The Uncomfortable ‘A-ha’

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Photo by Fredrik Rubensson entitled ‘diary writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a novel I’ve been work-in-progressing with various amounts of gusto for the past four years; clocking in at around 35,000 words now, the book was shaping up to be a real high-quality piece of work. If I was struggling anywhere, it was with moving past that 35K mark, not with loving what I had already written…

Until I sent the beginning of the book off to be read by an editor at a publishing house as part of an unfinished manuscripts call. Now as I sent it off, I had no real hopes that it would be picked up by that publisher. I mean, what are the chances? The book did get rejected a few months later, with a very kind no-thank-you note. And while the editors did not compile a list for me of things to improve upon, the simple fact that I’d sent the book off for someone else to read it made me ask myself the question ‘What didn’t they like?’.

The simple act of sending it out pushed me to go from thinking about what I might like to write to what my readers might like to read. And this, it turns out, was an important enough distinction that I had an uncomfortable ‘A-ha’ moment and scrapped all 35,000 words to begin anew.

The plot changed; the order of the books in the series changed; elements of the characters’ personalities that I had not previously known were uncovered to me. What had begun as a writing-fantasy-on-paper became a more realistic, flawed group of characters with  a completely different set of factors affecting their lives together. It amazed me how just this one shift in focus could make me realize that my whole novel in progress so far was bad: not bad writing, perse, but bad planning.

From that one question, other questions unfolded: Why must this scene be on the page (even if I enjoy it)? Why must the book start here? Where should I give the backstory of this event – and who should give it to be most realistic? How can I make this character more realistic without losing her quintessential awesomeness? Is this believable or am I asking for too much from my readers? These are hard questions to answer sometimes, but the shift from me-centered-writing to reader-centered writing was revolutionary, even if uncomfortable.

This fascinated me mostly, I imagine, because of my incredible ego; on so many writers’ blogs I have read about all the ‘bad rough drafts and manuscripts sitting under the bed never to see the light of day’ and I thought to myself, “my writing is excellent”. And in a sense, that is true; I have a talent for imagery, am competent with witty dialogue, and can wrap up a plot cleanly. But there is so much more to writing than the writing – the decision making, the planning, can matter just as much, if not more, to keeping your readers engaged. And the choices made, those hard decisions, can make for just as bad a manuscript as one littered with purple prose.

Have you ever had an uncomfortable writer’s ‘A-ha’ moment? Let me know in the comments below!

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