Monday, November 15, 2021

Advice to Take, or Not

 Q: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

- from Susan


Yes, and it’s a story with a happy ending. You always hear that you have to write your own book, that is, not bend to trends, other people’s notions of what your story should be, the demands of the market or, specifically, your agent. That’s good advice, but sometimes you don’t see it happening until you’re, metaphorically, lost in the weeds.


I was inspired to write a light story set in rural France, where the real life events and people some friends of mine were encountering were so delightfully eccentric that they begged to be told in fictional form. Bend #1: My chosen genre was mysteries, so to sell, it had to be a murder mystery. Bend #2: To do that, I needed to add a new character and somehow fit her into the second full draft. Bend #3: People are complex and compromised, so my characters needed to be deep, flawed, and perhaps even tragic.


The result, months later, was a manuscript that had veered so far off the path that all the joy of writing, of making up people who live, love, and gossip as naturally as brushing their teeth was gone. My protagonist, based on a friend who, in fact, did have unhappiness in her life, was becoming someone not at all like the charmer she chose to present herself as. It was beginning to feel like a betrayal. And the town I was enjoying wandering in with my storytelling, was becoming dark, morose. I liked my fictional town, I liked my characters, but I didn’t like this one!


Wondering if I had a story left to tell, I took my laptop to Kauai for three weeks of solitude and authorial self-examination. What did I want to write? What was the vision that got me started? Whose opinions mattered more, mine or my well-meaning and professional advisors? Who was I writing for?


I sat on the lanai, listened to the birds, and got serious with myself. Took 20,000 words that had been curated for me out of the manuscript. Mentally thanked my advisors for their attention and support, and finished my book in those three weeks. I did take the “write it as a mystery” counsel in part because that came into focus as a good vehicle for doing precisely what I wanted to do: Bring a tiny, rural community into play, with all their humanity. 


My agent sold it almost immediately in a two-book contract that allowed me to go back to my fictional town for a second visit. 


The lesson for me: Trust your instincts, listen to all the advice you get, but ultimately write your own book.





Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Susan — trust your instincts. Good advice.

Rick Homan said...

This suggests to me that people can tell you where there's a problem, but only the writer can come up with the solution. Thanks.

Brenda Chapman said...

Wonderful advice. Thanks for sharing this story, Susan.

Carole Price said...

Excellent advice, Susan. Thank you!

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks, all. I guess that the advice that I came by from trial and much error holds up well, especially with experienced, published writers like you. It's a little harder for newbies, so we have to encourage them every way we can.

Frank Zafiro said...

Absolutely LOVE that you went your own way. I have always bridled at advice about "how it should be done" when it went against what my gut said or the story I was trying to tell. I applaud you for listening and giving it consideration but that turns into a standing oh for following your instincts and being true to yourself.

I think, ultimately, I'd rather be genuine and unread than the opposite.

Josh Stallings said...

Great piece, I try to have the courage to follow advice, knowing it’s wrong I get to choose, but damn those weeds are killer. I love how you reminded your self why you wanted to write the book. Without that passion, I’m lost. Thanks for all the good reminders here.