On false starts, or being ruthless

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

As I dive head-first into a sea of notes and outlines about B2 I’ve amassed over the last several years, I’m reminded of a familiar piece of advice: be messy.

B1 (currently titled WHEN THERE WAS MAGIC) had plenty of false starts. Plenty. I started the thing in 2007 as a thesis for my undergraduate degree, fueled by Peet’s Coffee and Boulder flatirons and a hefty dose of pixie dust and magic. I loved the idea. I’d get chills just thinking about it. But as I’ve discovered over the years, the idea I adored in my head wasn’t making it to the page. (Case in point: when your thesis advisors wrinkle their foreheads as you describe what your novel is really about, you need to go back and revise. And revise again. And again, and again…you get the idea.)

It took me a long time to accept that while this manuscript is technically my first book, I’ve rewritten it at least five times. Not just small tweaks here and there, but total, ruthless rewrites. And I say ruthless very deliberately. It hurts to kill off your favorite scenes (sometimes, even, your favorite characters), it hurts to press delete in the span of one breathless second and remove work that took hundreds of hours to complete. But before you go and think I’m a vicious, unfeeling person, know this: it was the only way to make it better.

As a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist,” it took me a long time to see it this way. I’d always thought a novel had to be perfect the first time around. (Newsflash: there is no such thing as a perfect novel!) Starting over would be admitting defeat. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Oh, how I was wrong!

Creativity is born from mistakes. The false starts I made in earlier versions needed to happen so that the breakthroughs could come later. I suppose it would have been easier (saner?) to say, “To heck with this! I’ll start a new novel!” and while that’s a very worthwhile (and still very challenging) endeavor, I just couldn’t do it. I had to write this novel. Call me stubborn, call me crazy, but I just couldn’t get this novel out of my heart. And here’s my advice for other writers feeling the same way: that’s okay! Write what’s in your heart. It’s okay if it doesn’t come out squeaky clean the first time; hardly anything does. Whip clunky scenes into shape, change them a million times. Challenge yourself to see your novel with fresh eyes, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Let other trusted people read it and give feedback. It might sound daunting, but I promise, promise, promise seeing your beloved idea make it to the page will be totally worth it.

Because when you give yourself the freedom to mess it up, great things can happen.

Be ruthless. As I start writing B2, I know I will be.