Ask: How Do You Know When It’s Time to Move On?

From Jessica:

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a manuscript? When you’ve spent so much time with a piece and it’s not getting picked up… How do I know it’s time to shelve it?

Dear Jessica,

A timely question for me right now, which is funny because you asked this of me last summer. Both of us sitting at a fancy tiki bar with our fancy tiki drinks with a bunch of other fancy writers, one of whom had a birthday, and all of us talking about our work. You asked this question. At the time, my manuscript was in a lonely purgatory and I didn’t have the heart to answer.

At the time, I had spent over four years with that book manuscript we spoke of. Four years and four major revisions and a year of querying and a year of full requests from agents and a year of requests for revisions from those agents, one of which came through an exciting and debilitating phone call, all of which resulted in painful passes. When you asked your question, I had gone a year without looking at that manuscript, without thinking about it, not because I just didn’t want to but because it was depressing and I needed to be in a state of not depressing for just a little bit.

The year off from the manuscript had been a good one—stories picked up for publication, invitations to read my work on stage under actual spotlights, essays on writing published to sites that ten years ago I would scour for clues on how to become a writer. This was the year I began teaching classes on how to become a writer (also simply known as how to take yourself seriously and trust yourself and your work enough to stand behind it.)

All this good stuff and still the nagging feeling of something unfinished. I had started book two. Book two was a flagging mess of ideas that reminded me of how lonely and confused I was during the first year of book one. All made furthermore depressing because I had left off book one with the distinct feeling that it was broken and would remain broken and I had finally reached the point where maybe, truly, I simply wouldn’t go back to fix it.

I remember saying this to so many people: It’s got a fatal flaw. No matter how many times I re-arranged the pieces, added more pieces, attempted to square the story over and over and over again, it never felt correct. It’s got a fatal flaw, I would shrug. Nothing I can do.

That’s the state of mind I was in about it when you asked that question that night. And at the time, I can’t remember if I answered or didn’t answer—I’m sure if I answered, I answered with some kind of joke because that’s what I do when something makes me a little sad. I might have shrugged, insisted I had washed my hands of the story. Its time was done, on to the new one. And yet, I opted to leave the question unanswered.

I left the question unanswered for months after that night but I thought about it often. The truth was I didn’t know when a person knew it was time to give up on a manuscript. Giving up seemed like such a weak option, quitting. A black and white answer to what was so not a black and white problem. Calling it moving on didn’t help—it just felt like abandonment. Allow it to die or pretend it never existed? Terrible options. I put it out of my mind. I hate leaving questions unanswered but this one in particular was too terrible to contemplate too closely.

Fast forward some months. I am at critique group. A friend comes in sharing excerpts of a book I’d seen before. The voice is so clear. I knew how hard she’d worked on it and was working on it still. My own book knocked lightly. I went home with my heart pounding.

So I pulled it back out. The idea of it shimmered in my mind; I still loved this story, still believed in it. I sent it to an editor to read out of sheer curiosity, just to see, just to make sure. After she read it, I re-read the book myself. It was all there, clear as day. How to square the story.

You have a book. You have a book! the editor said, over and over. I did have a book—finally, after years of arguing with the manuscript, it decided I had suffered enough and made itself clear. The answer showed itself, the puzzle piece that connects all the others. It didn’t even hardly require any rewriting. I worked at break-neck speed to edit and rework the book because to do anything else seemed wrong.

So here now, months later, I have the answer to the question: The work will tell you when it’s done.

When it’s done, it is done in a dead way. If it’s not a story that is to be, it won’t last long. That shimmer will go dormant and you’ll look at it wondering why you ever thought any of it was a good idea. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as ideas floating in the ether, waiting to land on a person. When the idea no longer wants to be realized, it will leave you and it look as dead to you as the inanimate stack of papers it is.

But if it’s not done, it will remain silent and wait until you are ready. Or better yet, it will wait until it is ready, at which point it will insist on being resumed.

So when you asked me that question, I didn’t know how to answer. Because the book wasn’t dead—it was dormant. It was waiting for me. And having been writing long enough to trust the process but not long enough to trust myself, I couldn’t give a straight answer to the question.

