Winston Churchill famously said, “Never, ever, ever give up. ” I, not so famously, am saying that there are three times I gave up what I was writing, and I’m so glad I did. The first project was a finished manuscript that didn’t sell. The second was a first draft that was not a book. The third was a half-done draft that was eating my life. Here’s how each one made me a better writer.
1) What happened: My first time doing NaNoWriMo, lightning struck: I ended up with an actual, finished first draft, the book known as Bleeder. I then revised it. And revised it. And revised it. When it was at its best, I queried it. Rejection after rejection rolled in. I changed the query. More rejections. I changed the query again. More rejections. I shipped it out to some critique partners and revised the manuscript again. Changed the query. More rejections. Finally, one full year after I wrote that first draft, I stopped trying to sell it. I guess the world just wasn’t ready for a girl who bleeds acid.
How it helped me: It taught me about the business of writing. Think of all the new skills I learned that year- writing a book, writing a query, revising a book, revising a query, beta-reading, editing, pantsing, planning, critique partnering… the list goes on! It introduced me to conferences and blogging and literary rejection (which is different from acting rejection!) and the very supportive writing community. I learned about the Query Shark and Absolute Write Watercooler and Writer Unboxed and the GLA and Writers Digest and Flogging the Quill. Finally, it helped me because I wrote another book. Because I had shelved Bleeder, I could concentrate more fully on the book that became Yellow Bike (the book which got me an agent and sold to a publishing house).
2) What happened: Because NaNoWriMo was such a hit, I attempted to do it again, this time with a sequel to Bleeder. In the same year. I called it LaNoWriMo (Laura’s Novel-Writing Month) and I held it in March. I had a chart, a supply of coffee, and a new writing space up in my attic. It. Was. A. Train. Wreck. Yes, I eked out 50,000 words. No, it was nowhere close to a book. In short, lightning did not strike twice. This non-book collection of words now resides in the bowels of my computer and has not seen the light of day since.
How it helped me: I learned that it is very rare to pants a NaNoWriMo novel and actually end up with a novel! I learned that series and trilogies must be planned. I saw my Bleeder characters in a new light and got ideas for an actual sequel (in case the world is ever ready for a girl who bleeds acid). I learned that there is a difference between “winning” and winning. Understanding that this train wreck would never be an actual book cleaned up my writing practices quite a bit.
3) What happened: Six weeks after my son was born, and one year after writing Yellow Bike (which, by this time, had an agent) you guessed it, NaNoWriMo happened. This time, I had a basic idea (about a guy whose only talent is growing a beard) and I was home ALL DAY with a little squawky guy. After having succeeded with Yellow Bike, I was going to attempt NaNo once more. I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. And I realized that I know next to nothing about beards. I know nothing about beard culture or beard competitions or anything. I kept stopping to research more about beards. Add this to a waking, screaming (but cute!) baby, and, well, it was torture. I gave up after 20,000 words. And I’m not ashamed.
How it helped me: I learned that I should fully research an unfamiliar culture before starting if I want to write the story in a month. I learned that my sleeping, eating, and other life habits DO affect my writing. I learned that if I start to dread writing, it ceases to be fun or fulfilling. After shelving the book, I could focus on my baby and adjust to my new mommy life without beards and word counts haunting me. I also started a new draft a few months later and discovered that, surprise surprise, I can write a first draft (although not in a month) WITHOUT NaNoWriMo.
It’s common knowledge that all writing makes you a better writer. I think that the act of shelving a project can also make you a better writer. It’s a bold decision that helps you delve into a new project with the knowledge you gleaned from your “failed” project. And let’s be honest- that project is not a failure. Everything is a success that helps you to your next step.
So ask yourself: Have you tried for over a year to sell your manuscript with no takers? Have you written a story that’s not a story? Are you smack in the middle of something that’s stealing time from what really matters, with no reward in sight? What are the benefits of slogging away? What are the benefits starting fresh?