Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Book of Letting Go

by Addy Farmer

Recently writing has been a little... frustrating. I have not yet turned to drink or drugs (unless you count coffee and biscuits) but the experience has left me weary and not a little sluggish; that is to say, I have felt like a slow-moving creature trying to get to the Other Side whilst in constant danger of being squashed. Why? It's simple and it's complicated.


I have shelved my teen novel.


There it is. But one single sentence cannot express a whole world of feelings behind that decision. This particular story has been on the go with the excellent, Kathyrn Robinson at Cornerstones for nearly two years. The other week, I sent it off for what I hoped was the last time. When Kathyrn's e-mail came back, it did not begin with the hoped for line,
'Yes! That's it - you've nailed it!'
Instead it was muted and advised still more work was needed. My insides sank (insides really do that) and in truth, I could hardly bare to look at what she said. I spoke to Kathryn and we talked it through. There was something missing, a connection that had not been made, an emotional spine. Still. And that was when I made the decision to stop. It was doing me no good and the story no good. 

It was a small bereavement but it was my bereavement and keenly felt.

So, I retreated for a while and brooded on my lost story. All that pointless time and energy. All that wasted love and craft. I wanted to cling on to it. Surely it was good enough? I've read stuff and thought I'd written better. But I actually knew that Kathryn was right, it may well have been good enough but it wasn't brilliant. She advised patience, told me that (eventually) I'd feel good about being free of this story. I said yes but didn't really believe that I would feel anything as postive as good or even resigned to the fact. It felt like I was the only one to whom this had happened. Ever. Woe is me. I am undone.

Then I went on a real retreat with the SCBWI. I'd booked it ages ago, the idea being that I should work, work, work on my...well, my work. It didn't quite go to plan since I did No Work Whatsoever.

With Christina Vinall doing no work whatsoever
Instead I connected again, not just to my writing but also to other writers and the wider writing world. How? Quite simply by talking and listening to other people's stories. And here was my always-knew-but-needed-to-hear-moment.

What happened to me happens to other people as well!
That's not to say that I revel in the bad things that happen to others but it is to say that I gained perspective. Then more came, the understanding that letting go of something is not to lose it. Nothing is lost and nothing is wasted. How can something that was so enjoyable, so part of me, ever be a waste anyway? A story is always there and will probably be told later and differently using some of what happened, some of the same characters even and it will be so much better in the telling. I heard all this and I believed it and then came the lightening of feeling, the freedom of finally parting. Letting go.

Only connecting with Anita Loughrey and Benjamin Scott
I have poured salt on my inner slug (no picture, you may be eating). My undying thanks go to Kathryn who knew I'd find that it was all good. I can write anything I want to and it will be better than ever.
I have begun something new and it's still a pleasure.Yay.



61 comments :

  1. I so relate to this, having had to 'let go' of two YA novels (unfinished and unread) over the last couple of years because I just felt they weren't working. It had never happened to me before and really knocked the wind out of me and my confidence was rock bottom. I even considered giving up my writing career altogether but the fact that I'd be letting down a lot of people (not to mention have to pay back my advance!) just about kept me hanging on. After a long period of no writing/planning at all, I've finally started again. So far it's going really well and although the story and characters are completely different to the ones in the books I abandoned (I actually have a file on my computer entitled 'Abandoned Books'), I've found that I've been able to rejig a few scenes here and there. So I agree, nothing is really wasted. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Tabitha. It is denting isn't it? I'm so glad your confidence is back and I'm constantly amazed at how resiliant children's writers are.

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  2. I think this is something we can all understand. Sometimes it is so hard to let go of something you have worked on for years. That awful realisation that it is still not working. But no writing is wasted, it is all part of you becoming a writer. I have several tucked away that who knows may come out again if I decide there are things I can add to them. I am so pleased the retreat did so much good and that you have started something new. I am sure it will flourish. Good luck with it.

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    1. Thanks, Ness. I agree. Living a creative life has to mean that everything you do goes into making something that will eventually work. Not just the writing but being with like-minded people and engaging in like-minded stuff (like this blog).

