Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Out On a Limb

© Marlo Garnsworthy 2013

Beginning another new project has been the very last thing on my to-do list. But phrases have been whispering in my mind, repeating and growing in number, as I go about doing other things. While I scramble some eggs or dump out the compost, phrases have been turning into sentences and racing by me, soon sucking along in their wake characters and flashes of scenes. I’ve found myself clutching my notebook at all times (especially between 1 and 4 AM), pencil to page in sudden, unstoppable bursts in order to capture them before they slip away.

This story is the type that comes out all at once, all scattered little pieces blowing about, beginning, middle, and end all right there just waiting to be caught and shuffled into place. It’s a powerful feeling, when a story comes at you in an unbidden whoosh like this. It makes me chuckle out loud as I write, even though it often comes when I’ve been thinking about things that are hard. When I’m in it, I wish writing were always like that; probably, it would be exhausting if it went on too long.   

But it is magical, rare, and powerful, and feels somewhat like falling in love. But as in any passionate relationship, one comes to the end of that first rush; the flashes of pure inspiration are starting to hint that they might be slowing just a little. I haven’t hit the wall yet, but experience tells me it’s coming. What seemed pure and beautiful has some warts, and sometimes it’s grumpy or uncooperative in the morning. My mother talks about the “13-Week Rule” in relationships—the thirteenth week being make or break time. I’m closer to thirteen days into this story, and I’m pondering: How do we know whether to commit to further exploring and developing a manuscript? How do we know when to let go?

Sometimes you have to break up with a project, I’m convinced. Over time, some projects become, like some relationships, pedestrian, uninspiring, unsurprising, detrimental to your psyche, and ultimately unworthy of continuing. And sometimes you just grow out of them. I’m sure most of us have a few manuscripts like that in the drawer. But sometimes you’re so connected to a project that your belief in its worth doesn’t alter much over time, even though the project itself may have its ups and downs, even though you must step away from it now and then to get some breathing space. 

Have you ever broken up with a project? Did you say goodbye amicably, simply lose interest, or was it a tumultuous separation that left you weeping and gasping? Did you dive straight into another to replace it? Have you gotten back together with a project you thought you’d left behind? Do you juggle several at once? Have you plodded through a literary relationship you dreaded was going nowhere but had invested too much in to drop? Would you rather take the safe route and stick with a project you’re sure to handle easily, or would you dare go out on a limb for the challenge that truly inspires you?

It can be all too easy to retreat when you find yourself in the weeds. Because if you don’t really love the project deeply in some way, you’re making an enormous and somewhat dubious commitment if you decide to marry it despite your ambivalence. So doesn’t making the decision to fully commit to a project come down to how it makes you feel deep down?

I think creating a truly strong manuscript worthy of submission is like having a deep, true love: worth sticking with when things go from pure inspiration to tangled complexity; something you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much easier it would be to do something less challenging; always worth exploring just a little bit longer. And it’s something that won’t let you go in return.

So if you’re brave, you commit to it (as I’ve decided to commit to this story), even though you know it will be pure hard work at times, even when you might not have expected to be writing it, even when you’re not sure how it ends, or even quite what it is. Because, like falling in love, who knows? How often do you experience something mind-blowing? And isn’t that why we’re really doing this? 


  1. Your words made so much sense to me. I'm reaching the end of my second middle grade manuscript and I had to step back many times and ponder: Was I in love with the story? It's been more like watching a child grow, seeing him or her stumble at times, be a disappointment at times, but also surprise me with good things. I realize I've always loved this child, and I want to continue the molding process so this character, this story, is ready for the world.

    1. Thanks Greg. I think the child analogy is perfect. I think that's a pretty good clue that you should keep going. Good luck with it!

  2. After the first draft of my MS, I took some well intentioned advice and set about "polishing" the storyline and ultimately, honed it down to a nub, a worthless dab of a once potentially brilliant gem and hated the blandness of the new storyline. I think I will pick the best parts of the two manuscripts and see if I can meld them into something better than their separate parts, performing a miracle of alchemy, if possible.

    1. So Tracy, this is the "two lovers are better than one" analogy. Bill and Bob are nice guys but flawed, but together they make the perfect man. :)