The Agony and Ecstasy of Starting Over

If the wine is sour, throw it out. — Michelangelo

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever wanted to just say the hell with it and give up?

I have. I’ve been publishing fiction in one form or another since 1980 and I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pack it in and go drive the cart at the airport for a living. Sometimes it was a bad editor who brought this on. Or being dropped from a publisher (twice). Or doing too many book signings where the only people who showed up were the staff and a homeless guy trying to get out of the rain. Or being caught in the dreaded Barnes & Noble Death Spiral. (this is an official term for the dynamic of mediocre-sales-so-we-won’t-stock-you-but-no-way-to-increase-sales-because-we-won’t-carry-your-books.

Or sometimes it was simply because I thought I had run out of energy or worse, ideas. But maybe the worst kind of giving up is the one where you have invested a lot of time and energy into a book and there’s this little voice inside your head whispering, “This is pure crap.”  And you know the voice is telling you the truth.

When is it time to give up on a story and start over?

Michelangelo is the one who got me thinking about this. Or actually, Charleton Heston. Last weekend, my bad cold had me mainlining old movies and I happened upon The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Charleton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope who commissions him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Good movie, based on the bestselling novel by Irving Stone. Michelangelo is maybe a couple hundred feet into his backbreaking project but he’s haunted by self-doubt — especially over the fresco he has painted depicting the face of God. He retreats to a tavern, where he sketches the peasants as models for apostles. But it’s God’s face who taunts him. Michelangelo takes a drink of wine, spits it out and yells, “This wine is sour!”  The tavern owner tastes it, agrees, and uncorks the cask onto the floor, saying, “If the wine is sour, throw it out!”

Michelangelo has his epiphany. He goes back to the chapel and takes a scythe to God’s face, scraping it off.  A year of work demolished. He starts over.

If the wine is sour, throw it out.

Flashback to 1998. I am writing my first attempt at a mystery. My first chapter opens with a Miami homicide detective sitting in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking…mourning…remembering…her husband who got blown up in a drug deal gone bad. Do you see the problem? She is thinking. She is…doing nothing. If you don’t get it, go back into TKZ archives and search for any of James Scott Bell’s posts on characters thinking and not doing.

I finished that first book and sent it out to agents. I got oh, maybe twelve rejections. Not one agent was kind enough or smart enough to tell me what was wrong. I tossed the whole book and started over. About two years later, the first book in the Louis Kincaid series got published. (For the record, it opens with Louis unearthing a shallow grave in rural Mississippi and finding a skeleton with a rotted noose around its neck).

Okay, flash forward to now. After our book She’s Not There was published last year by Thomas & Mercer, they asked to see a sequel that centered on a subplot featuring a secondary character named Clay Buchanan. Six chapters poured out of my laptop. I was on a roll.

Then this little voice started whispering. I ignored it, plowing on through a hundred pages. Finally, I went back and re-read Chapter 1.

I had opened with my protagonist Clay Buchanan sitting in a boat in an Arkansas bayou. He is a skip tracer by trade but also an avid bird-watcher.  He has come looking for a woodpecker that’s supposedly extinct. But he is thinking about his wife and infant son who disappeared ten years ago. This quest is supposed to a metaphor for his hopeless search for something lovely that he knows is really dead. Beautiful chapter, full of poignancy, dripping with Spanish moss and symbolism.

You’d think I would have learned something in twenty years.

Yesterday, I threw it out, all hundred pages.  It took me five months to get to this point. That’s a lot of wine on the floor.  But it had to be done. The idea for the book is solid but the first five chapters are not working. I knew it in my heart.

Why do we resist starting over? Well, after twenty years, I’ve got my thoughts.

Deadlines: It may be an actual contract deadline, or one you set yourself (I will finish this book by July! I will write 1500 words per day!) It is also the pressure of our genre, the idea that you won’t get noticed or survive unless you can produce good books at a steady clip.

Deadlines can be bad — the tyranny of the ticking clock can make you burp out some bad stuff.  But deadlines can be good — a finite amount of time forces you to write instead of playing Spider Solitaire or folding laundry).  Deadlines can make you angry. Deadlines can make you feel frustrated and exhausted. As a classic procrastinator, I’ve learned it’s best to try to embrace a deadline. Think of it as having a pet porcupine.

