Being a Better Writer: Beginning Anew

Hello everyone! Welcome to 2016!

Yes, that’s right, it’s a new year, and now that the festivities and parties are all over, that means it’s time to knuckle down and get back to work! Well, for me, at least. And I’d best do it fast. There’s a whole lot of work staring me in the face right now! I’ve got a book to release by the end of January (more on that tomorrow), a second book to release by May (more on that to come, but most of you regular readers know the title), and another book to start, finish, and publish! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! There’s at least one convention—LTUE—to go to, another book I need to rewrite, the next Dusk Guard entry to consider, and even, of course, the weeklyBeing a Better Writer posts to keep track of (along with everything else web-related).

And you know what I say? Bring it on! I’m refreshed, recharged, and I’ve got two books about to come out. How could I say no to that?

So then, with all that said, lets dive into today’s topic: Beginning Anew. I felt it was appropriate to discuss seeing as we’ve just kicked off the new year. All of you are out there setting goals (hopefully), examining your lives, and, if you’re a writer (or a prospective one) figuring out exactly what you want to accomplish this year with your craft.

That’s good. You totally should be doing that. See any of the number of prior posts I’ve made on goals or motivation for my opinions on that topic. And if you want more, there are plenty of writing blogs out there discussing this very topic as a consequence of the new year.

So I’m going to talk about something a little different when I say “Beginning Anew.” I’m not going to talk about the new goals for the year you’re setting, nor entirely the act of sitting down to start a new book (though I feel that might be a topic for another time). Instead when I say “Beginning Anew,” I’m speaking of another kind of new. The kind where you look at something that you’ve worked on again and again and realize “You know? Maybe it’s time to move on.”

First off, let’s recognize that realizing something like this is not easy. It hardly ever is. Because as a writer, we love our work. We love our  characters. We love our creations. We love what we’ve put our time into, even when it’s not turning out the way we want. We love it on some level even when we don’t like it. Crud, sometimes even when we hate it. We may think the story is poor, the characters wooden, but we love it all the same because it’s ours. It’s ours and we’re proud of it on some level … even if we’re never going to show it to anyone else.

The trick, however, is realizing when something that we’re proud of truly is ready to be put out to pasture; when we’ve spent enough time on it, enough effort, and it’s time to step away and try something new. Because sometimes we get caught in a rut. We work and we work and we work on something, rewriting and revising, making little changes, big changes, and sometimes going all the way back to square one in our efforts to make the story work, because we know something there just isn’t clicking right.

And that’s not good. When we get to this point, we’ve fallen into a trap. A trap that, to be quite honest, a lot of new, young writers fall into. I can’t even number the amount of young writers who come to me asking for help on a story that they’ve spent the last severalyears working on, rewriting over and over and over again but never satisfied with. Many of them want advice on what they can do, but most of them don’t want to be told what they need to hear. Most of them want to hear something that lets them know that what they’re experiencing is what writing is like, that something I wrote took years of rewrites and frustrated hours staring at a blank page without typing a word. When in truth, it didn’t, but usually these writers want someone to affirm that all this time, all this pride wrapped up in the creation of their story, isn’t for naught. And let me say this right out front: It is not. Time spent writing is almostnever spent in vain.

However, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be a better outlet for their hard work. A better way to spend their hard-earned time that will give them more in return. And at some point, they need to take a step that takes them in a better direction.

It’s hard, I know. A lot of young writers aren’t familiar with the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, the thing we love isn’t going anywhere. They don’t want to give it up, especially when they’ve been wrapped up in it for so long. And for many of them, it’s the onlything that they’ve been wrapped up in, which makes it very hard to just drop it all and walk away, as that would basically be admitting that all the work they’ve done thus far isn’t worth anything.

Now that last part isn’t quite true (and I’ll touch on that more in a moment) but that’s the mentality that a lot of young writers have anyway. This project of theirs may be the only thing that they’ve ever done, and they’re very reluctant to admit that all that time, all that effort, isn’t going to bear fruit.

It’s understandable. Even experienced authors with dozens of books and stories have a hard time letting go sometimes. But the plain and simple truth is that sometimes it needs to be done. Sometimes we need to step back, to drop what we’re doing and not just start over, but shelve the project completely—perhaps forever—and go to work on something new, taking our knowledge and experience with us.

It hurts. I know. I’ve done it. I’ve sat down and looked at the fourth draft of a 20,000 word story that I had written and rewritten and realized: This is going nowhere. I’ve torn myself away from it, closed the folder, and set out for a new project.

You know what I got out of that the first time I did it? That new project that I set out on?

One Drink. The first book I published. Never would have happened if I hadn’t looked at what I was spending my time on and realized “This story isn’t working.” And it wasn’t.

Now, at the time, I thought what a lot of new writers do, since I was new myself at the time (well, sort of, I was a fresh graduate with an English degree, so I did have some experience writing, at least). I thought that by stepping away from it and working on something new, all the time that I had put into it was a complete and utter waste. A lot of new writers think the same, which is part of the reason why they won’t step away: they don’t want to even feel a hint of, or admit that, in some way all that time was wasted when they’d worked so hard. They want to believe that if they only put another few months or years into a story that just isn’t working, something will click, they’ll have a huge hit on their hands, and it’ll all be worth it.

