Questionable: Saving a Dead Book

Kate asked:

“I’m writing a story I really, really loved when I wrote the first draft. But now I’ve let so many people influence how I write it that it isn’t mine anymore. All the shine has gone off it. (This has actually happened to two books, but one I know how to fix.) I want the original back. The story I was excited about, the one that entertained me, but I’m whenever I think of looking at it again I get
this yuck feeling in my stomach and I end up playing scrabble instead.

Do you have a method for reclaiming a story that you might have over edited or changed in ways that killed it for you?”

See, this is why I’m never going to teach any class that has me responding to student work ever again. ARGH. My feedback is toxic.

So, how to bring a book back from the over-written dead:

1. Cut 90% of it. Find the few pieces that are left of the original dream and slash everything else. Be savage.

2. Put the computer away, climb into bed and pull the covers over your head and daydream about the story. Forget structure and character arc and all the craft stuff, and just listen to the characters talk to you in the dark. Fantasize new conversations, new actions, whether they belong in the story or not. Tell the Girls they can go anywhere they want, there are no boundaries. Don’t worry if the stuff you dream about is stupid or silly and embarrassing, just dream. Everything is possible. Keep doing that until you fall asleep.

3. When you wake up, write down anything you remember that you loved, even if it’s just one line, anything you’re sure is really the story.

4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, the book you love will come crawling back out into the sunshine, reassured that you’re not going to stick pins in it anymore, and you can go back to writing it the way you usually write. Until then, give it darkness and warmth and freedom and unconditional love, cuddle it when it comes sidling up to you without grabbing it and hauling it into your lap, tell it how beautiful it is and how much you love writing it, feed it unconditional approval and excitement about its future.

And then stop letting people read your first drafts. Don’t show your work to anybody until you’re absolutely sure you know what your story is. Especially don’t show it to me.


47 thoughts on “Questionable: Saving a Dead Book

  1. Jenny, I love the fact that you took the blame for erring on the side of being too passionately helpful with a helpful passion. I have also “helped” people to the point where hiding from me would have served them better.

    1. Originally, the class was supposed to be for people who were bringing a finished first draft, but that didn’t happen. I think that’s where i went wrong; I should have just taught without the feedback on the work, talking about the stories but not critiquing them. Live and learn.

      1. Who says you went wrong? For me, at least, you definitely did not. You gave me the key to my story, which I am now rewriting in my own way, with my own words, and I could not be more grateful.

        1. Oh, good, I’m glad.
          I’m practically in the fetal position at this point. So far I don’t think I’ve maimed anybody in the current class, but it’s only a matter of time.

      2. I HAD a fully finished first Draft that I let multiple people look at. THIS ISN’T YOUR DOING! Had I listened to my gut during the first round of edits (before you even got to me) this would have never happened. THIS IS NOT YOUR DOING. It’s more about me wanting a marketable story and listening to all kinds of advice and probably not picking up the right pieces. For fuck sake I let an editor that never even read one word of it tell me how to change it. This really was not your doing. The advice you gave me made it better it’s just that the soul had gone out of it for me and I didn’t know how to get it back. Now I know. I’m cutting everything except the things I love. The Protagonist, The Teenaged Girl and the town. I’ll let those three talk to me and we’ll see what happens.

          1. Yes, it’s Glimmer Girls. The story of my heart that I shredded. I need to learn to fucking listen to myself. So now Clara and I are going to make friends again, and we’ll see if we can rescue Dilly and Mabble too.

          2. Oh, I read some of that story in the early days too. It definitely needed work, but it had SERIOUS potential! Go, Kate, go!

      3. Drafts can be fragile things. I think every writer is guilty of trying so hard not to suck that she rewrites until she realizes she has killed more than just her darlings. I have a few plot lines that need a good Lazarus treatment, myself.

  2. I too avoid this stuff: I’ve got nearly forty years training/experience in being hyper-critical. Not a good person to come to unless you want to be seriously nit-picked.

    But the thing is, you care. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of your feedback was actually really helpful, in the long term. But the thing I take away here is, do not show your work to anyone until you really need to; and hopefully that means you’re happy with it for the most part – or you’re so blind to it from revising it that you need someone to help you see the wood from the trees.