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  3. Great post Addy. I also have an abandoned books file. Some because they weren't working and some because somehow they weren't doing it for me and I couldn't get into the writing zone with them. It took a lot of starting over before I finally found the one that worked. Now it's finished I need to start all over again! So glad you have found some inspiration and are enjoying your writing again. Very good luck with it and keep the faith! X

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    1. Thanks, Ruth and very best writing vibes to you.

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  4. This is a brave and inspiring post, Addy and it really resonates with me as I also recently 'let go' of a book I'd been working on - although about halfway through the process rather than the 'end'. It also took me a while to accept that the work and writing had not been 'wasted'. Good luck as you move on with the new and the better than ever!

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    1. Thankyou! And all best to you and your writing!

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  5. I know!!!!!!!!! Massive massive hug - and remember, however trite it sounds, we are learning ALL the time - it'll make us better story tellers in the end x

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  6. Lovely to meet you at the weekend Addy
    For me it's not so much letting go of the book because like everyone says nothing is ever wasted, but all the hope i've invested in it.
    Starting something new is a great tonic.
    x

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    1. It was lovely to meet you too! Yes, Jan. You're right about the 'hope' thing. If I'm honest, I'd say, a lot of the disappointment was because of not going forward to get an agent. But by gum, I feel alright about it cos I've taken pressure off myself. I don't even know if that makes sense!

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  7. Oh Addy it's a tough business. We may let go of the books that we actually finish but then discover are not the right books - but only temporarily. And all that craft and time is not a waste because you've emerged a better writer for it. In fact, a good enough writer to know that this is not the one. For now. These books are not abandoned ... they're just waiting for their moment to shine.

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  8. Been there, done that, feel your pain. And.... I also feel your excitement! There are blank pages and unclaimed stories with your name on them, Addy - I know it sounds corny but each new beginning Is an adventure.
    ((hugs))
    Teri

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    1. Thanks, Teri. I like corny cos it's true.

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  9. Oh, Addy, I had that letter from Kathryn too! HUGS! Mine also came after two years of working on The Jawbreaker. Half of one drawer in my filing cabinet is taken up by the drafts of that story. And I had the same problem, no emotional spine. I think I was very much into writing about events and not about the person they were happening to. It is incredibly hard to let go but when you see your next book taking shape you will really appreciate the learning curve you've gone through with Kathryn and your book. So glad you have your mojo back. More hugs :)

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  10. I feel for you Addy! I too have a secret stash of novels in a bottom drawer, ideas that I loved and lost. In the words of the great Arnie: "You'll be back!"

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  11. As has been pointed out before, writers have relationships with their stories that quite often seem as intense as any they might have with a human being. Break-ups are tough whether they are with real or imagined characters. Perhaps the retreat allowed you to give yourself permission to grieve and move on. I wish you well with your new novel.

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    1. I wonder if Jo Wyton has the guts to quote the three stages of writing a novel on this blog. Will it be too spicy? Jo?

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    2. I need to know what this is!

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    3. Candy, the three stages weren't the author's experience of writing the novel. It was the escalating story arc - Oh no! Oh Something else! Oh something even worse!
      Although frankly I think the experience of writing the book is the same. Sadly I've never experienced the bit after the major climax - the new status quo. I guess that peace and harmony comes to the author once they are published!

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    4. Okay, Jo Wyton has ungraciously gone on holiday so I will dare to quote it (it was on her Facebook status) ... It was someones's comment after hearing the above quoted escalating story arc at last week's SCBWI retreat. Here's the modified quote:

      "There are three stages to writing a novel - Oh God, Oh shit and Oh f**k!"

      ... I seem to be perpetually in the third stage.

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  12. As someone who worries at a book like a dog with a squeaky toy, I can really empathise with this. How do you decide to let go of a book? Is it too soon? Will the next draft be the clincher? Or is every word just taking you farther and farther away from the idea you originally started with? Well done for making a choice and good luck.

