Every Friday, I’ll answer a reader question anonymously. I’m open to anything (it doesn’t have to be writing or book related), so don’t hesitate to send in a question. Email to email@example.com or use the Contact tab.
Q: How do you reconnect with your characters after a long break from writing? I had started writing a novel during 2011 NaNoWriMo, but then my mother got sick and eventually died from cancer in early 2012. My mother had always encouraged me to write and now I feel I’m ready to get back on that horse. But when I picked up the pieces of my manuscript and began reading, I felt like I was in a room full of strangers instead of in my own story with the characters I had created. I know the ELEMENTAL series started as a story about four vampire brothers you wrote in high school. Was it hard to get back in the groove when you revisited your original story? How did you get in tune with your characters’ fears and motivations? How do you know when something has the potential to be revised or if it should be scrapped altogether?
First and foremost, please accept my condolences on the loss of your mother. As I said in our email exchange, I can’t imagine trying to write through such a time, so I’m glad you took the time to grieve before picking your manuscript back up.
I received a lot of messages when I put out a call for questions for today’s post, but this one really resonated with me, and I appreciate your permission to share the history behind your question. There are really two forces at work here: reconnecting to your work after a long time away, and trying to regain your momentum after a major life event.
Here’s the thing: life changes us. For the better, for the worse, whatever. Every day, we live through experiences that are going to alter our perspective of the world, and therefore, those experiences will alter our relationships with our characters and their perceptions of the world. Yes, I wrote about the four brothers as vampires when I was in high school. When I rewrote that vampire manuscript in my mid-twenties, I didn’t go back to the original story at all. I had a general gist of what the guys would be like (Michael was the sullen protector, Gabriel was the snarky bad boy, Nick was the “good” guy, and Chris was the thoughtful loner), but the four vampire brothers and their stories were completely different. New plot, new challenges, new everything. Aside from the names, if you put the stories side by side, you’d never recognize them.
I poured my heart and soul into that second attempt at the vampire story, and if you read my previous Reader Question Friday, you know it was crushing when that story met rejection after rejection. I knew that book was WAY better than the one I’d written in high school. I was an adult now! My characters were facing life head on! There was emotion and drama and intrigue!
But it didn’t go anywhere. You asked how I knew it was time to put it up.
Easy answer: I was sick of it. I’d grown as a person while writing it, and by the time I was done, I knew I could do something better.
Anytime someone tells me they’ve been really struggling with a story, my recommendation is to start something new. Not necessarily a new book: maybe a new scene, a new chapter, a new idea entirely. Here’s the thing: if you push your brain in another direction, one of two things is going to happen. 1) You’re going to fall in love with a new story/direction/whatever, and you’re going to wonder why you ever wasted so much time on that previous one, OR, 2) While you’re thinking of something new, you’re going to have a burst of inspiration about the first problem, and you’ll rush back to continue writing it. Either way, win win.
Full disclosure: I hated writing Hunter’s book, Spirit. I hated it, and I was miserable writing it. Hunter’s life outlook is so bleak, and so misguided, and it was painful having to go on his journey with him. Literally painful. I would wonder how much more grief and sadness the kid could endure, but I needed him to go through it, because his story needed to be told. It’s essential to the series. For Hunter’s book, I have more started-and-abandoned chapters than in any other book I’ve ever written. I think I have a fifty-page document of pages that I wrote and later cut. Fifty pages! Of raw material! I was just having such a hard time connecting to him that I wanted to abandon the story. (BAM! He’s accused of abusing his girlfriend. BAM! He gets in a fight with Gabriel Merrick. BAM! He’s thrown out of his house and has to sleep in his car. BAM! He meets a … well, I won’t keep going because I don’t want to spoil it, but if you’ve read the book, you know his journey IS NOT EASY.) Unfortunately, I was under contract, so I had to soldier on. And I did.
But you’re not under contract, and your characters and story are interwoven with a tragic life experience.
After the four brothers didn’t go anywhere twice (and I was sick of trying to make it happen), I wrote my Greek mythology story. At that point, I’d had my first child and that experience changed me. Suddenly I had a new perspective on life, and it was obviously affecting my writing. Before having a child, I’d been afraid to take chances: my characters never used profanity (ha!!), and no one did anything too uncomfortable or taboo or pushed any limits. I played it safe. Crazy safe. But once I had a child, it wasn’t about me anymore. I’d always been a somewhat shy and non-confrontational woman. Then I had a child, and I needed to stand up for him. I couldn’t let other people tell me what to do or how to do it or dictate limits. I was a parent, damn it, and setting limits and expectations was up to me. I had to have confidence in the decisions I was making (and the chances I was taking), or this whole mothering thing was never going to work. This new attitude fed into my writing, and I think it’s why I was able to land an agent with the Greek mythology story.
But that’s a positive spin, and doesn’t compare to losing a loved one.
I’ve never suffered the loss of a close friend or family member, so I can’t speak to that experience directly. But I’m going to get really honest here and share my own experience from this past summer, which caused a pretty significant break in my own writing.