  3. I think it’s a good idea to know the difference between helpful critiques versus having someone re-writing your work. Jenny has a post somewhere here with guides lines for a good critique.

    And maybe Jenny or someone else said it but first drafts are like cookie dough. The good stuff is there but it’s not done yet for anyone to sample. Something like that.

  4. Having always been burdened by an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, I spend my life beating the damn thing down with a stick. I hope I’m not overstepping when I suggest that your sense of responsibility made need a thrashing of its own, Jenny.

    I don’t hear Kate saying that her passion for writing has been destroyed, I hear her saying that she is struggling with a particular story because she learned a painful lesson about being true to her creative self. In the long run, that lesson will likely prove more valuable than any particular story. And if she hadn’t learned it now, she would have learned it later, and it still would have been painful.

    Kate is writer through and through, full of imaginative, creative story ideas no one is going to be able to suppress for long. I hope that she can reclaim this one, but if not there will be another, just as good, and maybe even better.

    1. I’m sorry. I just reread that and it came out all wrong. The point I was trying and failing utterly to make was that it wasn’t what you did, it was how Kate must have taken it- as directives, not suggestions. But that she has probably learned to take input in a more useful way now, and that will be extremely valuable.

      Geez, hope I got this right this time.

    2. I think it’s possible to do damage with a blunt critique. I really struggle with that with the McD classes. On the one hand, everybody I’ve taught has wanted the truth, nobody ever asked me to go easy. On the other hand, in the rough draft stage, story is very fragile. So I’d do one run through where I was absolutely honest. Then I’d go back and revise it, softening what I said. Then I’d write a editing letter, trying to be encouraging. It was exhausting and I worried about it all the time. In the end, I realized there were other ways I could teach writing that didn’t involve grading, which is why this is my last year. I loved everything but the grading, but that killed it for me.

      1. Seems like the one who was damaged by the critiques was you. Not having you teach will be a tremendous loss to the writing community. I learned so much from you myself, and I’ll owe you forever. But it’s wonderful that you are giving your own health, happiness, and sanity some priority. That can be very hard to do.

        1. Oh, I’ll still keep teaching in my own way. I inflict my ideas on this blog all the time. And I really do want to write a book on this. I just can’t handle a classroom situation with assignments and grades. I’m glad the course worked for you!

          1. You should absolutely write a book on this. That’s a terrific idea. But don’t call it “How to Write Romance” and put a pink frilly cover on it, call it “How to Write Story” because a lot of people writing a lot of genres could do about thinking about these things.

            (Romance readers and writers will pick it up anyway, because it will have your name on it.)

          2. I was thinking of calling it Writing/Romance and doing it in two parts; the first on basic storytelling and the second on romance in specific. But I’m still thinking.

          3. Hmmm. Would you consider offering (fee-based) workshops and private (group or individual) tutoring rather than for-credit courses? Because that should make all the difference in relieving the artificial, additional pressures of assigning and earning grades.
            Those experiences might assist you in writing the book; you could use the finished book for your syllabus.
            And, also, ooh!: “WEBinars” ! 🙂

          4. Not right now, but it’s a thought for the future, once I get all the stuff I’ve got piled up sorted out. Thanks for asking!

  5. Normally I believe in having a solid draft to show to people for critique. But as I wrote my current WIP, I desperately needed encouragement all the way through, so I ended up with three readers who read it in serial fashion: as I finished writing for the day, i sent that section off to my readers. I got just a little feedback (it needs some conflict) but mostly I got cheerleading, which was what I needed after many, many dry years.

    This isn’t how I will likely do subsequent works, but for this time it worked for me. It wouldn’t have if anyone had given a real critique.

    1. That’s how I wrote my first book, Skye. I keep feeding chapters to my friends and they kept asking for more. They never said a word good or bad, just kept asking for more. Friends like that are invaluable.