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    1. Good point, Mr Cross. When is it too soon? You don't know until you've really had a go at it.

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    2. I think, I tried every which way, Nick and every time I did another draft, the writing got better. I suspect that had I tried to do another this time, the writing might have suffered as well.

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  13. What a powerful post, Addy, and thank you so much for sharing. I remember when you first sent your ms to Kathryn, and I know how much time you've spent working on it and I know how very hard it will have been to let go. Am sending you huge hugs, but am also cheering that you've begun something new and that you're coming at the whole experience with a cup half full approach. You can do this thing and you will. More (((Hugs))) xxx

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    1. Nicky, thanks and hugs across the water to you!

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  14. Don't worry, it hasn't really gone. Like the slug, it will be back. One day it will fall of the high shelf and hit you with inspiration, ignite on the back burner and demand attention, leap out of the drawer and knock the muse over. OK, maybe slugs don't do all those things, but your YA novel isn't dead yet. I've got several that are just lying there like vampires awaiting to be reawoken (now there's an idea for a book, oh has someone done that already?)

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    1. I have a vision of a vampire slug called Arnie...
      thanks, Jackie. Great to see you at the Retreat.

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  15. I so appreciate you posting this, Addy. I have a Cemetery of Dead Books - but every grave has the memory of something precious in it - and they have all made me the writer I am now. Like a rose springing from a tomb, death brings new life. Your new work will be bursting with it!
    (Can you tell I'm writing a ghost story at the moment?)

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    1. I couldn't possibly tell, Philippa. I thought you were working on pirates...
      thanks!

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  16. I agree with you, Addy - nothing is ever wasted. Great good luck with all your future writing!

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    1. Thanks, Mara! And all best for yours!

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  17. You are most definitely not alone!

    Maybe we should all awaken the graveyard of abandoned books. The characters might be two dimensional or have no emotions. The stories they tell may be uninspired or exactly like something already on the the shelves of Waterstones. That graveyard is heaving with past loss and love. And might be quite a sorry place.

    On the other hand the incubator of books-not-yet-written is a wonderful place. It's full of endless opportunity and excitement. New genre can be born. New worlds created. Characters so complex, we're going to have to strip them down to understand them. It's vibrant and full on. There's enough in there for us all to have some of the action.

    Well done, Addy, for letting go. Here's to the future and a world of possibility.

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    1. I spend all my time cannibalizing the books that never made it. Is that cruel?

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    2. Yay! Here's to the future and cannibalism! Yum, yum.

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  18. I'm back - and now Candy's stolen my chance to swear on the blog!

    My record is 4 years working on something which is now in a drawer and God help me, it will never see the light of day again. Now I know that it was a practise novel - and if I hadn't spent 4 years working on it, I'd never have been able to take the training wheels off on the next one. And I do find that bits and pieces of it unwittingly sneak into new things, the cheeky mites.

    I also felt a HUGE sense of relief when I could finally put it away and know that I wouldn't be going back to it - I hadn't realised what a weight it'd become!

    So here's to knowing your weak spots and working your butt off to get past them, and having fun with a new story at the same time.

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    1. Thanks, Jo. Consider my butt working furiously as I type.

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  19. A brave and important post. These things do (or will) happen to most writers, and it's easy to feel isolated when struggling with a manuscript or putting something away for good. Glad you could connect with friends and fellow writers--good luck with your next book. I've also worked with Cornerstones and know how much you've learned from them!

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    1. Somebody Marcus Sedgewick quoted on the retreat was, Ernest Hemingway.
      'You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.'

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  20. Hi Addy - it's a horrible moment for any author having to put a beloved book on one side and say, 'Enough,' but I think it's like Edison and his lightbulbs - every one that doesn't work is a step towards finding one that does. And as you say, nothing is wasted, ever.All that love and learning, and possibly also that loss, helps our development as writers. Your post clearly resonates with lots of us.

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    1. Thanks, Jenny.
      I love the idea of the lightbulbs - as long as it's not one of those fiddly little Christmas tree lightbulbs which take forever to find!

