Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Continuing in a Mistake

My new book is not working. I shared two more chapters with my writing group last night, and they confirmed this. Yes, there are some comic moments, some funny lines, even some dramatic tension. But the basic premise of the book needs work, major work; at the least, it needs a complete and total overhaul; maybe it isn’t even salvageable and the whole project needs rethinking.

So here is my question: should I finish writing this draft of it, anyway?

In favor of continuing: it’s just a DRAFT, and it’s only by actually sitting down and doing the writing that I can see what’s working and what isn’t. Plus I AM generating those comic moments, those funny lines, and those plot developments that for me seem to emerge only when my pen is actually on the page, not when I walk, or sleep, or take a shower. Elizabeth Yates, in Someday You’ll Write, whose book on writing that I loved so much as a child, says, “Unfinished work is discouraging. It is a downward drag from the high course you have set.” And I so adore crossing things off my list: first draft, done!

On the other hand, my friend Ina used to like to repeat the saying, “Just because you’ve begun a mistake, you’re under no obligation to continue in it.” Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, talks about that moment in writing a book when one comes to realize: “What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse.”

Annie Dillard says, “Acknowledge first that you cannot do nothing.” She counsels the writer to go back and x-ray the book’s structure for its “hairline fracture.” You will then make the inescapable revelation that the book “harbors an unexamined and wrong premise. Something completely necessary is false and fatal. Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course it will mean starting again.”

But starting again before or after I finish this first, fatally flawed draft?


  1. Good question, Claudia!
    I've been in the same situation before. Sometimes I find it's helpful to put the draft away for a while, work on something else, then come back to it and see it new. If it is meant to be finished, you will finish it then. Sometimes that time away is exactly what the manuscript needs.

  2. Thanks, Brenda - I had a breakthrough today and will blog about it tomorrow!