    2. My BFF is currently poking at a book in fits and spurts (she has 2 small RAMBUNCTIOUS boys, so she does what she can ;p) and I get the fits and spurts as they come out. I know only the basic “forest” layout and am having a great deal of fun examining each of the “trees” as I get them. The only feedback I give is mostly cheerleading with a bit of “OMG I *LOVED* that bit!” or “I didn’t get that bit, did you mean ‘this’ or should I shut up and wait?” and “Hey I saw something on Netflix/Pinterest the other day you should see…” and it seems to be working for us. 🙂 I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole thing in chronological order because it’s going to be fairly genius, but right now I’m very happy to be allowed the breadcrumbs.

      I should mention she’s normally a Plotter so this is an extreme experiment on her part. ;p

      1. I think that’s exactly the kind of feedback she needs. The “I love this part” is really important because it tells her what to keep. The “This isn’t working” isn’t necessary because it’s still an early draft.

  6. Jenny, you gave me some very useful feedback on my first couple of pages at a conference in Vancouver years ago. I was in awe at how in fifteen minutes you could read my page or two and tell me right away what didn’t work.

    I agree with everything you said, except that if I think of something fabulous while in bed, I have to get up and write it down immediately. Not much — just a few words to spark my memory. Otherwise, when I wake up in the morning it’s completely gone. That’s not to say that it won’t come back, but I’m not willing to take that risk.

  7. Everyone has a different opinion. When a writer receives a critique, even from a very respectable teacher, it doesn’t mean she should apply everything to her work. Instead she should filter the critic’s advices through her own vision of the story. I had an experience once. I had a contract for a book, but the editor assigned by the publisher hated my protagonist and my story. She couldn’t even finish reading it. She suggested global changes. I refused, and the publisher terminated the contract. Good think too, because I found another publisher, and my editor there loved the story. It got published recently.
    I think we should listen to critique but apply it selectively, not change our story to accommodate everyone’s tastes. As Kurt Vonnegut said in his famous 8 rules of writing: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” That’s what happened to Kate’s story – it got pneumonia. But if she applies Jenny’s remedy, the story will get better.
    On a personal level: I’d love Jennifer Crusie to read and critic my story. It would be an honor. But I’d never apply everything to my story. Even if I used only 30% of her suggestions, my story would be bound to become better. That’s what I actually do. I read this blog, substitute its many teaching entries for critique, and apply Jenny’s wisdom to my story – but selectively. Am I too cocky?

    1. No, it’s not cocky to put yourself first when determining what goes in your story, it’s essential that the story belong completely to you.

    2. I think a writer has to find a balance between cockiness and humility. Cockiness — confidence in one’s writing — helps us persevere. Humility about constructive criticism enables us to take advantage of opportunities to improve our work.

    3. well damnit, tell us the title so I can go hunt it up.

      I swear, it ought to be a law – if you’re going to mention you recently had something published, tell us what the title is. No grandstanding, no bragging, etc. And it’s not just here, it happens on another board where I spend time.

  8. Just in case anyone missed what I said above This Was NOT Jenny’s Fault! The suggestions Jenny made were helpful and made me think but I’d already ruined the story before that. An editor that hadn’t read one word said it needed to be darker and there had to be underwater scenes. Someone else didn’t like my hero. And on it goes until there was so little left of the magic in that story that I couldn’t find it any more. Everything I did just made it worse. It had lost the feel, the emotional connection I had with it. Maybe the story I’m connected to doesn’t have commercial potential – but I’m going to have to write it anyway because it makes me so sad to think about.

    I was able to rediscover another book I was having trouble with, but this one had slipped away. But i really think, if I go back to the village, the protagonist and the youngish girl and do what Jenny said I’ll get it back. I may have to just start from scratch again, but I’ll get it back.

    1. Kate, if it is helpful, I have an earlier version saved on my computer. The date on it is 11/10, in case you didn’t keep all your earlier drafts, and need to go back and look at an earlier one, pre-changes. Just email me.

    2. Kate, the bits I was honored to read were beautiful. It’s in your Basement, I’m sure it is.

      You’ve mentioned several things here and on another blog in the past few months that make me think you have a LOT on your plate right now. Your Girls might be busy thinking of creative ways to deal with Real Life right now. But it sounds like they are ready to pay attention to some glimmers from that book of yours . . . .