I sent that book on its final pass of submissions just last month. Within one week, I had seven requests. One more week and I had a call. One more week, I had more calls. One more week and I signed a contract. It all happened so quickly it may have re-constituted my entire thoughts on the supernatural.

I am now represented by Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, Ltd., who loves the story and believes in it as much as I do, who asked over and over again How did you do it? How did you write this? The short answer is that it’s a long answer, one of those funny stories that have no ending.

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

Photos: The Writing Attic

Dear you,

This is morning. Every morning, if the sun is not yet up. The room is painted in sunrise pink and when I’m up there working, the windows glow for the neighborhood.

 Mornings in the attic are a ritual. Coffee first, of course, but then straight upstairs to get to work. The kitten comes too, every morning. Her level of helpfulness waxes and wanes; some mornings she’s right there with me, watching me type. Most other mornings she’s playing with everything but the immense lot of toys I bought her.

I love this attic. It is my pride and joy, my own little slice of heaven. To have this space to stretch, toss papers around, be as maniacal as I want, is something that I still marvel at, even a year later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, the kitten has her own desk, where she does all her important work.

I love this attic because it is filled with gifts and creations from my friends and family. The stained glass books are a gift from my mother-in-law. The antlers were a joint effort from my niece and my brother; she shot the deer and he created the mount. The picture of the lady is a gift I gave myself; my grandmother has a figurine of a lady in a similar dress. But this lady’s hair is tied back and proper, her hands are gloved and holding a bouquet. She is prim and small. The lady in the picture above (titled Vivacious) has her hair down. She is smiling and dancing. The picture is part of a calendar created by the local electric company, year 1950. 

The walls upon entering are decorated with an intentional purpose. Artwork from Texas, gifts from new friends, a photograph taken by my best friend from home during her first college photography class (her grown self now an accomplished photographer.)

Ahead are more reminders of how loved I am. There are photographs taken by my father-in-law when he was young paired with photographs taken by my husband when he too was a teenager. Macrame art from a friend named Lisa. A mobile of seashells, sand dollars, and petrified wood created by a friend on a whim and given to me because I happened to be there when he finished it. There is a canvas art print thrifted and created by my mother-in-law for my husband to outfit his first college apartment, something I vividly remember hanging on his wall when I went to this same apartment for the first time. We were sitting on the couch watching Commando. He laid his head near my lap. This was the night of our first kiss.

When I was four years-old, my mother used to dress me in my sleep at four am and take me to my grandparent’s house so she could work her shift at the hospital and still go to nursing school at the same time. My dad drove truck and was long gone by time the four am wake-up call rolled around. My grandfather waited for me in this chair every single morning. We would sit in it together and watch the weather news until my grandmother woke up and made breakfast. When we moved my grandmother into assisted living, she sat in this chair every day with an oxygen tank hooked to the back. After she died, my mom used it as her sewing chair but once I had room for it, she drove it to Nashville so I could use it in the attic, which tells you everything you need to know about our relationship and what kind of mother she is. Now, it’s the chair where I read my drafts.

There are mementos and memories strewn about this room that breathe life into every word I write. Here, my brother’s glass horse forever memorialized in the broken-hearted essay I wrote when we left Texas. Here, a stolen cup from Olive Garden pilfered for me by a boy with a crush on our high school band trip now used to store idea notes. Real good ones like “widowmakers” and “Do the lord’s work” and “artifacts” and “JUST DEAD INSIDE.”

old attic

And here it was before, the week after we were lucky enough to buy it, just a little dead inside but filled to the brim with potential.

Playing The Long Game

Dear You,

There’s a little known phenomenon that happens after finishing a draft of a novel. (I’d like to say it’s just me but I have confirmed it with several others so maybe it’s just us.) When you finish and have to put the work away for a time, a strange kind of sadness settles in.

For some, it’s the loss of the daily time spent with characters or a story that has become embedded in you. It’s like watching a good friend leave and not knowing when you’ll see them again. For me, it has more to do with the disruption to my routine and the sudden lack of what feels like forward momentum.