Self-doubt: This can be bad because it can eat away at your soul. (I’ll never get published. I can never write as well as fill-in-the-blank. I’m out of good ideas.). But self-doubt can be good because it forces you to slow down, reassess and reflect. When things look dark, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to pump the brakes so you don’t drive off the cliff. If your novel is going badly, you might need to set it aside, let the frustration cool, and go back later. Divorce or reconciliation? It’s easier to decide with a clear head instead of a heavy heart.  Some books can, with hard work, be saved. Others have to be abandoned.

Negative people: This can be bad because sometimes you have to literally live with these folks. Your spouse might not be supportive enough. Your friends might tell you your wasting your time. Your “real” job screams at you like a harpy. But it can be good if you’ve got someone in your life who can, with a clear critical eye and kind heart, tell you when your book has lost its way. All of us want praise. But what we really need are folks –a trusted beta reader or a good critique group — who will tell us “This ain’t working.”

Now I can hear some of you saying, “Okay, that’s the agony. When does the ecstasy kick in?”

I can’t say. It’s a personal thing. Each of us handles disappointment and defeat in his or her own way.  I can only say that once I made the decision to throw away the first hundred pages of Clay’s story, I felt…good.  Like Michaelango, I had a clean white canvas again. I’ve been here before. I can do it again. I’ve only got, oh, about 100,000 words to go…

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

30 thoughts on “The Agony and Ecstasy of Starting Over

  1. I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pack it in and go drive the cart at the airport for a living.

    Or becoming a price checker at the 99¢ Store.

    Re: self-doubt. Part of that is because you are a better writer now than at the beginning. Your standards are higher, you see that bar and know you’ve got a heckuva jump in front of you. That’s a good thing so long as it’s not debilitating. I love it that Dean Koontz sill walks into the room where his massive collection of print copies and foreign translations of his books are shelved, and says to himself, “I did it before, I can do it again.”

    • You’re right, Jim…the longer you stay in the game (through all the ups and downs) the stronger your confidence muscle becomes. I hadn’t thought about the trick of just looking at your books on a shelf. My collection isn’t as “massive” as Koontz’s but even it this ends tomorrow, I still know I was a contender. 🙂

  2. I needed to read this today as I have been debating on throwing out much of the first chapter of my WIP. There are times when the wine is indeed sour. I’m just glad I hadn’t gotten further into the book before I realized it.

    • Morning Joan —
      I didn’t throw out my bad wine. I moved it to a folder I call “Extra Sh*t I Might Need.” I suspect my bayou scene will work, but later in the book. Plus, you never know….there could be gem sentence or two in what you throw out that can inspire a different scene or even story.

  3. Kris,

    How many times do we have to learn the same lesson over and over again? Thank you for wise advice earned the hard way, the only way that counts!

    Pet porcupine is a brilliant analogy!

    • Hey Debbie!
      Today, however, I am doing something really important — hanging the new drapes. That doesn’t count as procrastination in my book.

  4. What a great post. I’m the queen of self-doubt (I should have a crown and a scepter) so I try to take every negative thought with a grain of salt. Some thoughts exist simply to torment us while others try to save us. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

    I needed to read this today. Not only to remind me to listen to that helpful voice and ignore the other one, but also to remind me I’m not the only writer who struggles like this. Thanks.

  5. Perfect timing. I tossed and flopped all night because yesterday my critique group asked me to tear out 8 middle chapters and ID killer to reader but not victim. I was trying to surprise the reader. They claimed I was confusing her. Your words have guided me to experiment.

    • Great! You may end up realizing you were on the right path all along but might just have to tweak the plot to make it work. Critique groups, I’ve found thru working with my own, often have the right instincts but of course it isn’t up to them to find your solution.

      One aside: By IDing the killer to reader but not characters, you are edging closer to “thriller” definition than pure “mystery.” With many thrillers, the pleasure comes not for discovering whodunit but how the protag will triumph over the villain. A mystery, of course, is a puzzle to the end. Unless you hybrid the two. 🙂

  6. I’ve just had an extraordinary experience. When I got my manuscript back from my editor, I read it right away. It had some very nice comments including one saying that he actually enjoyed reading it. The edits were relatively few and all were good. I was stunned. I had no real idea that someone other than me would like it. His feedback was the first I’d had from someone not in my family.
    His simple words were a huge rush for me. I’m working my seasonal job so my writing time is limited, but I’ve outlined a new short story each day for three days.
    So there is a fix for being down.

