Write A New Book
One of the most
frequent pieces of advice I give to aspiring writers is to write a
new book. This is because so many aspiring writers I meet are working
on the same book from ten, even twenty years before. And it shows.
That is, you can see that the idea of the book is immature, with bits
and pieces of more maturity tacked on. The book itself shows a
hodge-podge of skill, scenes that are done well (particularly in the
beginning, which has been revised a lot), and then other scenes that
don’t match at all and make no sense because they only partly
worked when they were first written and they have little to do with
what the book is now.
So I often tell
people that it’s time to put the old book away and to begin
work on something new and better, something that will be conceived
with a much wiser, more mature, more experienced, more skilled writer
mind. And maybe, just maybe, with the experience of writing that
book, perhaps selling it and working with a skilled editor, a writer
might be able to go back and see how to fix the old book (though
honestly, I doubt it).
Being so attached to
an old book that you can’t allow yourself to try out other
ideas is a big part of the problem. There’s something scary
about letting go of the book that made you realize you wanted to be a
writer way back when. It’s scary, too, to try to start over
from scratch, with none of the same characters, worlds, or words. You
have to reinvent everything. You have to reinvent yourself as a
writer. And yes, this is a good thing. It’s an important
moment. You aren’t this book. You aren’t any one book
that you write. You aren’t the imaginary world you created when
you were twelve. You’re bigger than any of those things, and
you need to give yourself permission to prove it.
Here it is: You have
my permission to let go of that first, beloved book and move on to
something bigger and better. You aren’t married to that book.
You don’t have to keep working on it to prove that you’re
a real writer. You’re not giving up because you’ve
decided you learned what you needed to learn from that one book.
You’re not saying that everyone who told you you’d never
be a writer was right. You’re doing the opposite of that, in
Write a new book.
Try it. Just write a paragraph at first. Write one sentence. Or don’t
try writing a sentence at all. Doodle about it a bit. Draw a map.
Look on-line and find some images of the mountains, or of streams.
Find some images of new characters you want to write about. Write a
list for yourself of all the things you love in your favorite movies,
books, TV or other media, and how you’re going to put them all
in your new book. Or let yourself write something you never thought
you’d write before. Write some dialog. Write a funny joke in
your new world. Imagine what school would be like there. Write a
newspaper article about a tragedy. Write a poem from a new
character’s point of view.
You can be just as
excited about something new as you were about something old. More
excited, really. You’re going to be able to write better
characters without the problems your old characters had (for
instance, villains who have no reason to be villainous, heroes who
have massive egos to overcome, or overly gendered stereotypes).
You’re going to be able to craft things better from the first.
Even if you don’t outline, you’ll be able to see how
plots work because you’ve written a book before and you know
what doesn’t work and you’ve probably seen other people’s
books that don’t work and you’ve thought a lot about
Yes, I’ve seen
authors who have published books that they first conceived when they
were young teens. It’s pretty rare, but Sherwood Smith has done
it, for instance. But that was after she’d written and
published a bunch of other books and seen how it was done. I suspect
(though I haven’t asked her) that she used very little of the
actual words she’d written as a teen, even if she did use the
scaffolding, worldbuilding, and even characters. You can do this,
too. But continuing to hit your head against this wall now might not
be the best thing for your career.
In fact, any time
you as a writer feel like your creativity has been sucked from you by
a project, I recommend giving yourself permission to make writing
play again. If you absolutely have to finish a book because of a
contract and deadline, maybe give yourself fifteen minutes a day to
work on a secret project, just for you.
This isn’t a
recommendation for those of you who haven’t finished your book,
however. If you’re in the midst of the murky middles of a book
and you want to give up and start something shiny and new—I
don’t give your permission to do that. The reason for this is
that you have no perspective on how good or bad your book is. I say
this as someone who has hated a book for weeks or months as I worked
through tricky problems, and then, after letting time pass and going
back to the manuscript, realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought
There is something
to be learned from writing a book from beginning to end. Every writer
needs to work through some of the messy stuff. If you keep starting
new books, you are likely to never learn how to end one. Instead,
you’ll have a vast collection of first chapters, first halves
and character sketches. You can’t sell these. For many writers,
the fun part of writing is the beginning and if you never push
yourself past this difficult part, you’ll never figure out how
to wrap your head around the idea of a whole book, a complete plot.
You’ll think that the new idea is going to be perfect, but you
will quickly find out it isn’t.
Finish a book. Work
on it for a while. Then move on to something else. You can always go
back. But give yourself a chance to go forward, too.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison