Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Recognizing The One

Lucy asked in yesterday’s comments how one knows if a manuscript is The One, worthy of a lasting relationship and the commitment of the writer. This is such an excellent question, and the answer is so convoluted*, I decided to use it as a blog post.**

One of the simplest but least reliable ways to tell is our passion and interest level for a project. If we wake up every day thinking about it, and can’t wait to work on it, then clearly, it’s The One. If it haunts us, invades our dreams, or seems to write itself, there is really not even a need to ask the question.

But sometimes, especially if we’re still in the process of trying to nail or refine the story concept, it hasn’t tripped our Passion Meter yet, so we aren’t sure.

Or perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere, so what once was compelling, feels less so, now.

Or perhaps it’s simply gotten to the point where it’s hard, and no longer fun.

But how do you tell between those?

And what are legitimate reasons to put a story down?

If the story does not have enough inherent conflict to sustain an entire book AND you can’t find a way to add some without it feeling pasted on or changing the entire initial concept into something you are no longer interested in, then it makes sense to put it aside.

If it was merely the idea that caught your eye, and now that you’ve played with it, you find you have no interest in doing the hard work necessary to bring that idea to fruition, then it is probably not The One.

However, there are some reasons you shouldn’t use to justify putting a story down:

You are afraid
Someone else has written something similar
It’s gotten hard
You don’t know what to do next
You’re stuck
Someone else’s feedback soured you on the story
You’re just not sure.

Your writing process will also play a role in helping you decide whether or not to put a book down. For example, What part of the book is your favorite part to write? For me it’s beginnings. I LOVE beginnings, so it makes a lot of sense that I will have a lot of false starts. But perhaps your favorite part is the end, or (odd creature!) the middle. If you are having a hard time deciding your story is The One, try jumping to the part you normally like best and seeing if you can write that or you have a clear vision of what will happen during that part of the story. If you can see—and are excited about—the end of the story, chances are you are simply bogged down or sidetracked or stuck in a hard place—none of which is a good reason for putting the story aside.

It IS a good reason to pick up a craft book, take a class, immerse yourself in the work of a master writer you love and admire, and find new ways to approach your story.

But the hard truth is, especially early in your career, you simply won’t always know if a story is The One until you’ve got some writing experience under your belt. You won’t know a story is fatally flawed until you’ve finished it. You won’t know if you like beginnings or middles or ends best, until you’ve written a few of each of them. You won’t know how you react when you hit a hard patch or the sagging middle, until you’ve worked through your fair share.

Unfortunately, experience is sometimes the only way to gain the perspective to know.

Especially with something like writing where everyone’s process is so very different, and even one person’s process can vary from book to book.

Sometimes, we put aside a book because of time constraints or other books/people/circumstances having more urgent needs, and when we go back to it, we find we have lost that nugget of urgency that originally ignited the book. And try hard as we might, we can’t re-ignite that flame of interest. Yes, that is tragic, but it is also true that nothing is ever wasted in writing. Every bad word you write serves some purpose, eliminating wrong turns, narrowing down your plot options, showing what your character is NOT, helping to refine your voice, even just being one of the million sh!tty words Stephen King claims all writers need to wade through before they have access to the good ones.

I have about a dozen manuscripts that were early manuscripts or experiments or attempts at something different (at least for me). I get asked all the time at school visits and workshops, if I will ever try to revive them. The truth is, I have looked at them all carefully and except for two or three, they are all really and truly dead. The original idea was too flawed, too trite, or too dated. Or I have learned how very much time and commitment go into each finished book and the idea simply doesn’t speak to me enough to hold that commitment together until I finish.

Because that’s kind of what it boils down to: writing can be wonderfully, painfully, mind-numbing hard sometimes, and you have to love something enough to be willing to go through all the pain and discomfort of seeing it through to the end. You can’t kind of like your manuscript, or be mildly intrigued by it. Well, actually you can. You can be anything you want with your manuscript, but the chances of you producing a compelling story that way are slim.

However, I will add the caveat that if you aren’t feeling any huge push of passion or commitment to the story, and you’re not willing to call it quits as a writer, push through. Give up on creativity or inspiration or even passion and just go with good hard persistence and elbow grease. A manuscript finished through sheer determination and bloody-minded stubbornness is always better than the one that wasn’t ever finished at all.

* In fact, the answer is SO long and convoluted that poor Lucy is probably never going to ask a question in the comments again!

**And dear gawd, if anyone out there knows how to create a Read More type of cut here on blogger, please email me and tell me how!


meyerprints said...

Lucy said...

No, I think the danger is that I will ask more questions. Thank you for the great answer! I think you must be right that sometimes there is no way to know until you're done.

Anonymous said...

My real book I want to write when I grow up is a whole series, with lots or series branching off! I know it's The One because I've been trying to use the name for years!

(The names is Marytonga.)