  9. I totally agree with Jenny. You can get back to the joy of your story.
    I’d say go back to the original story idea. Why this story, why now? What was it that got you excited about it? Try to capture that. Then don’t write, but read a few good books in different genres over a week or so. Every chance you get, read. Then think of your own story and your main characters and try to get back in touch with the passion for writing them. Let the dreams come, and the more mixed up the better.
    I swear by this, then you’ll be so excited to start your own writing again.
    This happened for me recently. I thought there was one manuscript I’d never finish. I couldn’t get it right. I hated it. Then I had to read my 6 RITA entries (none of which I would have chosen myself) plus one literary novel for book club, a read for review, a critique, and a couple of other books all totalling about 13 books in January. Last week I suddenly sat down one day, without intending to write, and wrote and wrote and wrote. I finished the final three chapters in a day and a half, and I like the story. Now I’m doing the first printed read through, and last night I actually had the thought that it’s good. ; ) There are still places I want to improve before sending it out to my beta readers, but I’m more than happy with it, and this was a book I’d begun to hate. I swear my mojo came back because I had immersed myself in other books and spent days thinking about and admiring other writer’s creativity until somehow it spilled over into my own.

    1. That’s an excellent point: reading good books can provide inspiration, as can TV, movies, music, pictures (collages).

      1. I find reading poetry is the best for making me want to write, without feeling the whole anxiety of influence problem from worrying that I’m writing something too much like what I just read (because I don’t write poetry).

  10. I’ve been thinking all day how to say this and not posting anything (the story of my writing life, lately…). Anyways, as one of the current McD students, Jenny, I want to say that your feedback is invaluable. Overwhelming, usually, but not in a bad way — in an encouraging “there are valuable things in my work that can be made better.” This has been far, far more helpful to me (even if perhaps less enjoyable) than uncritical praise.

  11. Thank you!! I needed that. I shared it on my page and on Pen and Ink.
    I’ve heard in the past not to try to revive a dead book, but some catch your heart and cry to be resuscitated. This sounds like the perfect way to do it.

  12. Jenny, you are a great teacher, and your critiques are very honest. Holding back on criticism then petting a student for imaginary accomplishments is never going to be beneficial to a student. You helped us improve . . . I think you saw us improve.

    For at least half of my class, I think it was a complete restructuring of how we looked at writing (and reading, for that matter). You challenged our assumptions and helped us form a different view of writing. And you gave us a lot to think about, a lot that needed (and in my case, still needs) processing in order to fit my writing.

    I love the advice in this post. Especially because it’s February, and I would be happiest in bed, in the dark, feeling warm and dreaming. You gave us a bunch of rules and tools, but you also gave us permission to follow the Girls. Thank you.

  13. I’m taking a playwriting class right now, and while I think it’s really, really good for me, it’s driving me up the wall. The topics we write about are, to an extent, limited by the readings we’re doing, and then we read it out loud in class WAY before I am ready to do so. It’s definitely pushing me to try new things and teaching me new skills, but I’ll be surprised if I can still love the story behind any of the work that comes out of the class. On that note, it’s helpful and comforting to hear about other people’s experience with taking classes, revising, being revised, etc. One thing I do like about the class I’m taking: her motto for the criticism is “Isn’t that interesting.” It opens up a way for the teacher to talk about parts of the writing that are having certain results on the story, but it doesn’t offer a solution to the problem, which for me is a balance I like.

  14. I am not a writer but I am a painter, and in the past I have torn paper and canvas after having a dead end product. I still have paintings I had major conflict over but had someone intervene and save it from shredding. Over the years after having only a few and I mean like 3 key people do the first critiques until I have the entire 10 or 15 paintings done. Then I take the big critiques and start tweaking the final cuts. If I have a series that runs stagnant, I put them up on the wall off of the easel and hit the sketchbook/ Journal with daily small activities, draw a favorite song one day, Collage your main character with color only, in my journal I even copy ancient patterns and symbols just to keep things sharp even though its not originally mine. Things like that help me step back and look at the story I’m trying to with my paintings. If that doesn’t work I read and eat ice cream 😉

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