Thursday, October 7, 2010


Does square one really exist? I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna but, do we ever really go back to square one? Surely, the experience that made us metaphorically return to square one is one that has enriched us to some extent, or empowered us with wisdom, knowledge or experience.

Damn! Long words.

To reiterate: what doesn’t kill us only prolongs the inevitable.

To illustrate:
Earlier this year I submitted a story to a publisher. A damned good story. I’d got the first 15K written and polished and a synopsis that ticked all the right boxes. Character development and plot were in sync. The pacing varied between measured description and fast action thrills.
I waited for the publisher to accept the story. And they did. I told you it was damned good. And then I returned to finish the MS.

It stank.

The 15K of existing story remained strong. It could have worked as a decent novella. But the synopsis just struck me as contrived. Each time I tried to approach the piece the character voices weren’t working. Each time I tried to change narrators, to give the piece a different perspective, the presence of a new voice diluted the impact of the original’s strength.

I tried writing key scenes from later in the story. That didn’t work. I tried revising the synopsis. Nada. I tried to rework the opening scenes that were already of publishable quality. It didn’t help. The story had died.

I was embarrassed. For the first time in my writing career I had to contact a publisher and tell them that the story wasn’t going to happen.

Did this put me back on square one? Not really.

Although it’s annoying to have a story curl up and die in such a fashion, I know that the experience has enriched me. I gave it my best shot; I maintained my integrity by ensuring I wasn’t submitting work below my own personal standards; and I found the courage to tell a publisher that I have limitations.

Considering it in that light, I’m probably only back to square two.


  1. Hello, Ash,

    I think that you're right. Even if you completely scrap a story and start over, the decisions and visions from the previous version are going to haunt the new one. You never step in the same river twice and that's true of writing as well.

    As far as this particular stubborn WIP is concerned, you might try the novella approach, or just put it aside for a while. When you look at it again in a few months a) it might not look so bad or b) you might get some new inspiration.

  2. Ash - I have to commend you on your excellent use of time. You decided to hate your novel before you wrote the whole damn thing. When I have as many novels out as you do, maybe I'll learn to be as wise.

  3. Lisabet,

    'never step in the same river twice.' Why couldn't I think to say something so eloquent. Thank you. That sums it up perfectly.

    I know that this WIP isn't completely done with. One day I'll go back to it. I've already got half an idea how it could fit in to another story but it's not one I'm going to work on today. I'll take your advice and let it marinate.



  4. Kathleen,

    I usually try to write a synopsis and the opening chapters for a title before sending out proposals. That way, if everyone in the publishing world hates it, I know not to waste my time finishing the story.

    This was the first time the reverse had happened and the publisher loved it, but I hated it. I'm still not sure how that happened. However, I'm fairly sure it had nothing to do with wisdom ;-)



  5. Ash - Of the novels I've sold, I've only done one by the traditional method of submitting chapters and a synopsis before writing it. That wasn't a good experience for me. So even though it isn't the professional way to write, I'd prefer to complete the novel, then try to sell it. (SO far I've sold everything, so it hasn't equated to a waste of time.)

  6. Hi Ash,

    I'm actually in the process of writing the second book in a series I proposed to my publisher. I've never done the 'write the first 3 chapters and send a proposal off.' I'm not sure I could work that way. There's a pressure there that I'm not used to and after so many years of doing it my way, it's hard to change. LOL

    I do soooo understand how a story can die on you though. I've got a folder with several great beginnings, or even first books written with one more in need of writing to finish up the series. I hope to get to them, one day. I do think it takes someone with gumption to know when to call it a day.

    As for going back to square 1. I don't think we ever really do. Maybe we retreat and find ourselves on square 1a. We change, the characters are more developed when we come to them a second time, we know them better. And, we know more about ourselves, and that damn story that's so stubborn.

    Good luck with that one.


  7. Kathleen,

    Your method makes perfect sense to me. I approached novel writing that way when I first wanted to become a writer, making sure I was able to slog it out to the last words of a 70K story.

    But I do know that some of my ideas are 'off the wall' and the publishing industry does can be fickle as to what is acceptable and what isn't, so I feel more comfortable producing the opening and then waiting until it's accepted before I commit the time to the story.

    Partly this is because, if I'm halfway into a novel and get the nagging writer's worry 'what if no one wants to read this?' I can reassure myself that there is at least one editor in reading the finished product.


  8. Jude,

    Gumption :-) I love that word.

    It was a huge decision. I was torn between wanting to honour my commitment to the publisher but knowing that I wouldn't be able to produce a product that met their (or my) standards. Rather than disappoint us both, I figured withdrawing the novel was the decent thing to do.

    However, I chain-smoked through a week of sleepless nights before I finally accepted that the story wasn't going to pan out.

    (PS - It was good chatting this morning)



  9. Hi Ash

    So far I've never submitted a synopsis before writing a story, becase I also have that problem of story ideas dying if they're not followed up. Also some of my ideas sound so dopey to explain to someone, until I've actually written them. A lot of ideas are like that before they're written. Imagine explaining "Lolita" to a publisher. THere's this middle aged man named Humbert who runs off with a twelve year old girl and boffs her evey night while they chase around the country.

    Yeah, right . . .


  10. Garce,

    I think Lolita would still have sold on a synopsis and the opening chapters. When Humbert starts to explain how to pronounce 'Lo-li-ta' the magic of Nabokov's language means that you wouldn't want to read the synopsis.



  11. You made a hard choice and did the right thing. Respect! But I think you are contradicting your own blogg of a few months back.
    "Writers write, what else can we do?" Indeed.
    Write what you want, then if you think its marketable send it off. There may come a time when it will be the right time to sell it and that might not be right away, but write it never the less. I've never submitted to a publisher on an unfinished work. But I have plenty of unfinished brilliant ideas on disc and plenty of rejected finished works. I guess we just have to suck it up and move forward, that's writing (and life!) for you. But back to your original point, nope, there never is a square one. Because no matter whether you go back to the beginning and even take the same steps to get there the experience of having been someplace else has changed us. We all simply hope it has changed us for the better.

  12. Tracey,

    You're right. I'm full of contradictions and inconsistencies. It's part of my innate charm ;-)

    That said, I'm beginning to doubt my experiences have changed me for the better. I was shaving the face of a cynical old man this morning and it wasn't a pleasant experience.




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