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  21. Sheena Wilkinson18 May 2012 at 10:11

    What a brave post which has clearly connected with many others. I had to let TWO novels go between Taking Flight and Grounded, for similar reasons, not to mention the one before TF... I do believe we can learn from them all if we let ourselves. Good luck with the next one!

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  22. Hey Addy,
    Really interesting post! I must admit my immediate reaction is a little different to most here -- Emotional connection to a character and a book varies so much from person to person, that I wouldn't depend on one outside opinion in terms of whether you've nailed it or not. Of course, as writers we hope and strive to improve our craft and our power to tell a story with each book, whether the books are published or not. Getting over the pressure you feel from yourself to succeed & returning to a love of what you're doing is invaluable. So yes, I definitely agree, there's a certain amount of letting go involved. And you have to listen to yourself when you know it's time to stop working on something. But should you abandon the book? I'm not sure. I would send out first chapters to agents. In many ways, you'll be at an advantage because you don't have any burning expectations. I have several author friends who were about to throw in the towel on a book, only to have it become a huge success.

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    1. Thanks, Claire. You make a good point but I think it really depends on the person you've been working with and that history with them. For this particular story, I know that I'd have to look at it all over again before sending it out and I really would have to glue the emotional disconnect I know is there. One big thing I know now is that I really should take note of any teeny doubts. I have just been shoving them in a cupboard marked, 'it'll be fine' and it's not fine. Candy blogged about doing her second novel and being proud of it. UNtil everything comes together and I beam when I think about it, I'm not sure, I'd want to send it out. And that won't happen just now.
      Thanks again!

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  23. Yes Addy, I understand. If it's a point that really resonates with you, and that deep down you know you've been pushing it aside, then I totally see what you mean. On to the next one!

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  24. Addy, my heart goes out to you. I have done this very this recently. Having worked on my apothecary story for over a year with Lovely Agent and a good couple of years before that, I have recently ditched it. I thought I'd got it right but I hadn't. I was devastated at the time but looking back, it was the right thing to do. Be proud of all the work you did. You'll have learned something from it that's for sure and you'll be a better writer for it. Good luck with the shiny new story!

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    1. Ah, Sue - I remember you talking about this in a cafe on the South Bank! Thanks and on, on!

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  25. Wow, Addy, I admire your courage! And sympathise, too: it's so hard to let go of something that holds a little bit of your soul. Best wishes for the new piece.

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  26. Hi Addy, I somehow missed this post. It's a brave post and one that's so useful for so many people. It's part of the reason why I don't want to try writing a children's novel. I've had to let go of lots of my picture books (some that I'd slaved over for months) but it's a much much quicker process and it's less gutting to decide to move on. I know you've learned so much over these last years and what you need back most is your confidence and enthusiasm and you know that you've going to make it with another book as you've made it with books in the past. Good luck with all that you write -for all ages.

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    1. Hi Addy
      What a brilliant and honest post, and one that resonates with so many people.
      I also have a drawer full of let-go novels. The saddest letting go was when I was fourteen. I decided to do some extreme editing and threw my novel away in the bin by the bus-stop, because it was a Sunday and I knew I would be able to go and get it back. But when I ran out to save my poor novel (over 300 pages long), the bin had been emptied!
      I'm glad you had such a good time on the retreat, and all the best with your new book.

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    2. thanks, Jeannie. Oh no - your lost bus stop novel is so sad!

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    3. Thanks as always for your support, Clare.

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  27. Addy, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post. I have been really struggling with my second novel, and with the fact that I can't ditch it, because I have a publisher's deadline. Your phrase 'the emotional spine' of the book was a Eureka moment for me. It made me ask the question, 'What is the emotional spine of my book?' and the answer to that question has helped me tighten and focus the story. I'm sure there will be plenty more struggles along the way, but that was such a help. And all the very best for your new book.

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    1. Ah, Helen - hooray!!
      I've just finished, Secret Hen House - what a charming and moving book! Can't wait to read the next one...

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