Hey, Pamie: “How do I best jump-start my stalled novel and then what do I do with it?”
Today’s weekly procrastination is making me have to use the tl;dr shorthand, which I only recently looked up as I’d never had to learn it before, because I don’t believe in its philosophy. (What if it was good, and you would’ve been so happy to have read all those words? Why so much judging on length alone? If you’re so busy, what are you doing screwing around on the Internet, anyway?)
The tl;dr answer is in this entry’s title, but here’s the letter in full (I’ll bold the parts where she’s asking her questions):
From one derby girl to another–The Dean of Mean at your service, y’all–I have a procrastination for you. But this one is a little specific and isn’t as universal as some of the other letters you’ve received, so I understand if you don’t select this to answer.
Two summers ago, before I started grad school, I decided to haul out my first (horribly overwritten, frighteningly long, just bad) novel and see if I couldn’t take another stab at it. So I started to rewrite, taking character ideas and plots and going at them in a new way. I wrote about 75,000 words, got about 2/3rds of the way through the book before grad school started…and then I had to turn my attention to that. And then I landed a really nice job and focused on that. Because it’s been an insane year trying to get acclimated here, I could talk myself into not returning to the writing, but now? I don’t know, something changed, something shifted in me and this is the only way I’ll feel balanced, writing this again, being elbow-deep in this world. Or maybe I’m realizing that no matter how much I need this job to pay the bills and I do enjoy this work, it’s writing that I really fulfills me. Or something. I don’t know, I stopped therapy when I started grad school, I’m just kinda spitballin’ here.
Anyhow, this past week, I returned to the book. I reread it: I’m pleased with the writing, for the most part, there are some things that I love, some things that need to be worked on HARD CORE (Part I, Chapter 8, I’m looking at you, kid). And some things I know I need to add, must add. However, it’s still incomplete. What would you recommend: going back and making changes or finishing this? I reread your past letter about how we just need to write and write and not show anyone unless they tell you, GOOD FOR YOU WRITE MORE. WRITE ME MORE OR I’LL STAB YOU (which is my BFF Rebecca. Love and knives, that one–she’s my soul pivot). Based on that, I thought, forge ahead, but is this the time to try to get what I have to where I want and then forge on?
After that, here’s my second question, and hopefully a more universal one: then what? I mean, naturally, I’ll give it to Bec and a couple other friends who are incredibly supportive and waiting for my writing. But… Should I hire an editor to look it over? Do I go straight to soliciting an agent? Should I move to LA? Oh, wait, you covered that already: NO. Not for me, y’all. But seriously. If I finish this, and my friends give me thumbs up, what’s my next move?
Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. More than you know. Once upon a time, I went to London for law school, and my classmates and I made Why Girls Are Weird into our I Ching, and I wrote you about it. You helped make our summer special, and no matter if you answer this question or not, I just want you to know that you inspired us then to live wild and big and breathlessly, and you inspire me now. And now–like you said–since I’ve picked my story? It’s time to write it.
Though maybe not at this moment. I’ve had a LOT of gin fizzes. I love vacation.
(I’d like to add? Just getting the courage to write you, say that I’m writing a novel, that I can see the finish line, that I want to get this in print and that I WILL…I’m kinda proud about that. I’m proud of myself. This isn’t exactly Anna shaving her head or anything, but it’s kinda cool.)
Hi, Mera. Thank you for this sweet letter and I really enjoy what gin fizzes do to your sense of boundaries. And I’d also like to thank you for being proud of yourself and your work, while acknowledging it’s still in progress while still not being all like, “I’m sure it sucks, whatever, why do I even have a computer?”
The answer to your first question is: it’s a little up to you. You’ve written quite a bit and yes, you’re very near the finish line, but if there’s something earlier in the manuscript that’s bugging you way too much to dive back in right where you left off, you might want to go tend to it. You might find that spending that much time in places where you wrote before, strengthening your foundation with your new inspirations and thoughts of “I’m such a better writer now than I was then. I mean, I used to be TERRIBLE! I’M SO MORTIFIED! But now I’m like, way better. I’m fixing here, adding genius there, gosh Present Me is so much better at this than Old Me.” could kick your motivation into overdrive and help you get to THE END. But be careful, because it’s easy to stay tinkering safely in your second act and never push yourself to do the scary part (read: write words where there’s only blank space) so that you can finish that first draft.
