Why you should never despair over the novel that got away
by Kimberly Brock
I’m a slow reader. I take my time with the language and I have to process the imagery and characterizations, the settings and the metaphor. I savor words. I wonder at settings. And so, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know the same can be said about my writing process. And if I’ve told you anything about the book I’m working on and then some day you ask me when it will be finished, my canned answer is always the same.
“Never. That’s the novel that got away.”
People assume I’m being sarcastic or despairing. And when I originally uttered the phrase, that’s probably how I meant for it to be interpreted. But the more times I’ve said it, the more I’ve come to realize that the meaning behind my flippant response has actually become exactly true for me. And I’m glad.
I remember about a thousand years ago when I first tripped over the idea for my current work in progress and it was such a juicy little nugget that I broke out in a sweat and felt my head spin with the possibilities. It was that dizzy kind of lovesick that propelled me to spend hours researching and piling up articles and photographs and any little tidbit that would help flesh out the ideas bobbing around in my head. Discovering an idea for a new novel always feels like discovering a long, lost sibling who is exactly the best friend I’ve dreamed of having. We can finish each other’s sentences. We stay up late giggling and telling secrets. We are perfect for each other. The new book is the book I was always meant to write. It’s freaking destiny. When I die, I am sure something will be written about it on my headstone.
This is how we all feel, isn’t it, when we meet our stories? It’s love at first inkling. And it should be! These stories, or the first little glimmers of them, are all the things we believe them to be and rightfully create our euphoric experience. Our first glimpse of a story is the thing we’re all longing for on this search – a divine purpose. We are meant to tell the stories that spring from our hearts, or more aptly, our subconscious. Our stories are the most profound creations that we are humanly capable of delivering to this world.
However, here’s the rub. It’s the delivery that changes everything. The delivery, always, inevitably, as it should, breaks the spell.
You can tell a friend, tell an agent, tell the moon – your beautiful story will unfold before you like the yellow brick road and shine, shine, shine to the satisfying, happily ever concluded. But the moment the first key is struck or the ink meets the page, when things get metaphorically concrete, our perfect stories are doomed. Here’s why: the road will always fork. I like to think that a wise writer (me) will one day realize after much gnashing of teeth and cutting of bangs that it is in that instant, the real magic of writing begins within us. The writer’s mantel falls heavy on his or her shoulders with this hard truth: we must choose.
And I suppose first and most importantly, we will have to choose whether to abandon a work at this point when our clarity is lost? Many do. Or will we try to force the story to contort itself to our original vision? I have.
I’ve pitched stories in their complete and glorious whole, with that golden patina of an unwritten word shining and spectacular. I’ve believed I could see the entirety of the novel laid out before me, delivered on a golden fleece. And then, I sit to write and the thing vaporizes and becomes nothing but a dreadful frustration. Madness plagues writers for just this reason. We call it as many names as there are those of us struggling with the delusion that a story is a contained and solid thing from conception. If you can tell it from start to finish, why, why, WHY then can’t you write it the same way? Because of choice.
Because a story (don’t hate me) is a journey. How many times have we sat through classes and workshops or slogged through the pages of books that promise to tell us the real secret to writing a novel lies in the characters’ journey? Why then, should it be different for the writer? It can’t be. And if it were, I suppose I believe it would be pointless. Where’s the divine purpose in starting and finishing in exactly the same place?
So, here’s what I say. A story is a journey the writer is meant to take, not one merely to be observed.
We are meant to chase the idea of it and wrestle with it and lose it and find it again. We, as writers, even more than our characters, must be changed by our stories. We must be heroes. We must be villains. We must climb and fall and discover and grieve and sacrifice and slay dragons to reclaim our souls. We must watch our breadcrumbs being gobbled up and then still manage to take one step, then another, until we face our worst fears and lose all heart in the darkest of nights. Only then can we look up from the work, from the blinding beauty of the last sentence, to mumble, “Well, hell. I’ve come home.”
Breathless, we can sit back in our chairs and wonder that the shape of our stories are familiar, and yet nothing we could have imagined until we’d allowed ourselves the grace of learning what the story had to teach us. These are the stories that will be everything we knew they could be and only some of what we planned and something more than we could have ever known when we first believed we knew everything. Because the stories we are meant to write require bravery and courage and change in the writer before they can ever be worthy of a reader.
So ask me again. Please. Ask me every time you see me. When will I finally finish writing that story I told you about all those months or years or decades ago? Never! I’ll say. That one completely got away from me.
Oh, how I hope, never. And I can’t imagine where it’s going.
