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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Finding that Golden Nugget - Persistence Pays Off by Martha Reed

You would think after producing four mystery novels that I’d have writing them down to a science. Craft a catchy opening hook, develop an interesting plot with sufficient red herrings, introduce a few new stand-out characters, and catch the killer in eighty-five thousand words. Seriously, how hard could it be?

It turns out that writing every new novel is an arduous journey because each one of the little buggers is completely different in its own uniquely quirky way.

I completely rewrote my first manuscript four times until I was satisfied, and I almost gave up. I clearly remember sitting at my dining room table tugging on my hair while wondering, “When will this (@#*&!) be done?” When it was finally finished, I wondered if I even wanted to continue exploring my creative writing dream and begin another novel because I thought the experience would be too brutally similar. I doubted I was up to the task.

Talking it over with a wise friend, he said that when I was ready to quit was when I was really only beginning. I now call him Yoda. Promising to give it a fair chance, I dug in and to my surprise writing my second book was pure delight, the quickest one I’ve ever finished. I sat down, opened my laptop and the story flowed like I was watching a movie on a screen.

The third book involved weaving together three different and complex family histories and storylines. I had a lot of fun meshing birthdates and genealogies and that took some time, but in the end, it worked. Book Four came to me in an inspirational flash while I was listening to Tears for Fears music on a writer’s retreat. Grabbing my notebook, I scribbled down an initial outline during one day’s session and now, when I go back and review my notes, I’m amazed at how much of the completed story was actually represented on those first few pages. It was pure magic.

And now we come to Book Five.

Book Five involves researching a new setting and a location and that’s been slowing me down. Because of the internet, finding interesting new details to share with my readers is easy enough, but I keep getting distracted by this interesting information, especially when Googling street maps, and I tumble down long rambling rabbit holes. Eventually, when I do pop back up, I’m carrying a golden nugget of fact or some fascinating detail that will make my story so much better, one that I can really use. Then I’ll check the clock and wonder, “How on earth did writing that paragraph take me four hours?” I’ve even disbelieved the clock until I stood and my body reminded me that yes, I really sat planted in my chair for that long.

But mostly what I wanted to share today was about getting through the sloggy writing bits and finding those magical golden nuggets. Earlier this week I had three straight days of framing up a new chapter while thinking, “Where is this going? This is pure crap.” Taking myself for repeated walks, I considered whether the story was rolling off the rails even while my writerly instinct told me it was not and that I should continue to follow it out. Working on blind faith, that’s what I did. I hemmed and hawed and plowed straight through. The morning of the third day I saw a glimmer of something good, the merest hint. Fearlessly, I pushed on. On the fourth day I opened the same draft manuscript, started working on those same crappy paragraphs and tried again. And then suddenly magic happened. One of my new characters, previously silent and pretty much in the background stepped forward, transforming the scene with one surprising move into one filled with dramatic suspense. Where did that come from? I sat back, grateful and amazed, and in that moment my creative well of confidence filled back up until it brimmed over. Now I feel re-energized and ready to see where this odd story is going to take me next. As its writer and technically its first reader, isn’t this exactly what we want to experience with our work?

Have you ever wanted to give up on a story project? What was it that made you keep at it and got you through to the end?

11 comments:

Jim Jackson said...

There comes a point in every project when I want to throw it away and never think about it again. Fortunately, the next day comes, and I pick it up and keep working.

Martha Reed said...

Good morning, Jim. Yes, I think we’ve all been there, when you look at the hot mess and think: what do I do with this? Dedication and persistence do pay off though in the long run. I can’t even say how many times I kept at it and the story got better.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I give impossible stories a long rest in a drawer before I pull them out again.

KM Rockwood said...

As far as I'm concerned, Margaret has the right idea. Sometimes projects just need to sit on the back burner for a while, And sometimes, unfortunately, when a project is hauled to the forefront, it becomes apparent to me that the back burner was actually too good for it--it deserved to be relegated to semi-permanent file-drawer status.

Martha Reed said...

Hi Margaret and KM - I have a folder of short stories that I think are complete but may not be finished yet. I agree; sometimes stories need to simmer and stew (sometimes for years) before I give them a stir again. The trick there is to be content with that process and not rushing them out into the world half baked.

Susan said...

I have a manuscript I stopped on. Not sure if it will see the light of day. You are so correct in everything you say.

Jennifer J. Chow said...

Thanks for this post, Martha! It's all about persistence and dedication. I do get impostor syndrome with every new manuscript, and I have to push through it.

Martha Reed said...

Hi Susan - maybe you've developed the right character but it's not the right story yet. I had that happen to me. I developed an interesting new character for a story but when it came time for editing she didn't make the cut. I honestly felt bad that I had to do that, but I didn't throw her away. Later, much later, I needed a new character for another story and she volunteered, fully fleshed and right at hand. I make it a policy to never throw a developed (but unused) character or scene away. Good luck with your mss.

Martha Reed said...

Hi Jennifer - I experienced imposter syndrome when I first started but now that I've put so many years into it my writing life is the one that feels valid. Keep going! It is all about persistence and dedication and you'll never know what rewards wait for you down the road. There were at least three times when I seriously considered giving the writing life up. Now when I look back on them I think: Thank God I stayed the course. The stories, the people, the joy...it's all worth it.

Grace Topping said...

Very thought provoking. I believe I'm there now--wondering if I have another book in me. Maybe with a little rest from it, I'll be inspired to try again.

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