, there will be space available to inhabit.

Interestingly, I found that when I get up at 5 instead of 6, I’m actually more alert. I’m so enamored at the gift of this quiet time alone and the outlet to express that the words are pouring out. I don’t have many mornings where I’m sitting wondering what to say. My story lines are picking up seamlessly most of the time. If they don’t, I write on something else. No big. Just do it.

My rule is that I must be in bed the night before by 9:30, asleep by 10:15 and I must sleep in at least one weekend morning. If that doesn’t happen, then no getting up early. This is as much for health and sanity as the writing habit is. My life has too many demands on it for me to devalue rest.

So that’s the background. Last Monday night I slept fitfully, stuck in a reoccur-ant nightmare cycle. I kept crying in my sleep, waking up, going back to sleep, and falling right back into the same dream. I often dream in full color, with plots, characters, and even soundtracks. It’s not that dream was so frightening; the moment that kept replaying was the disastrous discovery of the protagonist. She was shocked, horrified, dumbfounded…then immediately surveying the damage. That one scene kept going without progressing forward. My alarm went off in the middle of it and I deliberately went back to sleep, thinking I could snap it into closure. Twice that happened. The scene did not progress and eventually I had to get up or be late for work.

But I decided to write it down. I still had 15 minutes in my practice time slot. Writing down dreams usually results in scenes of ridiculousness; some sci-fi fantasy mystery psychic nonsense that doesn’t seem nearly as coherent on paper as it did near midnight during REM sleep. This one was different. In a very Anne Tyler/Nora Ephron way, this one has an interesting arc with an even more interesting cast. I wrote it down Tuesday morning and have worked on it every day since. The characters are snapping into focus as clearly as if they were walking up and shaking my hand.  Title, outline, and cast were all there in the dream, streaming out through my fingers onto the digital page.

“Your job is to write it down” said more than one of my audio books. I think I get it now.

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.