Kimberly Brock is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, THE RIVER WITCH (Bell Bridge Books, 2012). A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly is the recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year 2013 Award. A literary work reminiscent of celebrated southern author Carson McCullers, THE RIVER WITCH has been chosen by two national book clubs.
Kimberly’s writing has appeared in anthologies, blogs and magazines, including Writer Unboxed and Psychology Today. Kimberly served as the Blog Network Coordinator for She Reads, a national online book club from 2012 to 2014, actively spearheading several women’s literacy efforts. She lectures and leads workshops on the inherent power in telling our stories and is founder of Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop. She is also owner of Kimberly Brock Pilates.
She lives in the foothills of north Atlanta with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com for more information and to find her blog.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Kimberly, your post rang so true for me--especially the breaking into a sweat part and the feeling that the idea you have for a new novel (when it's still fresh) is like finding the sibling you never knew you had who is also a best friend--wow! And, ah, yes, the journey, with its mud and potholes and dark woods to get lost in...that's so true as well. Thank you for preparing me for writing today with this wonderful perspective.
I hope you're writing up a storm, Holly! Thanks for posting such encouragement for me! xo
See? This. This, right here is why I keep bugging you to finish that book! I always learn something from your writing. It's dumb, because it's nothing I haven't seen before, but there's something about the way you say it that snicks a lock open in my head, and I GET it.
This is why I'm struggling (no, I'm in despair) over the book I'm writing. I don't WANT to discover. I don't WANT forks in the road. I want to travel that perfect yellow brick road in my head. But it's petered out. And I'm PISSED about it.
Yes, you've driven me to caps.
But I'll never quit, because I also discovered one more piece of wisdom in your blog.
'We, as writers, even more than our characters, must be changed by our stories.'
And dammit, I want that change!
Finished that book yet? 😉
I have this gift for driving people to caps, Laura. 😉
As for the book...I've got my knapsack firmly over my shoulder and my feet are sore. xoxo
I couldn't stop thinking about this post last night, Kimberly. Like Laura, I'm in utter despair over this new book. I'm terrified of the forks it's going to take me down because this book has a lot of personal baggage that I'll have to sift through.
And, like Laura again (stop getting in my head you two!!), that one sentence has been poking at me ... ‘We, as writers, even more than our characters, must be changed by our stories.’ Because YES! Isn't that why this story is calling me in the first place?
So now I'm going to write on this manuscript. And I'm going to poke on you about finishing yours. xoxo 🙂
Hey, Kimberly, party in Orly's head! I'll bring the bankies and the chocolate, you bring the wine!
Orly, the only wisdom I really have at this point is to say that despair doesn't make you alone. It also doesn't make you original. It makes you exactly like every other one of us. Our despair only isolates and stalls us out because we believe it makes us special. We give it too much power if we believe that. Despair is no different than joy. We are no more deserving of one than the other. But we LEARN more from despair, if we are smart enough to walk through it, instead of letting it stop us. So, I say despair away! Despair BIG! See what happens. It'll take you somewhere new. And eventually, you'll turn the page. xo
I needed to hear this as I race to get those wisps of glittering dream onto the page before I lose sight of it altogether. ?
The truths in your story will never be lost to you. Go where it takes you and watch and see if they don't turn up! Trust yourself. xo
I loved this post. It's comforting to know that "real" writers get as lost as I do when writing. I can't just "write" a story, I have to live it. I don't think I'm talented enough to just make up a story. When I'm living my current work, it causes me to forget where I am driving or arrive in the basement with no idea what I went down there to get. When the story sticks, I'm grumpy, distracted, annoyed with people who talk when I am thinking.
Sometimes I'm afraid to sit down at the keyboard and find all manner of distractions because I dont want to go through the impending emotion/conflict/mean character, etc. And then I feel relief when I do. It's almost like I'm living this other secret life and nobody knows about it but me, so I'm only half-there for months at a time. When it's done, I'm exhausted and exhilarated. I do feel like I've changed. I've been through an invisible ordeal and nobody gets that. But I'm a much nicer person to be around.
Right now I'm in the rewrites, which I hate because it's never as good as it was when it happened. There's another story nagging at me lately, just a character really, but I'm beating it back and shoving it in a drawer every time she appears because I'm not ready to go there yet.
Well, you just described my process, Cara! I am such a joy to live with when I'm writing. NOT! 🙂 I hate my writing, but I LOVE rewrites. I love going deeper and adding layers and turning a pig's ear into something I'm not too terribly ashamed of sending out to readers. But as for that siren's call, tell that new character to hush up! She'll get her chance. LOL
I'm probably not the only author who you've sent scrambling to unearth that glorious (but now dusty) story that got away, armed with renewed zeal and a quester's spirit. Brilliant as usual, Kimberly. Thanks very much for the inspiration.
