When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?


I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.

Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.

Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.

Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.

Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.

I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.

Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.

I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.

Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.

Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.

I think of what could be done and redone.

I think of the possibility.

(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)

I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.

Could I do it?

Would someone publish it?

Is it worthy, after all these years?

I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.

In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.

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I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.

But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?

When I have the distance?

Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)

My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.

But I also had some ideas.

This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?

I would have to rewrite so much of it.

I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.

I would have to disguise a great many things.

Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?

It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.

It could be something.

And yet, do I want to go back there?

• • •

I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?

Have you performed a resurrection?

And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?

The End-of-Year Quiet


Why, hello there.

I’ve been quiet. Since I last spilled my thoughts here, I worked hard to get my first draft of The Walls Around Us done by deadline.

I will tell you the truth, want it, want the truth? After everything I said in that post—shouting my love and appreciation for deadlines from the rooftops—I didn’t make the deadline.

I needed a week’s extension.

Sometimes things are impossible, and sometimes you need to trust your gut and face the fact that you need more time. Writing creatively on deadline is one of the most frustrating things I’ve done. (Oh and sometimes you get a case of the giant hives while you are writing on deadline, so you look like a bright-red, itchy pufferfish, which is all well and good until your fingers swell up and can’t bend and your hands burn so you have to hold an ice pack, thus making typing on a laptop physically impossible. Yeah, that happened.) Moving on.

I worked hard, and that’s what matters.

It’s now the end of December and I’m revising—and revising is my most favorite part of the book-publishing process, even though I will fully admit it’s not easy. Next deadline is in January. I meant to blog about writing and revising and all that, but I’ve found myself in a silent state. Not just here, but in real life, too.

So a step back. A healthy dose of alone time. Building a little writing tent in the bedroom. Gathering hopes and goals for 2014. Revising this book with everything I’ve got. Trying to keep the doubt spiral at bay.

As I was typing up this blog post, I got my last rejection (well, I hope it’s the last one!) of 2013. And I feel fine. It looks like 2014 is going to be the first year since 2009 that I won’t have a writing residency… Which seems right. I’ve had a lot of luck these past few years, and I’m traveling enough as it is next year and want to stay home with E, so New York City: You will have to be my writers colony. See you in the café.

If this blog stays quiet and I don’t post in the next couple weeks, I am wishing you a happy New Year!

p.s. I just realized I haven’t shared this here yet… Good news:

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On Revising: Why Can’t It Just Come Out Perfect the First Time?

We’ve been talking about revision lately in my online YA Novel Writing Class with Mediabistro—which has been such a great experience, and ends in about a week! (If you want to take this class, I have no plans right now to teach it again, but my friend and incredibly talented author and teacher Micol Ostow is heading up the same class starting in September. I highly recommend Micol’s class, and here’s where you can enroll.)

Revision has been on our minds partly because the last assignment is for revised pages, but also because it’s looming there on the horizon for all the first drafts, class assignment or no… When the first draft is done, they will have to revise. We all will. A book won’t get done without revision, and I know how all the hard work eking out those first-draft pages can appear so futile when you look ahead and know you’ll only have to make changes later.

And make changes after that. And make changes after that. Honestly, in my experience, there have always been multiple rounds of revision. I’m always writing toward what my book is meant to be, and though I do love this discovery process, when I’m up against a deadline and an inability to make things perfect, it can be very disheartening.

I have to tell you, I’ve been frustrated with myself as I’ve been working through revisions on 17 & Gone these past months. First off, frustrated that I can’t seem to articulate certain changes I’ve known I’d have to do for two drafts now. Also because my attempt at fixing things sometimes works to break them worse than before. And simply because I wish I could just get it the first time. Why can’t I just GET IT RIGHT the first time?

My editor seems to think it’s perfectly normal for a book to go through multiple rounds of revision like this and for a writer to be getting closer and closer to what she is trying to say with each new draft. She doesn’t seem to think I’m an alien or a hack because I need these revisions. This is what she tells me, so I am choosing to believe her.

It’s what I told my class, too, so I should believe what I’m saying, yes?

I do believe it. But when you’re deep in it, the end seems so very far away. I keep thinking it will be easier and faster with each new book, but I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve learned some things with this book that I plan to do differently next time. So maybe it will be faster? Check back with me in a year or two.

Sure, I wish I could get it right the first time, but my words don’t come out that way. Perhaps there are some magical writing creatures who know the exact right words from the beginning (do these mythical writers exist?)—but most of us will only get our books to be better by going back. By revising.

So that’s what I’m doing this week. Working on my book some more to make it as good as I can. I’m close, though. I can feel it.

