Blood from a Turnip

Or…Sometimes, You Have to Let It Go

(I’ve contributed to different online websites over the past decade as a regular columnist. Some of these sites are no longer extant, but I still have a few of the columns I wrote.  I’ll be sharing a selection of these as it occurs to me.)

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I have a story-start file on my computer.  I have had one since I first began writing, back in 1997.  This is a file in which I put stories that I’ve…ready?…started.  An idea probably hit me in the gray matter and I, in a burst of frenetic brain activity, let it wash over me and through me and appear in a somewhat distilled manner in a document.

It has sometimes been called a “divine afflatus” – if you read the right literature.  A “strong, creative impulse; divine inspiration” if you check LookWayUp online. I feel that way sometimes about a story.

Encouraging, no?

In the Beginning…

Sometimes, there is a wonderful surge of energy in the beginning as I dance through a first chapter.  I meet with the characters, put them in my opening shindig and watch the sparks fly.  Readers have told me more than once that I am adept at drawing people into my stories. Beginnings are special times for me.

Sometimes, it’s a brilliant foreshadowing of things to come.  My knock-down best time at writing a complete novel (first draft) from start to finish was twenty-one days.  That was for a manuscript of sixty-eight thousand words, and change.  Not too shabby, eh?  That was a good one.

But other times, it’s not so smooth and easy.  Other times, I catch fire for that first chapter or two and am thinking optimistically about a future outline and all the research I’ll need to do (I love research) for the story and… and…

Nothing.

“There is no there there.”

Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying this about a place called Oakland, California in her book Everybody’s Autobiography.  She had gone seeking her childhood home and it was gone.  Something she had been looking for and knew had been there…just wasn’t.

Writing can be like that, too.

I will know what should be there, when I am occupied in that marvelous beginning-of-the-story enthusiasm. I do. I just can’t seem to find it when I decide the project has enough behind it or inside of it to outline.  I sit down or walk around my house in the middle of the night and talk quietly to myself about my characters and what I would hope to see as an end-place for their story… it often works.

It just doesn’t always work.

It can be like wandering through rooms of white plastic where you were hoping for translucent Lucite® to help you navigate.  You can continue moving, calling in a soft voice for the characters you had hoped to find, there, but …

There is no there, there.  Just emptiness past those first few doors.  An echo of your own thoughts – or mine, as they bounce quietly off walls and doors and mirrors.

Nothing is Wasted

Now, I have talked to writers over the years who, when this has happened to them, have deleted entire files.  They’ve tossed sheets of paper into the trashcan or recycling bin, often lamenting their utter failure as writers. Some have given up on themselves and their imaginations entirely.

This is terribly sad, to me.  Sad to know these wonderfully creative people have let it go like this.

Sometimes, letting it go is a good thing.  Letting a story go. Letting a character go. Letting an idea melt away because it isn’t bearing fruit for you.  That’s normal in the life of a novelist. It is.  But giving up on writing…?  Because of a failed idea…?

Don’t do that. Just let the story go.  I have.  But don’t get rid of what you’ve written. Not ever.  Keep everything.

There’s a reason for this.  I have a story-start file for a couple of reasons, actually. One:  I spent time writing this stuff. I researched some of it, I enjoyed it.  Why throw it away?  Why not make a place – a proper place – for this work? So I do.  Two:  I never know when I might want to use this and…finally…write a full story.

It’s happened for me before, that an abandoned story start became (with growth and maturity and tweaking and the realization that a fight too early in the story cannot end happily) a full novel.  Complete with character development and conflict and (gasp) a discussion about SEX.  Imagine that in a Christian romance…

So don’t throw away the scraps and starts; keep them. You never know how they might grow up, either to inspire a future novel or to add to the workings of something entirely new.

If nothing else, your incomplete work will serve as inspiration and personal entertainment years later.  I know mine have.  Enjoy it. 🙂