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.

What Flannery accomplished in 2 hours a day, most of us won’t do in a lifetime.

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”   – Flannery O’Connor


It reminds me of another quote I’m fond of, that I can’t remember who said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

I’m currently enjoying a bit of a writer’s high. After pounding away for almost a year and a half on a novel that is progressing slowly, inch square by inch square, but by getting up per the habit anyway and inching along, I had space provided when this mysterious muse decided to plop itself down on my brain and funnel its words out of my fingers. I don’t even care that it’s for an entirely different story. The feeling of my fingers airily skittering over the keyboard as words fly out without effort is worth it.

Of course, I say “without effort” and that is the funny irony! I had to first cultivate the habit, which has taken a tremendous amount of effort, much of it not fun and with no promise of any reward but the satisfaction of having done it.

So, here’s to you, 5 am! In the hours I rarely knew waking unless nursing a baby, I now have a fully summarized plot outline, start to finish. I have a cast of 9 crystal clear characters with histories and layers and a part to play in the story. I have a title, a vision for cover art, and have begun a scene spreadsheet. I say weird writer-newbie things on Twitter and sound more like a word nerd than ever before.

The terrain of writing is gradually inclining. Fleshing out all those story scenes is no doubt going to have some arduous progress and probably a few slips and slides backward too. At least I have a plan and a habit. I also have experience with ant sized increments forward. I know I’m optimist by nature but I can’t help feeling I might have a winning formula there.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John's River.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John’s River.