Last May, my husband and I talked about having a third baby. Our house isn’t big, and we both work full time, and our discussions boiled down to this: while we would love having another baby around, our lives just didn’t have time for it. There’s a big writer’s conference next May that I really want to go to, and our boys have never seen Disney World, and we were talking about saving up for a trip in the next few years. My husband is finishing his college degree, and I’m basically working two careers. The time we spend with our boys is already precious and too limited; adding another baby would simply lessen the amount of time we’d be able to spend with each child.
Despite deciding against it, my husband and I rolled the dice once (I’m sure you get my drift). I didn’t think much of it, because I looked at a calendar and I realized that it probably wasn’t even in the necessary “window.” We both decided that we’d made the right decision to not have any more kids.
Fast forward to June 29. I’d been sick all day, and I was standing in my bathroom looking at a positive pregnancy test. I was shocked, and not necessarily in a good way. I didn’t sleep all night — not a good thing considering I had a 6am flight to the ALA conference the following morning. (If you met me at that conference and thought, “That woman looks a bit crazy,” now you know why.)
(I need to pause. Let me be clear here: I am not IN ANY WAY comparing pregnancy to the loss of a mother. I’m just trying to share my own experience, because that’s all I have to draw from.)
While on one hand I was excited to be pregnant again, I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I was already struggling to meet my deadlines, considering I still work full time and I have other children. I knew there was a slim chance I’d be able to do that writer’s conference in the spring, and the money we were going to save for a family vacation was probably going to be spent buying nursery furniture and onesies. My life is already a complicated balancing act of dropping off and picking up and being here and there and everywhere at carefully planned intervals. How was I going to fit an infant into that schedule? How was I going to do it? HOW THE HELL WAS I GOING TO DO IT? HOW?
Long story short: I fell into depression. I fell hard.
I’m crying right now while I type this, just remembering. I felt guilty for being depressed about it. A baby is a miracle, right? There are thousands of people out there who try to get pregnant for years, and here we’d done it in one shot. And we’d talked about wanting another baby, so I felt selfish for the depression. That made me feel more depressed. My editor wanted the first chapter of Sacrifice, and I hadn’t written a word. I spent the weekend writing something, which she ultimately didn’t even like. (And she was right: it was complete crap.) There was no emotional connection, because I could let go of anything, or I was going to rattle apart at the seams.
I just couldn’t do it.
I actually thought about giving up writing altogether. When I got my copy edits for Secret, I barely gave them a glance. I’d wanted to add more dance info and tweak some things, but I could barely face the manuscript. Here’s my writing career, my frigging DREAM, and I couldn’t even look it in the face.
But you know what happened? As time passed, I started to accept the curve ball life had thrown my way. I realized that our “one shot” baby must be pretty special, if that’s all it took, especially considering my medical history. I realized that I could do this, because life doesn’t give us challenges we can’t handle.
Most importantly: I realized that I loved this baby, and I want this baby, and I can’t wait to welcome this baby into our family. (Stay tuned in March.)
I moved past the dark period, and I was ready to start writing again. And because I’d taken a long time away, it took me a long time to get back into writing. I couldn’t bang out a chapter in two hours. I was lucky to bang out a chapter in a week. (I’m getting back to my former speed, but remember, IT’S NOT A RACE. IT’S NEVER A RACE.)
I had to scrap my outline (I use the term loosely) and my starting chapter for Michael Merrick’s book. It was too wrapped up in that depressing period of my life. Part of me didn’t want to revisit that, because it was too closely tied to a time I didn’t want to think about or acknowledge. And not just that: the experience had changed me. Life had knocked me down, and I’d figured out how to stand back up again. I have a new perspective on Michael and Hannah, and for what they’ve had to do to keep their families together. I now know how to write the book the right way.
And maybe that’s part of the problem with reconnecting to your characters. Maybe your emotional state from when you started the story is too closely tied to dealing with your mother’s illness and death. Maybe you don’t want to reconnect with them. They don’t feel familiar to you, but would you feel familiar to them? If you sit down and read through what you wrote, how do you feel about it? Are you excited about the story? Do you feel proud of it? Do you feel happy about it?
Or do you read it and want to stop? Do you find yourself wondering how you ever wrote such crap?
With my three re-writes of the four brothers’ stories, the books are all completely different. COMPLETELY different. Like I said, if you changed the names of the characters and put them side by side, they wouldn’t look remotely similar. For me, it was all about the characters. That’s what was stuck in my head, and that’s what carried through each book. It was never a revision. It was always a completely new book.
What about your story makes you want to pick it up? Was it the plot? Could you restart the book with completely different people, in a different situation or scenario? Or was it the characters? Could you take the same people and put them in a totally different story, with new challenges?
Could you start something entirely new?
Sometimes it’s hard to step away from a project because it feels like you wasted so much time. That’s crap. Don’t feel that you’d be wasting the work you wrote in 2011. Anything you write teaches you something, and like I said last week, it’s never too late to pick up an old manuscript. You can always go back to it later.
Besides, life has probably changed you, too. You got knocked down and you figured out how to stand back up. Use that. Give yourself permission to get back into writing, with your new outlook firmly in mind. Start fresh and see how it goes.
Good luck. Let me know how it works out. I’ll be thinking about you.