I Am That Girl

I’m close to finishing this revision, but so much of what I’m doing is tied up with worries of what will happen to this book, what people will say or think, or not say or not think, and I wish I could get rid of all that. Go back to a time before, when I didn’t think about it because I couldn’t fathom being published and I didn’t care.

A long time ago, writing was all mine.

I am in the apartment alone for the next couple days writing in a makeshift encampment in the living room. My eyes alighted on a book I’ve had since high school. There are my doodles on the front cover.

This book was a gift from my friend Maggie—I’d forgotten, but she’d written an inscription to me on the inside—a friend I met at my first-ever writing workshop, Simon’s Rock.

The book opened to this dog-eared page:

A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.

—from “The Black Art” by Anne Sexton, my favorite poet when I was 16 years old

The Isolating Writer

When I have a ton of work to do—like, for example, right now with freelance copyediting deadlines, teaching responsibilities for my writing class (which I think is going really well! I love my students), and novel revisions and a nice, solid book deadline I have noted in beautiful panic red in my calendar, among other things, because there are always other things—I do tend to regress and do this thing that helps me focus and get calm and breathe: I isolate.

Here I am writing in bed in my writing sweater, which I love wearing during isolation. Photo by Laura Amador, taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

It’s comforting to be in a cocoon of my own making, where my mind can find some quiet, and where my panic can slither away and leave me alone so I can get shit done. It’s comforting to avoid all social interactions and let my roots grow out because who cares what I look like. It’s comforting to sit on the floor of my dark apartment eating a tub of blueberries and thinking about the climax of my novel until the “aha!” moment comes. But this kind of behavior doesn’t help me keep friends. Truly, I don’t know if anyone understands when I do this. Sometimes it’s all I can do, you know?

The good thing about isolating in the face of deadlines is I feel like my mind gets sharper, which is a necessary thing for solving plot issues in a novel, and also for getting through freelance jobs. I’m just a usual introvert who needs some Alone Time, as we call it in my house, to recharge. And sometimes this Alone Time spreads out over weeks.

I hope no one takes it personally.

How do I explain this to people so they understand? Fellow introverts, let me know what helps you and how you keep your friends and families intact during and after times you need that comforting, and necessary, bout of isolation to keep your head on straight.

p.s. Change of subject. Do you want to win a signed paperback of Imaginary Girls? The paperback comes out next month and you’ll have chances to win a signed one here on this blog, but in the meantime here’s the first giveaway as a part of Laura Pauling’s Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon (oh, how I wanted to add a serial comma!). I wrote about mysterious girls from books who catch my imagination… Comment and tell me the “mysterious girl” characters you love, and you could win a beautiful paperback of my book.

Enter the giveaway right here.

The new cover look is gorgeous. This picture doesn’t even show how glossy and delicious this paperback is in person. Wanna see?

(Pre-order links can be found on my website!)

Now back to isolating…

Finding Your Writing Confidantes

For the longest time after grad school, maybe in reaction to being workshopped so much I could hear twelve different responses to every line I put down on the page, I crawled into myself and stopped showing my writing to very many people. Friends would have to beg to read it, and even then, once I’d been persuaded to show them my mostly unpublished stories or certainly, definitely unpublished novels, I couldn’t be in a room and talk to my friends about what they read. It embarrassed me to have it floating there, off the page, where people could praise it or punch holes in it or whatever they chose to do. I didn’t want to face even compliments, and any talk of my writing made me painfully uncomfortable and fidgety, desperately seeking changes of subjects or any reason to run away. (Is that the phone ringing? Whoa, do you smell fire? Gotta go!)

The whole point of writing is to be published and have people read you, is it not? I did want to get published—I just felt so uncomfortable talking to people who read my stuff. (Yes, for years I called my writing “my stuff.” I still do sometimes.)

So much of it is about trust, you see. Not everyone is a good reader of fiction-in-progress. Some people can say an offhand thing that can crush you for months. Some people like everything and so you can never really know when something’s not working because everything works for them. Some people would never read your work in the real world—it’s just not to their taste, or interest—so why bother forcing them to be your audience today? Some people read your “stuff” and then months later show you their stuff and it’s so similar to your stuff in weird ways and you’re not sure what to say or how to say it or who influenced who. I could go on. It’s difficult to find a good reader for your work, someone who has the time to read when you need them to, and gives you the kind of feedback you need to move forward and not get you stalled in mud and self-loathing and despair. It’s a lot to ask of a person, too. I mean novels sure are long.

I’m thinking of this today because I have very few readers. Very, very few.

