Friday, March 9, 2012

How do you know when it’s time to let go?

I know many people struggle with this question on far bigger issues than the one I’m struggling with now; things like floundering marriages, destructive long-term friendships, or that 80’s haircut that’s just too rockin’ to lose (it’s not, but…well, you know). It’s easy to identify why these things are bad for (you’re fighting all the time, the person makes you feel bad about yourself, it’s likely to land you on What Not to Wear), and yet for any of a plethora of reasons, you hang on.

Often this is seen as a good thing. Tenacity. Perseverance. Stick-to-it-iveness. These are all hailed as admirable traits. Don’t be a quitter, we instruct our children. Never give up. Believe in yourself. Hang in there. But sometimes you do indeed have to let go. For your own sanity, heath, fashion sense, whatever. I think I may have reached that point with my first novel.
I started this tome back when my darling second-grader was just learning to talk. The idea came to me while driving past a cemetery one chilly fall night when numerous blue votive candles burned, commemorating loved ones now passed. I shivered at the idea of setting the first scene of a story there—a good, creepy, ghost-story shiver. The book grew from that point. But not in anything close to a linear direction. It branched and weaved, it morphed, expanded and regrouped. It changed direction at least twenty times.

I remember taking the first chapter (a mere 30 pages of the first draft) to a writer’s retreat, confident that my gift would wow the other attendees and leave them all wondering why they were even bothering with their craft when such natural talent exists in the world. I was informed (politely, but in no uncertain terms) that no middle-schooler would choose to read 30-page chapters rather than play the Wii. At first I felt affronted. Obviously they hadn’t grasped my vision. They hadn’t heard enough of the story. They couldn’t see the big picture. Didn’t they know how long Harry Potter was?
But after I stewed for a while, I felt stupid. Of course they were right. How could I not have seen it? What had I been thinking? And so I revised and rewrote, cut and pasted, reworked and reorganized. Feeling proud of the progress I’d made, I sent the manuscript to the editor from the retreat, who liked it, But…

And so I rewrote again. Feeling proud once again, I submitted again. But fourteen agents didn’t like it enough to request more.

And so, again, I’m revising. And yet, after almost seven years working with this story and these characters, I’m still getting feedback that says my characters aren’t well defined enough, that their story isn’t jumping off the page. I’m now wondering, is it time to let them go? Perhaps I’ve done all I can with this story, with these two middle-school boys and the ghosts that haunt them. Maybe this story is destined to be mine alone, and not one I’ll ever share with the world. Maybe it’s time to lay them to rest just like the many departed souls in the cemetery.

But, just like a bad relationship or a comfortable haircut, it’s so hard to let them go.


Laurel Martin Rice said...

I doubt anything owning that much of your heart and soul could roll over and "rest in peace". Why not consider cryogenics instead? Put those characters on ice, rather than six feet under. One day when you find a cure, and I'll bet you will, they'll thaw out beautifully. (Hey, it worked for Neil Gaiman in The Graveyard Book!)

Elizabeth-Anne said...

Beautifully written, Sue, and so true! No answer to your question, only the walk beside, pondering similar thoughts.