I need to park my main work-in-progress for a period so that I can return to it with fresh eyes, which puts me in one of my rare lulls where I’m forced to stop thinking about what normally obsesses me. I can’t not write, because I become prickly and discontented if I stop, so instead, I’m kicking around ideas for something else. I’m throwing noodle possibilities together to see how they stick, rereading old favorite books to see why I liked them, daydreaming, staying up late, and nibbling chocolate chips. I’m still writing every day, 5-10 pages or so, but I zag off on tangents, sketch outlines, abandon scenes mid-sentence, and digress into journal rants. It isn’t nearly as satisfying as working on my main project, but I can see it’s good for boggling the old noggin around. New ideas have to come from somewhere.
One of the things I did last week was look at what I produced in previous lulls like this. Two fledgling novels emerged from those experiments, and they were complete departures from the Birthmarked trilogy. As you may know by now, I trust my agent’s judgment. He’s very savvy, always honest, and extremely nice, so when he told me the novels would be hard to sell, I believed him, shelved the manuscripts, and went on to other things, like what would become the new series I’m writing now for Roaring Brook.
But wait. Here’s what is really cool to me. At the time that I wrote those books, I thought loving them and following my passion about them would instinctively guide me to write brilliant stories with irresistible characters. Now that I look back at those books, I can see exactly why they wouldn’t fly, commercially, and the reasons are both more subtle and more obvious than what my agent told me. The books just bore me. Ten pages into both of them, I think, I don’t want to read this stuff. Nobody else would, either.
How cool is that discovery? It means two possible things: either A) I’m a better writer now with a more fine-tuned sense of what makes a book work from the get-go, or B) I’m not a good judge of my own writing while I’m close to it, meaning I still won’t be able to tell if I’m writing something bad. I’m hoping it’s A.
Please note that I’m not saying writing those books was a waste of time or not valuable to me. I was happy while I wrote them, which is big. I also learned while I was writing them, and I’m still learning from them now by looking back at them.
Here’s what I see: a writer experimenting with voice, having a good time, and playing with language. Here’s what’s missing: momentum. In each case, the story has no pull. I don’t know why characters are doing anything or what they want. I keep hoping a crisis will pull everything into focus so I can see the character take charge, and that doesn’t happen fast enough.
So what am I doing now, in response? I’m writing about a character who wants something very clear, from the first page, and it’s big enough for her to want it for the entire book, whether she gets it or not. New problems come up every other page. It’s the wild west of first-drafting. It’s perfect for my lull time when I have permission to write anything.
If we’re perpetually pushing ourselves to become better writers, that involves exploring why some of the projects we love are duds. It means thinking about what makes a book commercial, and respecting the market of readers. It means growing as an artist and a business woman, and taking chances on ourselves.
Happy Valentine’s Day! I have a love poem up today on Tor.com.