    • Congrats, Brian. What a day brightener. There is nothing like the feeling that you connected with a reader (even if it is an editor!)

  7. It’s hard to dump pages & scenes…and whole manuscripts in some cases. Starting a book has always been a challenge for me. I massage it until I’m satisfied. As you know, as we all know, this can be agonizing.

    I have a rolling edit process, meaning I keep writing forward with my word count daily goals but edit last scenes or chapters until they’re clean enough to move on. As part of this process, the opening chapter is constantly evaluated & pacing reviewed as I go. Sometimes I create a whole new opener to add at the beginning (rather than deleting an opener) once I get a better feel for the story.

    Another weird thing I do when I cut scenes, I save them in a “cut out” file, in case I want to “excavate” them for insertion later. It makes me feel better about dumping them.

    Thanks for this great post, Kris.

    • That’s pretty much how I roll, too, Jordan. Remember Jim’s post Sunday about opening with a dream? I did that with the book just completed. It wasn’t very good. It was almost when we had finished the first draft that I admitted to myself that it had to go.

      • Yes, I do remember Jim’s post. He made me think about m close encounters with dream scenes. I have a whole FBI profiler series based on the tag line – “When he sleeps, the hunt begins.” HA!

        But after reading Jim’s sage advice, I saw where I didn’t go against his valuable tips. I usually only have 1-2 dreams in a book, but the dreams serve a purpose to give clues to the reader (and for my protag to interpret). I also set apart the dream with Italics so the reader isn’t fooled into thinking it’s real.

        In another opening scene, I used the Daphne Du Maurier “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” as inspiration for telling the reader that the character is in the throes of recalling a vivid dream.

        Redemption for Avery Excerpt:
        I dreamed about a girl, her pale skin glimmering in moonlight, mottled by drying flecks of malevolent crimson.

        Bottom line, it’s best to realistically assess when “To scrap, or not to scrap” before you get a rejection. I’d rather be my own worst critic than my biggest fan.

  8. Good blog, Kris, and I have at least four novels I’ve dumped after a few chapters. When I go back and reread those stillborn works, I know I made the right decision — especially a serial killer novel where I was in the (very dull) mind of the killer. A good novelist knows how to create — and how to kill.

  9. I’ve measured my improvement as a writer by how many FEWER chapters I have to cut before I hit the real starting point. Right now I’m about 40K into the next book, and all I can think is that its plot is an octopus with tentacles going all over the place. Some will have to go (but not yet — not only do I hate to toss things, even into my “cuts” folder, but I’m not sure which of those tentacles is going to take the lead. (Or should it be a squid, because they have those two bigger, longer, more important tentacles?) Hmm… off to look at the WIP.

  10. I did the same thing with the book I’m writing now. My original deadline was 12/24/17. First off, a Christmas Eve deadline is cruel and unusual, but I still thought I’d make it. Halfway through the book, something was missing. Nothing I could pinpoint, exactly, it just felt … off. I trashed it and started over. Deadline or no, I can’t in good conscience submit a manuscript that isn’t my best. So, I had a long talk with my publisher and asked for an extension (1st time ever and hopefully, my last). Like you, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I do feel it was necessary.

    • Sue, that’s huge. We have to be in service of the story, and if we’re not finding the best way of telling it, I think it’s definitely the best thing to put it out of its misery if it can’t be fixed. You are a brave writer chick. Write like the wind!!!

  11. Thanks for another excellent post!
    I am on Draft #2 of a manuscript, but it’s really a whole new one, because all I’ve kept is the first chapter and the main character. It is, however, a lot better than the first draft and I’m really glad I made that decision.
    Thankyou for sharing your experiences.

  12. Great post, Kris! I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that sometimes the stories we conceive but don’t use or finish take off and find other writers. Maybe it’s that we’re not the right people to tell the stories we have to abandon. So perhaps like shelter animals, they find homes with writers who are ready for them!

  13. Thank you so much for being honest and sharing! I’m struggling to let go of a nonfiction piece that I’ve worked on since 2015. My first instinct was to write fiction, but I didn’t have the confidence that I could do it. I’ve heard and ignored that voice over and over again.

    I needed this and I feel maybe I now have the courage to follow that voice without borders.

    Thank you again!

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