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In Praise of the Do-Over

Vega
(Or how I started a novel over without sinking into despair)

by Denise Vega

I’ve published three novels for middle school and teen readers so the outside observer would assume I know what I’m doing. But fellow novelists and other writers know the truth: that each time we write, it’s a little bit different. Each story seems to demand a different approach and everything we did with our previous novels – the tricks to keep us going, the outlines scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper, the page or word count goals we set – may or may not work with our newest creation.

The First Try

For my most recent novel, I began with all the enthusiasm I always do, jumping in with both feet (and all fingers) as I began to tell the story of 16-year-old Orion Taylor, a talented guitarist who has some issues with his brother and who meets a very compelling and distracting girl.

So far, so good. Except, I struggled and struggled with this book. Sometimes it felt like I was forcing the proverbial square peg into a round hole. But I trudged on and had what I thought were brilliant epiphanies about the climax and resolution, even as a niggling at the back of my mind told me this book had some big problems. When I had finished, I typed up a list of at least 10+ things I felt were still not working and questions I had about plot and character.

The good news was that my self-evaluation skills were improving and I could see some trouble spots. The bad news was I had no idea how to fix them. I sent it to my critique group for review in late fall 2008, desperate for help.

The Critique

My critique group discussed the book at our meeting in December 2008. The suggestions were good and plentiful and they addressed most of the 10+ things I’d written down (which I hadn’t shared with them beforehand) and then some. I culled through everything, accepting and rejecting suggestions, not getting the clarity I usually get after the group critiques one of my manuscripts.

Then I came across my original one-sentence blurb for the book, something I’d written a few years ago when the idea began to form in my mind. It was about Orion struggling to get out from under his brother’s shadow and what happens when Orion rises as his brother falls. Ah ha! The focus I’d lost along the way. (Why wasn’t this sentence posted above my computer, you may ask? Probably because at the time I figured I knew what I was doing and didn’t need a reminder. Or I wanted to let myself be free to wander and discover the story along the way. I won’t make that mistake again.)

Once I realized how I wanted to focus the story, two things became clear: (1) I had two stories going in one book and (2) I had to start over with one of them.

The Do-Over

In January 2009 I stared at a blank page, the beginning of a brand new book. Did I think about the fact that my goal had been to get this book to my agent by late 2007/early 2008? Absolutely. Did I hate the idea that this publisher hadn’t seen anything from me (except one picture book manuscript, which they rejected) in over two years? You betcha. But I had to let that go. I had to focus on the book I was now going to write and not worry about things I couldn’t change.

I had some false starts and got stuck a few times, but I kept going, keeping my eye on that sentence now taped to my computer monitor (which has since disappeared so I can’t share it verbatim here with you as I had planned). I wrote the climax scene long hand at a Daz Bog coffee shop, sipping a hot chocolate and eating a blueberry scone (because I don’t drink coffee and I like scones and all the breakfast burritos contain cheese, which I can’t stand—yes you heard correctly: I don’t like cheese – of any kind. But I digress). A new scene came to me, one that tied back to something I’d written earlier. Then the band name emerged from an off-hand comment Orion’s brother had made in the climax scene.  Things were clicking, things were coming together. Thisstory was working.

Ten months later, at the end of October, 2009, I emailed the novel to my agent. She had a few suggestions that we agreed should be addressed before the manuscript went to the publisher. I am working on those now and will have a revised version to her by the end of December.

The Musings

A better writer would no doubt have caught the “two stories in one” before I did. He or she wouldn’t have spent all that time trying to force the book to be something it wasn’t and started over much sooner.

But clearly this writer is a little slow. I got back to the story by traveling a long and winding road of missteps, rewrites, and finally – a real epiphany. And the result is a book I truly love and truly works (and will hopefully be accepted since it’s not under contract).

Starting a novel over can be a daunting, discouraging task. Or it can be an exciting fresh start, a chance to get it right without the baggage of things that didn’t work. And in my case, I have another very interesting character — that compelling and distracting girl — who will play a prominent role in a completely different book that I will start when the time is right.

Until then, I will do everything I can to have a clear focus for my next book. I don’t want to be praising the do-over again anytime soon.

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