One of them is the person I share a bed with: E. Of all the novels I’ve written over the years, and the multiple drafts these novels have gone through, I think it’s safe to say he’s read my books dozens of times. Talk about patience. And generosity.

I’m revising 17 & Gone and coming up against a big question—like an enormous riddle my genius of an editor has set out for me, and I want to come back to her with a solution. I want her to like said solution. So inside me is this roar of questions and a battery of hammers telling me I’ll never get it right, and I keep coming up with this idea or that idea or this other one, but I realized, I can bounce these ideas off of E. We can talk it through. And I wanted to fall to my knees in gratitude for not being so alone in this.

A writing confidante will help you feel less alone.

The thing is, yes, I have an editor and yes I have an agent, but it’s not smart to show every little version of something to either. I want their fresh eyes on my strongest work. When I turn in this revision, I want them both to say I hit the mark… or I’m very close to the mark if I just move over a few feet to the left. I don’t want them to have seen five different choose-your-own adventures and a muddle of who-knows-what so they can’t even keep things straight anymore and they just want me to be done with it already so it can get off their desks. An editor or even an agent shouldn’t be treated like a critique partner… no matter how much you trust them.

I also think it’s important to find writing confidantes whose taste you trust. I showed the previous draft of 17 & Gone to two writers. I trust them—as people—and I also trust their taste. I like the books they like. And maybe more importantly I think they are amazing talents themselves. I believe in their vision. (Not to mention that they reached out to me to say they wanted to read my book; I’d never show someone if they didn’t ask me first.)

But even showing them was immensely difficult at first. In the past, feedback from others on a manuscript could cause me to give up on a book forever. Or just lead me off in a wrong direction until I’m left with a broken, crumpled mess of stilted words. In this way, it’s more me than you. Because timing is everything. I am now very careful to not show my writing too soon. I have to hold it close for as long as I need it to be cradled and only when I can read it back without cringing can I hit Send.

Thus ends today’s sensitive-creature confession.

Who are your writing confidantes? We all need at least one.

A Brief Moment of Confidence

Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt. Confidence! Doubt.

I keep wavering between these two emotions.

Source: flickr.com via Nova on Pinterest • Photo by Brooke DiDonato

Actually, I want to tell you about the day I turned in my big revision for 17 & GONE. I’d been working feverishly for weeks. No exaggeration. It had gotten beyond normal writing and revising sessions and I’d had to hole myself up and ignore many more practical things and avoid my friends and sometimes close myself up in the dark writing corner of the apartment in silence with the lights off and type and type and type and type. The blog series was something I’d committed to, and I had to stop to prep the posts and automate the tweets, but if it wasn’t for saying I would do that, I would have disappeared entirely. I wrote with every part of me. I dug so deep and tried so hard. And I finished this round of revision knowing—because I am practical and I’ve done this before—that there will be more to this. My work on this novel isn’t over. And yet, I finished such a monumental revision in terms of new pages written and I felt…


Source: flickr.com via Nova on Pinterest • Photo by Sarah Ann Loreth

I felt delicious. I felt stunning. I felt like a glowing, sparkling beautiful version of myself who’d written something worthy of being a book.

This awesome feeling lasted… I guess about three hours.

Those three hours were probably the best day I had so far this year. If I could have captured my confidence in a box like a butterfly imprisoned between two panes of glass, I would have. (Even though, cruelly, a butterfly in glass is dead, and my captured confidence would have been dead, too.) My revision was now out of my hands and I was proud of it. I loved the book. I knew the book is weird and not for everyone and not a big commercial book that would launch my career or anything. But it was mine. It was all mine. I’d written solely and completely what I’d wanted to write, and the pleasure in knowing this was exhilarating.

Confidence! I sure had it… for those three hours.

Source: flickr.com via Nova on Pinterest • Photo by Brooke Shaden

Then I came down, as all highs do. And I crashed. And the doubts set in. And I imagined all the things wrong with it and wrong with me—and what future reviewers and readers and bloggers and list-makers would say. And I thought of how weird they’ll all think I am. And I thought of the future. And I thought of sales. And I thought of chirping crickets. And I went to the dark place many of us authors know (I know they know because they email me; I know they know because I can’t be alone in this, can I?) and I thought bad things and all the sparkles dissipated and all that was left from my three wonderful hours of being proud of what I’d done was…

Well, me. And a ton of pages I’ll surely have to revise again.

And so. Thus concludes this week’s emotional rollercoaster of being a writer. Fun.

Still, those three confident hours were wonderful while they lasted. Even if they were an illusion, it felt nice and fluffy living in it for a small while.

Source: flickr.com via Nova on Pinterest • Photo by Sarah Ann Loreth