Every day when I sit at my computer and add another thousand words or answer a question that had me stuck, I can see clearly how I’m working toward something larger. I can rest in the remainder of my day and sleep better at night knowing that I have done good work toward a goal that makes me happy. But finish the work and I usually have one day of pure celebration before the darkness sets in. I go to my computer, antsy and unsure of how to proceed.

If I’m lucky, there’s a kernel of an idea for something I’ve wanted to work on. This time, I finished a long draft two days before the election so my mind was a little preoccupied the weeks following. The writing group that got me out of my funk in Texas sadly did not choose to relocate with me to Tennessee and I’m still trying to gather a new handful of writing friends here. Couple all this with the cruel fact that the sun sets in this town at 4:30 in the goddamn afternoon and we haven’t even reached winter solstice yet and you better believe I’m struggling to put words to page.

What’s that, you say? Take a break? Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the healthy thing to do. I promise that I’m currently on one now (with the exception of this blog post and the fact that I have a half draft of a story that I really need to finish but, I guess, maybe, for sanity’s sake I can let it go until January.)

But see, the problem lies around that forward momentum I mentioned earlier.

I have never been a patient person. I run high on impulse and low on willpower. I have been described by many different people at many different stages of my life as passionate about the various causes and interests that cross my radar, passion I am thankful for as it has pushed me to do things I thought highly unlikely.

But my affinity for impulse sometimes far outweighs the level of passion I can claim for any one love. If it doesn’t stay interesting, if I don’t feel like I’m always on the brink of discovery, if I’m not winning whatever game I’ve concocted for myself– I lose interest pretty quickly. (Hence, the lack of willpower during hard times.)

And when I’m not writing, when I can’t put a gold star stamp on the day in the form of creation, the day can sometimes feel like a loss. And day after day of feeling like I’m losing sure does make you feel a little funny.

Yes, I know I sound obsessive. Yes, I have seen a therapist about it. I blame my grandmother, who had such a sense of routine (or possible obsessive-compulsive disorder) that she had a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu based on the days of the week that never changed in the twenty years I knew her as a cook. (Seriously, biscuits for breakfast on Tuesday and Eggo waffles on Friday without fail.)

I’m learning to recognize the off days as gold star days too. I took a rest because I needed it = gold star. I chose to sit on the couch all morning and read this fabulous book by a wonderful new author that inspires me = gold star. I checked my Duotrope account to remind myself that, yes, I have in fact written a lot and put a lot out to submission this year = gold star. In fact, I may just take up Annie Neugebauer’s Joy Jar idea as if my life depended on it.

But mostly, I’m trying to focus on the long game. I took a writing break from 2012 to 2015 to focus on finishing my master’s degree, get married, and just generally take better care of myself. During those years, I hung my hat of all this, convinced I just wasn’t meant for writing (even though I kept writing poetry and essays and started a novel).

So the past two years, especially this year, have felt a lot like playing catch up. This definitely contributes to the “I must DO something every day” feeling I’ve been trapped in. But I’ve finally been able to recognize even those years as essential triple gold star years. Many of the poems I wrote are now the ones being plucked for publication. The essays incubated a novel that I’m still working on but that definitely has a lot to say and required (still requires) a ton of personal excavation.

The past month may have felt like it did not hold a lot for me in terms of creation — the two stories I’m working on feel dead in the water, I haven’t line edited any poems, and my novel is out for a beta read that leaves me both terrified and restless — but looking at the year, I can see clearly how much I have to celebrate. The novel draft is finished and I’m still excited to get back in come January and keep working at it. I threw may hat back into the submission ring this year and have enjoyed a fair amount of success. My husband and I did the scary thing and moved to a new city where I didn’t have a job, friends, or writing connections, and now I have a job, some cool, new friends, and a writing group that is small but mighty.

As the year comes to a close, I am focusing on gratitude, both for the fact that I have been able to write and simply for allowing myself to do so. Stepping back and taking the long view to see the forest for the trees is essential, especially during the more barren weeks. I am working hard to give myself the space and the grace to see what I can’t when I’m nose down into the mud of the work. But right now, the time for work is done. Right now is a time for dancing.

Because all told — this has been a gold star year, and really, a gold star writing life.