I'm so glad, Faith!
I feel like I now have permission to let my story be what it becomes more so than what I imagined it would be. Thank you.
I have to give myself permission every. single. day. xoxo
Wonderful post, Kimberly - you capture the writer's highs (and lows) beautifully. After reading this, and having read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic, I do look at ideas in a totally different way. Being the stubborn Aries that I am, I've always told myself that I will have all the time in the world to write all the ideas that percolate in my head. But I think I have to come to terms with the fact that some stories might just remain in the ether as lessons, or as stepping stones on the path to the novel that will come. I'd rather write a few things well than write everything halfheartedly. Thank you for such an eloquent reminder!
THIS: I’d rather write a few things well than write everything halfheartedly. TOTALLY!
This post was freeing for me. It's just impossible to keep the story you thought you had "bobbing around" in your head when you started out, and transfer that to the page! The characters or plot sometimes just smack you around and say they want this direction and you are pulling them for dear life another way! That's when you become a writer - when you give in and let the them have their way. Then suddenly it's all sunshine again. I am convinced that these little decisions we make to follow the story instead of leading the reader are what makes a great story. Thank you, for giving some clarity to that!
"Follow the story instead of leading the reader." Well said!!
Great post. Very relevant.
Thanks, Nicole! Happy writing! Be brave today.
I am in a writer's slump--I'm near the climatic point in my first novel. Now, because of one of the chronic diseases that has ahold of me, I am stumped as to how to go on with my story.
I can identify very well. I live with a disease that cause chronic pain. I've spent years at a time unable to focus or move forward on my journey. But I trust that there's time enough to do the things I'm able to complete - like this blog post. The novel may often languish, but it's not the only creative satisfaction I have in my life. I do believe I will continue to work toward finishing it and that one day it will see publication. But I don't focus on only one piece of work and I try to find smaller opportunities that I can manage. Day trips, eh? 🙂 You're in my thoughts. xoxoxo
Exactly what Amy Sue Nathan said!! My WIP is the wire-haired back alley kid compared to my patent-leather shoes idea... now I won't worry about that so much. =) Very well said, Kimberly!
Ha! I ALWAYS prefer the wire-haired back alley kid!
Loved the post. Great inspiration to know we're all going through this.
Oh, we're all in this together, C.K. A community of imaginary madness! xo
I love this post.
Thanks, Mindy! And thanks for sharing it. xoxo
Wow! There's not much I could add to these ladies' wonderful comments. How great to know that pubbed and unpubbed (my hand's waving here!) alike go through this angst. And now I get what might be going on when I procrastinate and stall around in my stories. Very nice job! Thanks for sharing your personal insights.
Thank you for this. I am so weary of starting and stopping and starting again. And then I read something by Rick Bragg, or Deb Smith, or you... and I just want to throw away all the notebooks and notes and books on writing. And the siren wakes me up in the middle of the night to "get up and write that idea down dammit before you forget it!" and I'm lost again. And found again.
Back to it.
Aw, Pam. That's so nice of you to say. You listen to that siren, Sister!
Beautiful post. As someone who has been working on their first novel for eight years, I am definitely in the slow writer camp. This book is a fictionalized version of my mother's life, and by default partially my life and I've discovered so much about myself along the way. It's good to know ahead of time that even when I write my next books that won't have biographical elements, they will change me. As you say, "Because the stories we are meant to write require bravery and courage and change in the writer before they can ever be worthy of a reader."
Thank you Kimberly!
Cerrissa, I think EVERYTHING I write is by default partially my life. LOL I can't wait to read your work!! xo
Ack! I totally relate to this Kimberly. The idea for the current novel I'm embarking on came to me several years ago. And I put it aside. Oh how I wish I hadn't because the initial spark for the story has somewhat faded and all I've been doing is re-writing and editing another novel which has turned me into a little perfectionista. Yet, I still believe in this story and I'm in torment. I need to just allow the writing to unfold and respect how my subconscious reveals it to me. I'm diving in, but it's good to know that I'm not alone. Best wishes to you with your novel! 🙂
The subconscious is our genius! Why is it so hard for us creatives to trust it? We live by our intuition. We have to allow ourselves to embrace the same super powers when it comes to our word count. 🙂
Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks!
You're welcome! xo
I love your heart and your beautiful and wise words that mean so much to so many. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend.