The Art of Taking a Break

I was going to post again about college life today, but the past week has brought me new insights into my other passion — writing.

For the past five years, I’ve been working on a novel. At first, it was a stand-alone novel, quite simple. Then . . . it grew. And kept growing. And soon I realized that this was the first novel of a series. So as I wrote the first book (over and over and over and over) the series arc began to plant itself in my brain, rather Borg-like, and soon I had five books planned out, and in various stages of drafting.

But that damn first novel was not taking shape.

In a series, everything rests on that first novel. We all know that. JK Rowling did it splendidly with Harry Potter. Clues that were planted in the very first Harry Dresden book are still echoing through Book 14. But my problems went deeper than that. I knew I had a good grasp on the series and therefore I had laid my bedrock well with the first book, laying down all the little clues, the tantalizing hints, the small widgets that would be important later. What was lacking was . . . coherence. A real plot. My characters didn’t do anything.

I wrote. I rewrote. I gave it to betas, who proclaimed it fantastic and why aren’t you sending this to agents and aren’t you afraid someone else will come up with this idea?

I wrote. I rewrote some more. I gave it up; I came back to it. It was like a seriously bad relationship. The kind you know isn’t good for you but damn it, you just know that if you can figure out the key to making it work, it will be the best relationship since Samson and Delilah, or Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (in their early years, anyway). It’ll be magical. It’ll transcend the ages. The problem was, I believed in these characters and I knew the rest of the series, and damn, it was going to be good. I knew it. But that first novel . .  .

Last year, I pitched an idea to my best beta reader:  what if this isn’t one book, but two? What if that’s my problem? I’m trying to juggle two different threads and neither gets to go anywhere because if they did, it’d be more like 300,000 words rather than the 150,000 it already is, which is already 60,000 words too many. What if each plot, each thread, needs to be its own stand-alone novel? My beta argued with me; that’s not the solution. It’s good. Send it to agents.

I knew better — but I pitched it to an agent last year. She liked it. She requested the full and read it through in a week. She called me to talk to me about it. But I realized as we talked that there was more wrong with the book than she was really telling me. So I stuck the manuscript away and refused to think about it.

Instead, I took an online class and got an idea for a Young Adult novel and started writing that. Which is a LOT of fun! But eventually, I got stuck on it as well. I tend to do that. I’ve learned over the years that for me, the best thing is to walk away from it. If I push it, it’ll just get worse. If I leave it alone, it will eventually sort itself out.

And that’s exactly what happened . . . with my five-year-old problem child.

Let’s forget for a second that I’m in the first weeks of a new semester with 300 students and 11 classes. Not important, apparently! I’ve been editing and that break, which probably lasted at least six months, made me realize that my first instinct — to turn it into two books — was right. I separated out the scenes from the two different plots and have 45,000 words for one, and 75,000 words for the other. They really ARE their own separate novels. And now I feel energized and refocused. I can do this. This will happen! It’s two books!!!

So the moral of the story is:  do what works for you. Breaks work for me. I’ve learned to trust the process. I’ve learned to trust that my mind is still working on it, subconsciously, working out details and pulling at threads and weaving new thing together out of existing scenes and seeing the holes where I can’t see them on a black-and-white page. Delving into my characters and getting their feedback on why things aren’t going well and what they think should be done to fix the problems. Now, I’m happily writing away and I’m hoping that for the first time ever, these novels really will work out.

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