In 2008, I finished my first manuscript–ever. I was so proud of myself and so certain an agent would fall in love with it…None did. Within a few months, I had a towering stack of rejection letters on my desk.
After I shed few tears and swallowed my first bitter taste of the “Industry of Rejection,” I forced myself to step back and ask myself a terrible question: “Now what?”
I didn’t know what to do. Rewrite my query letter–again? Rewrite my entire book? Rethink the whole concept? Or–God forbid–put it on a shelf and move on?
After a lot of agonizing debate, I turned to the one person I could trust for an honest opinion: My mom.
In her gentlest, I’m-sorry-I’m-saying-this-to-you voice, she said, “Jenna, your story isn’t that original. I think you can do better.”
But, yeah. As hard as it was to hear–and even harder to accept–I knew my mom was right. The story I’d written wasn’t original. It had been done and done–and done! No agent would ever want it.
So, I made my decision: Move on.
And I did. Literally. I grabbed my iPod and went for a jog, hoping the fresh air, adrenaline, and movement would get my creative juices flowing. Somehow, they did. “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar came on and, like magic, a new story bloomed. I sprinted home and pitched the concept to my mom and sister.
Actually, my sister’s exact words were, “That’s weird.” I decided to take that as a good thing and went to work.
And I didn’t stop for the next six years.
I won’t bother going into all the nitty gritty details. Many of you already know them (and if you don’t and you’d like to, you can read my post, Confession: I Was a Shameful Closeted Writer). In a nutshell, my manuscript was optioned by a Hollywood producer, and after two long years of rewrites, revisions, and rejections from publishers my contract expired. And, suddenly, I was back to the same place I’d been four years earlier after I’d finished my first manuscript.
Only this time my heartbreak was a hundred times worse.
It took me about six months to put myself back together, but once I did, I forced myself to ask that terrible question again: “Now what?”
The answer didn’t come as easy as the first time, but I was able to accept it: Move on. So, I threw myself into an NYC Midnight writing challenge and started a brand new novel. For a few months I felt good. Really good. Happy!
Then I received an unexpected email from the producer who’d optioned my manuscript. He wanted to know if I was working on the latest draft and what my plans were for it.
I honestly didn’t know how to react. Excited? Horrified? Grateful? Resentful?
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my story and I still had dreams of seeing it on bookshelves and screens someday. But…I wasn’t ready to return to it. Emotionally and creatively, I needed to focus on something else–something new–something different. I needed to learn, grow, and explore my strengths and weaknesses. I needed to figure out who I was as a writer.
Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to my instincts. Instead, I put aside my new project and returned to the old one.
Okay, I didn’t immediately regret my decision, but as I worked day after day, week after week, month after month, I began feeling things I shouldn’t feel while working on a novel: Resentment. Annoyance. Anger.
By January–a year after I’d begun rewriting my novel–it hit me: I no longer had the passion, drive, and other traits I needed to get me through another round of rewrites, revisions, and rejections. I no longer had the stamina to reach the finish line. All I had fueling me was stubbornness, pride, and a compulsion to please others.
And that was a BIG problem.
So, once again, I forced myself to step back and ask that terrible question: “Now what?”
I knew the answer, but I struggled to accept it. How could I move on? How? I had put another year’s worth of work into this story, had sent it off to beta readers for feedback, and had a producer in Hollywood who wanted to help me. I couldn’t move on. I needed to finish it. I needed to.
But…I didn’t want to.
But I had to.
At last, I did what I had done nearly seven years before, back when I had to make a decision about my first manuscript: I turned to my mom for honest advice.
Our conversation was much tougher than before, because unlike my first manuscript, this one had played a major role in our lives. For six years, it had dominated our time, minds, and hearts. It had become part of the family. But, after a lot of debating, hemming and hawing, and–finally–confessing how unhappy I was, my mom said two words that helped me make my decision: “It’s okay.”
It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to try something new. It’s okay to move on.
So, I did.
It’s been four months since I made my decision to put my old novel to rest–again–and start writing a new one. And I haven’t regretted it for a second. I know I made the right decision…even if others out there do not.
And, yes, there are people in my life who think I made the wrong decision. I’ve heard things like, “You’re so close! Don’t give up!” And, “It takes some writers decades, if not longer, to get a story right.” And, my personal favorite, “You just need to keep at it. Writing a book takes a lot of work.”
Besides rolling my eyes, these opinions haven’t fazed me. If anything, they’ve strengthened my resolve. Because, you know what? Throughout all of this, I’ve learned an important lesson:
The only person who can decide what to do with a story is the person who writes it.
Whether that means you stay with it or move on, the decision is yours. You’re the one who will have to spend days–months–years working on it. You’re the one who will have to dedicate your mind and heart to an imaginary world. You’re the one who will have to feel the sting of rejection, over and over again. You’re the one who will have to live the entire experience. Not others. You.
Therefore, you’re the one who gets to decide when it’s time to step back and ask, “Now what?”
And you’re the one who gets to say, “Stay” or “Move on.”
If moving on terrifies you like it terrifies me, remember this: Stories aren’t like people or jobs. If you change your mind, you can return to them. Whether it’s a week or twenty years, stories will always be there waiting for you to come back and finish them.
So, how about you? Have you ever had to make the difficult decision to move on from a story?