Confession: When It’s Time To Move On

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.”

Ouchhhh!

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. Their reactions?

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.

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.

But…

 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.”

move-onIf 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?

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Music Monday – Thank You – Alanis Morissette

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicBack in March, after I finished the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I began brainstorming possible ideas for the third and final round–just in case I miraculously advanced and had to write a story in 24-hours (*faints*).

I ended up listening to a lot of music in hopes something would trigger an idea. Finally, after many songs, one did: “Thank You” by Alanis Morissette.

Alanis_Morissette_-_Supposed_Former_Infatuation_JunkieTo be honest, I almost skipped over this song because I’ve never felt inspired by it. But then I stopped and really listened to it and–voila! An idea for round three came to me. And I ended up using that idea this past weekend when I did advance in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge–ahhhh!

The number one thing I love about “Thank You” is its lyrics. They’re so powerful! I can’t even point out my favorite line. Each moves me in its own way, and each helped me develop my plot, understand my protagonist, and draw out the kind of emotions I needed for my story–well, as good as I could draw them out in a 24-hour period.

I also took comfort in this song’s message of gratitude, forgiveness, and letting go. It helped me figure out the message of my story and what I wanted readers to take away from it.

hqdefaultSo, if you’re looking for a song with powerful lyrics and a moving message, then listen to Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You”.

What song(s) are you in love with right now? Which one(s) offer you inspiration? Let me know! I’m always searching for songs that motivate my writing.

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Writing epiphany

I had so many things I needed to do this weekend–do the laundry, finish my “Fall” cleaning, read all The Bane Chronicles, investigate my appliances to determine which one is broken and jacking up my energy bill…ugh. But you know what I did instead? I wrote. A lot! Over 10,000 words, actually. I was a writing maniac, typing, typing, typing. Not even my bad habits could stop me. I was IN IT.

80647d0c17d4534f1a2a636459a1621cI know this magical writing weekend was inspired by the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, as well as the other short story contests I’ve been entering recently. Through them, I’ve quickly learned the importance of “showing” a story, rather than “telling” one. When you only have 1,000 words (or less) at your disposal, you can’t mosey down the road of plot and character building. You need to get to it and give the reader a world that they want to be involved in–that they can feel something about.

This vital storytelling lesson made me realize I made a terrible blunder with a manuscript I’ve been working on for years. (Side note: This manuscript went on a crazy, rocky, and, in the end, disappointing journey. In a nutshell, it was optioned by a producer in Hollywood in 2010, critiqued extensively by an agent at Writers House, considered by multiple publishers, and showered with lots and lots of hype for being the next “big thing”. And then the project wilted and slowly…slowly perished, until my option contract ran out this past February and I painfully put my precious baby to rest.)

rip-tombstoneHowever, after this epiphany of “showing” rather than “telling” came to me last week, I decided to open my dead manuscript and start poking and prodding at its limp carcass. Halfway through the first chapter, I shook my head in disgust and decided this story didn’t need to be resurrected. It needed to be reborn! And I’m not talking about revising it (I’ve done that about 100 times). I’m talking about shredding it, trashing it and lighting a match to it and watching it burn. The only things that need to be saved from the towering inferno are the concept and the two main characters. The rest can turn to ash and blow away on the first big wind.

So, on Saturday morning I opened a blank document and I started writing and creating this new version. And I didn’t stop until late last night. I wrote and wrote all weekend like a mad scientist, feverish and giddy by the fresh, wonderful discovery opening up beneath my typing fingertips. The narrative, the plot, the action, the humor, the drama…It all came together like a lyrical masterpiece, fitting together like a perfect puzzle…Of course, I’m not a complete idiot. I know this is a first draft and I know it’s mostly all crap.

823ff0b2707b0d3b10b3a81403f821bcStill, I’m happier and more enthusiastic than I’ve been in a long time about writing a story. And I have short stories to thank. In less than two months (ever since I entered my first contest) they’ve taught me how to be a better storyteller–to hook the reader, thread an intriguing plot, and create likable characters. Boom, boom, boom!

I strongly believe all writers should take advantage of the many flash fiction and short story challenges out there. And I highly recommend you enter them not with the goal to win (though that would be nice), but to learn and improve your own writing.