Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ask the Inkpot!!

Good afternoon, Inkpotters. Below is a question from the "Ask the Inkpot" inbox for you to wrestle with this week. Readers, if you have a question for the bloggers, please send it to

Thanks!! Administrator

Hey there...

I'm drowning in false starts for a novel that is begging to be released from my brain, but somehow, I cannot bring it together. I've been told that all I need to do is keep writing, that serendipity will pull it together for me, like magic. I'm still waiting after three years, with about six false but compelling starts that I believe somehow all fit together but I don't know how or why.

Do I try to weave together the common threads of the false starts into a new piece? Do I trash it all and start from scratch, trying so hard to stop trying so hard? Does this mean that it's not ready to be written, that I should start a different project until I have a rough idea of who is in my book and who isn't? Thanks so much for taking a stab at this. It's been on my mind for a while, and I don't know what to do next.

Not so anonymously,

PS- Love the blog. The discussions are like mini-lessons that have me thinking for days.


  1. Man, most of my novels are like that. I spend like a billion years flailing around in beginnings and I hate 'em all.

    What I generally end up having to do is just start writing the blessed thing. By "writing" I mean "start throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks."

    Generally this gets me down the road far enough to where I can see what the heck is going on. Then I have a general idea of what direction I need to be going.

    The whole time, I need to be digging for what the main character really wants. And every time I think I find out what it is, I'm like, "Well, that's part of it," and then I keep digging some more. And if you keep digging like this, by the end of the novel you finally figure out what the MC *truly* wants.

    Then you can go back and write your beginning at last!!

    It's kind of convoluted, but I'm also the kind of gal who writes a fantasy trilogy backwards. (Long story.)

    Hope this helps! and hope that this doesn't make you set fire to your hair in despair.

  2. Glad Melinda dove in on this. My first instinct was to cower, Jen, because there's no one right thing to do or clear answer. IF I were your adviser and you were presenting me with a succession of starts I'd probably get stern, cue the sound of a cracking whip, point out the semester deadline, and encourage you to pick one for pete's sake, and make an outline and/or chapter to-do list in order to create an overall vision (albeit preliminary) of the entire story. Then I'd say chase it down.

    OR, on the other hand, I might just as well say, Set it aside. Start fresh.

    I've done both with my own projects at times. Good luck.

  3. Absolutely put it on the back burner. Then put the burner in the garage. And forget you have a garage. This novel is not your friend. AND/OR If you cannot, like some hapless lover, give up the quest, write some Flash Fiction. Complete stories 1-3 pages long. Write a series of those using character/scenes from the your longest-story-never-told. Write out of sequence, of course, and be outrageous. At least one where a character's hair actually catches on fire. Seriously.

  4. "This novel is not your friend."

    Oh man, Mr. K. You should have that printed up on coffee mugs and sell 'em out of a trunk at residency. You'd have money for the track for evermore.

  5. I haven't read the book so far so it's hard to give the "right" advice. but based on your expressions I'd say--If you are drowning then it's time to let go of the anchor and start something new for now. What have you got to lose? You have everything to gain. You can always go back to this novel later. If the novel is truly begging to be released it will come out in some form, just not this one at this time. It may not be the novel that needs to be released after all, but the themes from it that could show up fresher and better in something else.

  6. I agree. Even in the deep freeze, the important aspects of this story will stay with you and later emerge in surprising ways.

  7. Totally thought they'd cut my name off the end of the sad set of questions... But thank you for your answers. I am completely overthinking this. Yeah, it couldn't possibly be a friend if it makes me use desperate words to describe it. In public.

  8. Oh, I don't know, wonderful cool faculty folks, I can't let these things alone because they won't let me alone. It's the writing's fault, not mine!

    But Jen, keep in mind that E.B. White said of Charlotte's Web, "I had as much trouble getting off the ground as the Wright Brothers."

    One of his false starts was a scene in which Mr. Arable was looking at the new pigs by lantern light and thinking that one of them would have to go.

    Another false start ended up being Chapter 3, the essay of the barn.

    I think White's fourth or fifth try finally yielded the memorable first sentence, "Where's Papa going with that axe?"

    (The complete article, which originally ran in the Horn Book, is in The Annotated Charlotte's Web by Peter Neumeyer. It's really good reading.)

    I consider writing to be like a flesh-eating weasel gnawing on your head: if it's going to be that insistent, then you'd better do something about it.

    I generally do a bunch of exploratory writing before I start a book, writing down all kinds of random stuff about the story as it occurs to me. That way I'm not really working.

    In the end, Jen, it's up to you and what *you* want. Write the story? Skip it? Learn to juggle instead? You MAKE THE CALL!

  9. Okay, I must weigh in on this dilemma, because I've been there. But I'm going to refer to advise I've received at different points in the Hamline program.

    Jane Resh Thomas says, "Write what haunts you." If this novel is truly haunting you, keep writing. But don't sit down to "write a novel." Write scenes as they come to you. If the story troubles you, it's probably personal, which makes it hard to be objective. Pretend you're a reporter and interview your main character. Or, go deeper into your character and journal as if you were your main character. Try to ascertain the heart of the story. (Another bit of advice from Jane.) Once you have the heart, THEN you can start from scratch.

    Secondly, Claire Rudolph-Murphy told us at the last residency that the arc of our stories usually follows an arc in our own lives. I've found that sometimes I'm ahead of the curve. I have to be patient and wait on my story because I'm still living through the arc myself--metaphorically speaking.

    That said, I also agree with Ron. Sometimes putting the story away and working on other projects is the best possible thing you can do. A really great example of this can be found in a speech at Deborah Wiles' website.
    In this speech, Deborah Wiles talks about a book titled HANG THE MOON. This book is currently under contract as the second book in a trilogy, the first book being COUNTDOWN (released in May 1st). It's a book that Deborah WIles worked on while earning her MFA at Vermont College years ago.

  10. I feel your pain on this one, Jen.

    I'm trying to begin my next novel now. I have some general ideas of the story, but I've made three false starts so far. I'm not ready to take it out to the garage yet, Ron, because I still think the story is there. I just haven't found the right starting point. Like Melinda said, I have to figure out what this character really wants. My characters are always deeper than I think at first. Also, this MC is a boy, and that is new territory for me. I need to explore him some more, then follow Marsha's advice and make some kind of a list of plot-points to see where the story is going (even if it turns out to be very different from that plan).

    Thanks for a great question Jen, and for all the good ideas of everyone else!

  11. Like Debra said, maybe the problem isn't with the story -- maybe it's with the beginning.

  12. I had been working on picture books this semester, several of which my muse handed to me like gifts. They came from nowhere, and I literally lost time when I sat down to write them. This has maybe happened a few other times, with a poem or two. So of course, I had been hoping that the muse would hand me a novel if I stuck my hand out again.

    Didn't happen. I opened it up the mess of words, saw it was still all tangled, wrote a whiny question to the inkpot gods and goddess, and closed it up again.

    I don't know. Junot Diaz wrote an article about how it took him ten years to write the book the won him a Pulitzer, and I cut it out so I could remind myself that it can't always be easy (although every once in a while, it is, so obviously, I want more of those mornings and I get frustrated when the timing isn't write. And Danette, I do think for this novel, it's a timing issue of a story that isn't ready to be told.)

    Here's the link. Makes me feel human.

    Thank you all for a wonderful discussion!