The only thing slightly more terrifying than starting a brand new manuscript is finishing the first draft of one. Because then, sure, you did it. But you’re not done. Now you kind of have to do it again. With the same thing you just wrote. And figure out where you can make it better without tossing the entire thing into a flaming fireplace.
So decide what makes you want to work on your novel and do that. If it’s the chapters that are begging for you to fix them, go for it, always with the idea that you are fixing things that will make it easier/better to write your ending. But if you know yourself well enough to know that tinkering with the existing parts of the draft is just a fancy way of procrastinating, and you will two-steps-back yourself all the way to chapter one, then get that novel finished before you start editing.
Question number two is getting a bit ahead of yourself, and I don’t know what you mean by saying you’d hire an editor. Do you mean a proofreader? I’ve written before about how to approach the big scary world of getting a lit agent, but make sure your novel is ready for that before you start soliciting.
Do you have a blog? A Tumblr? A group of Facebook friends who are writers and/or readers who are supportive and give feedback? Because a good way to know if you’ve got something is to put the first couple of chapters online somewhere and allow people to read them. See if you can get some feedback that helps you — and by that I mean it’ll either encourage you to move on or gently let you know that you might have some work left to do. It’s nicer than spamming your friends’ inboxes with your giant manuscript and doesn’t cause too much guilt in either party. You’re just putting it out there; it’s up to them if they’d like to read it.
But don’t spend one single minute telling yourself that they read it but then decided not to tell you they read it because they hate it and now hate you and think you’re a sad, pathetic person with no talent.
I also know you’re going to tell yourself that anyway, because you’re a writer and that’s what writers do.
You can find writing groups in your area, like-minded people who are also… well, weirdos like you. Weirdos like us. It helps to have a community when you’re doing this, as writing is solitary and crazy-making and it’s too easy to read anything on the Internet that will talk you out of doing it and/or keep you from doing it. Get out of the house and meet other people who want to drink coffee and ask these big, giant, unanswerable questions about what’s going to happen next with the stories in your head. Get out of the house and MAKE CONNECTIONS. That girl sitting next to you at your writers group might be the path that takes you to your agent, which gets you an editor (that you did not hire) that takes your book to publication. (PS: During which you’ll have written about six to sixteen more drafts of that novel, so get real comfy with working in it constantly.)
Please don’t think you’re running out of time once you’ve finished the first draft. There’s nothing worse than wishing you’d spent an extra six months on something to polish it because it just wasn’t ready to go out there, but you sent it and it got rejected and now you’re kicking yourself because you’ve blown your best connections for that particular piece of work. Be excited that you’re past the agony of the first draft and into the obsessive part of editing, of deciding where to take your novel on its first date, its second date, if you want it to do a little online dating, or if you’re going to put it on a shelf for a little while so you can work on something else you think is a better representation of you at the start. Just because it’s seen the words THE END means you have to try to market it. You are not running out of time.
Even if it’s about vampires. Apparently those things really are immortal.
You’ll know when the time is right. Even when it’s scary, you’ll know it’s the right decision. The bottom line: don’t worry now about decisions you don’t have to make yet. That’s wasting your time. You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do with this novel. You need to worry about getting it done.
So I will end with this shot of Cal giving you his motivating stare. He may not show it, because he’s got tough love when it comes to first drafts, but he’s proud of you for coming this far with your writing, and knows you can get to the end. Do it. Do it for Cal.
PS: I’m incorporating “soul pivot” into my daily life. Thank you for that.
If you have a question about writing or television or novels or screenplays or any of these places where I write words and other people read them, send an email to pamie at pamie dot com with the subject line: YOUR WEEKLY PROCRASTINATION.