Letting Go


I’ve read of many writers who abandoned projects that were two-thirds finished, or had been edited and re-edited extensively and still didn’t quite work. Worse than killing your darlings, the idea of putting years of work into a project and then admitting defeat and moving on to something new broke my heart.

But this week I’m doing just that.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Many of my beta readers have enjoyed the book immensely. They’re eager to hear more of the story and they love my characters. They’ve told me how pleased they are that I’ve written in another genre and done so successfully. What writer wouldn’t stick it out, if only to garner more admiration and joy from readers?

I used to think that putting a project aside was an admission that it was a waste of time, a failure. That it was something only an amateur writer would do. But I was wrong. Rather than breaking my heart, the plan has brought me a great deal of relief. Not because the project was so flawed that it couldn’t be saved. In fact, I’m not burning it and saying goodbye forever. I’d put it away once before, then returned to it and worked it for several months. But in this process, I’ve learned several things about myself as a writer. In order to move forward with a project:

  1. I must have sustained excitement about the book. I’m choosing to put this project away again because, while I’ve had moments of enthusiasm for it, they don’t last.
  2. I must be passionate about the characters and their story. Learning about my characters as if I’ve entered into a new friendship with them makes me eager to know more. Give me a glimpse of their story and I become the nosy busybody who will dig for every relevant detail.
  3. I must be transported by research. The project I’m putting away again was the first book I’d ever written. But the first one I finished and am now shopping is historical. It involved months of painstaking research and personal edification. Yet whenever I was away from the process, I longed to return to it. I’ve never felt that with the first book.
  4. I must learn something about the world. I love to learn, no matter what I’m doing, whether it’s reading or talking to new people. Historical fiction is what I read. It’s what I know best and where I find the most enjoyment as a reader. That pleasure has only been equally prevalent when I write historical fiction.

I’m pleased that I recognized these things about myself early enough to make a change. The current WIP is contemporary. I already know the characters, and their lives are not much different from mine. I want to time travel. I want to live in far flung societies in grand houses, governed by laws that need to be challenged, among people who break the rules.

It’s good to know that I have the ability to write across genres if I want to. But it’s even better to know where my writing time is best spent. I’m certain this knowledge will play a big part in my success as an author.

Writing is a constant learning process. We must understand what time of day we do our best writing, what planning process works for us and how to make our plots, dialogue and character arcs stronger.

But beyond learning the craft, we must also understand ourselves as writers. Only when we discover and admit our weaknesses to ourselves can we overcome them to do our very best work.

How well do you know yourself as a writer?

Checking Your Pulse


Sometimes I think I’m part robot. While this can be useful for getting things done and standing one’s ground in the face of emotional, back-talking teenagers, it doesn’t help when writing characters.

I’ve taken workshops with the inimitable Donald Maass, and he often talks about emotion in manuscripts, specifically how little he sees of it. During a class with him, and in subsequent critiques of my WIPs, I realized this is what I struggle with most in my writing: emotion. My characters do things and go places and stuff happens to them. But what are they feeling when all this occurs? Do we really need to know?

Yes, we do.

Emotion is what connects us to the characters we read. It is, in fact why many of us read. We want to make a connection with the protagonist so that we can empathize with her as we travel on her journey by her side. But if we don’t know what the character is feeling, how can we feel a connection? And if there’s no connection, why do we care what happens to her, or whether she overcomes her struggles?

There have certainly been books I’ve tried to read and had to put down. Books that were bestsellers or were recommended to me surprised me when I realized I just couldn’t read them. At the time, I presumed it was the voice I didn’t care for or the writing style or the density of prose. But on reflection I see it was often that I just didn’t connect with the main character. I didn’t like her or care about her enough to want to keep reading.

Author Darynda Jones suggests first creating empathy for your main character, and then letting her misbehave. This will ensure readers stay on for the ride. She offers a few ways to do this:

-Put them in jeopardy

-Show other characters liking them to make them likeable

-Give them power, either super or as an everyday hero

-Use humor

Darynda suggests using at least two of these, and then gives writers permission to go ahead and torture the character.

Reading is certainly subjective. Anyone who has queried a novel in search of an agent can attest to this. What’s right for one person won’t be right for another. But aside from writing the best book we can, one sure way to increase the odds that our book will be loved and widely read is to make the reader feel something. Whether it’s anger that a character would do something so stupid, or sadness that a character has suffered a terrible loss, a connection needs to exist. Emotion must be elicited or the reader may as well read the newspaper.

How do you evoke emotions from your characters and readers?