They’re wrong, though not on the count most would expect. They’re not 100% right, either, but that’s a bit the way life is sometimes. Yes, stepping away from a project and starting a new one does mean a lot of lost time. But it doesn’t mean that it was all for naught. Because with every story that you sit down and work on, you’re usually learning something, if only by trial-and-error. Somewhere, buried in the rewrites of that story you’ve spent so long on are the seeds of skills that may blossom once exposed to another project.No time spent writing is entirely wasted, even if it feels like it. The catch is, you probably won’t know this until you move on to a new project. Sort of like how we can miss the forest for the trees, sometimes our love of something we’ve spent so long on can blind us to what we could accomplish elsewhere.

There’s another point to be considered here as well: Just because we’re stepping away from a project doesn’t mean that whatever we were working on was bad, but that it wasn’t working. Now, you may find parts of it that are bad later, but that doesn’t mean that everything about it is completely worthless.

That story I stepped away from to write One Drink? It wasn’t that a lot of the concepts were bad, but rather that I didn’t know how to approach them. The ideas were good; it was the execution and the approach that was lacking. I didn’t know how to tell the story I wanted to tell.

Almost three years later, I did know how. And I started a new story, assembled out of the ashes of the old one. That new story, with the experience, talents, and lessons I’d learned over the prior years, became Colony, the Sci-Fi Space Opera that’s coming out afterUnusual Events. But had I never stepped away in the first place, I never would have learned the lessons that I needed to learn in order to go back and make that story into something that worked. Instead I would have slaved away for months, writing and rewriting to produce a story that, if I ever had finished it, would have been far less than it is now.

You may have good ideas. You may have a great concept. What you may lack is the experience necessary to bring those ideas and concepts to fruition. Sometimes we all bite off more than we can chew. That’s okay, it’s how we learn. But if we don’t take a step away and start something new, we’ll never get the chance to apply all those lessons, and what we stand to gain will diminish day by day until we’re scratching at cold, frozen earth with our fingernails.

All right, I think the picture’s been made clear. So now comes the real tough question: when is the time to start anew?

Ultimately, it’s up to you. Everyone’s going to have their own moment. But let me give you a few pointers that have been helpful to me:

First, be honest with yourself. I mean really honest. Look at what you’re doing and ask yourself if you’re truly getting anywhere. How much time are you spending on what you’re working on? Don’t sit there and justify what you’re doing, really ask yourself the hard questions about what you’ve done.

Second, look at how much time you’ve put into it so far. Has it been a few days? Weeks? Months? Years? How much are you getting done compared to what you could accomplish if the story was flowing at it’s proper place?

Third, are you just stuck on one little thing? Don’t mistake a single moment of “Darn, this isn’t working” for “Everything about this story isn’t working!” In other words, don’t mistake a small mis-step for a complete failure. Jump back. Even in writing Colony, I wrote myself into a corner and ended up going back five chapters and heading in a different direction … but it worked. At the same time, I recognized where things had gone wrong, and it was fixable provided I went back and changed one thing.

Fourth, are you really making progress, or are you stuck at the beginning, starting over endlessly and telling yourself “This time will be different?” If you’re not making progress, you’re not making progress, and you need to face it. Maybe it’s time to close the book on that story for a time and let your mind relax.

Fifth, are you frustrated with your lack of progress beyond what you would consider normal? If you’re feeling incredibly confined, frustrated, or restricted by a project and have been for some time, it might be time to begin anew. The mind is like a muscle: If you keep holding the same position or doing the same workout every day, it’ll get tired, tight, and imbalanced. We need to try new things so that it can relax and grow.

Good points? Well, sure, for me. But situational, which is why the first is a reminder to be honest with yourself. Because at the end of the day, if you’re honest with yourself you’ll know when it’s time to close the book on your current project and start something new. It may hurt. It may feel like a betrayal, or worse, and admission that you’re not as good as you thought you were at this.

But don’t let that get to you. Trust me when I say authors do this all the time, and as a writer, you’re going to do it more than once. Bite the bullet, be honest with yourself, and make the call.

Now, at the beginning of a new year? You probably couldn’t pick a better time to examine your own writing. Maybe you need to begin anew, step away from a stale project that’s going nowhere (or going somewhere very, very slowly). I can’t say without hearing your situation, but you know what? You can. And sometimes, you’ll need to.

Sometimes we need to move on, to step back, look at our work and say “No, this isn’t working.” Sometimes we need to turn away, stop working on the thing we love, and start something new. We need to be honest with ourselves, look at the time and effort that we’re putting into our projects, and ask ourselves if it’s really worth it.

And sometimes, we’ll step away and begin anew. We’ll start a new project, a new story, a new world, and take the lessons we’ve learned from our past with us. And sure, maybe someday, months or years later after we’ve let our mind relax and stretch itself out with a new project, we’ll come back and try again. Maybe not. Certainly the road to the stories I’ve published is littered with the bones of fallen manuscripts.

But you know what? I’m okay with that. I learned something from each and every one of them, and I don’t regret letting them go. Sometimes, we need to let go of something that’s holding us back.

So as we head into a new year, embarking on the grand journey of exploration that is 2016, don’t forget to take a look at your writing. Are you simply retreading the same paths you’ve been walking across for months or more, beating pristine snow down into muddy swaths that are no longer appealing? Or are you striding out into fresh terrain, new worlds, characters, and adventure? Is it time for you to start something new, to go in a new direction?

Maybe it is, and if so, I can’t think of a better time to start.

Happy new year, everyone! Now let’s go embrace that tomorrow!

It’s going to be amazing.

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