When You Want to Burn Your Novel Draft

I don’t even want to look at my novel draft. I want to burn it and watch the pieces float away and disappear forever. My characters are screaming at me, and I am ignoring them. The good news, I suppose, is that they are hard to ignore. I think about them before I go to sleep. I think about them in the elevator, at work, while I’m driving, and at the dentist’s office.

But it’s what’s on the page that counts, not what’s in my head. I go through the motions. I show up at writing group. But I don’t write. The members of my writing group have been very patient with me. A few weeks ago, I was supposed to present some revised pages. I emailed everyone before the meeting and apologized. There would be no revised pages. But I showed up. And when I did, one of them said, “Anyone would have to take a break from that book. It’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly painful.” Bless you, Patrick. And then, they all went around the room, and quoted sections from my novel that were meaningful to them. Thank you, Carol, Lily, Anna, Melanie, and Patrick. You have no idea how much that meant to me.

I’m still not working on my novel. I almost said no to writing this blog post. But burning my novel draft is probably not a good idea. Instead, I will give myself permission to take baby steps.

Step 1. I will take a longer break from the novel. Instead, I will write occasional blog posts. I will write letters, and post cards, and maybe even some poems. In June, I will spend a week in Ohio writing flash fiction and short stories.

Step 2. I will read. I will read books by people who might have wanted to burn their novel drafts at some point too, but who pushed past that urge and made it to publication. I will re-read Lolita, which I love. I will re-read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun) which always gives me hope. I will read cookbooks and newspapers. I will read stories out loud to my students.

Step 3. I will look for deadlines. I will send out some of the stories I will write when I’m in Ohio. Maybe I will enter a contest. When it’s my turn to share something at writing group, I will not show up empty-handed.

Step 4. I will go for walks. I will swim, and I will dance. I will play the cello. I will pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I will collect ideas: the sobbing lady in the grocery store; the dead rabbit I saw on the road the other day, its body still whole and its tail still white. Contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t just something that only happens when sitting in a chair.

Step 5. I will recognize my weaknesses in this process, and seek help when necessary. For me, the most difficult aspect of writing a novel is structure. I am not a structural thinker. I am a float-from-one thought- to-the-next thinker. My family calls me the Queen of Non Sequiturs. Voice I can do, characters, I can do, and plot usually falls together as long as I let the characters tell the story that they need to tell, which is not necessarily the story that I want them to tell. But structure always eludes me. Knowing that, I will read as much as I can about novel structure, and if necessary, I will take a class on novel structure. And when I am ready, I will take what I’ve learned, and incorporate it into my novel.

Step 6. I will attempt to re-read my novel draft as if I’ve never seen it before. I won’t make any changes the first read-through. I will put it away for a few days, and when I read it again, I will mark only what is working. I will ignore the rest.

Step 7. On or before June 30th 2017, I will stop all of this wallowing, take all that’s working in my draft, and fill in the missing pieces. If that doesn’t work, I will try a new strategy, and another, until I get it right. That massive, sloppy, rambling thing is my heart, and I’m not ready to give up on it yet.

6 comments

  1. Stephanie Gayle

    Ah yes, the burn it all phase.
    Not much fun.
    Glad to hear you’re pushing through, and have concrete steps to get past the arson.
    Best of luck!

  2. Incredibly moving personal essay. If you book is anywhere as heartfelt as this post, I look forward to reading it. Hope you don’t mind me sharing this at the Women’s Fiction Writing Facebook page. Perhaps it will give someone else the incentive to know they aren’t alone out there.

    • Alexandra Kontes

      Thank you for your kind words, Maggie, Stephanie, and Carol. Maggie, I’m honored that you would like to share the post.

  3. Lisa Birk

    Your post is beautifully written, and I love the idea of reading the whole ms and noting only what’s working. Brilliant.

  4. Laura Johnson

    Alexa, let us know if we can help. We are all looking forward to opening your book and taking the journey you are writing for us. I am glad you have a plan. Sounds good. Keep going!

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