The Second Hand Unwinds

February 19, 2019 § 35 Comments

Finishing a writing project is awesome. Hitting that last page, fingers speeding toward the end of what happened, now that you finally know.

Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.

The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:

At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…

While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.

The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”

It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”

I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.

Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”

A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.

Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot

Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.

Chapter Three: a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.

Well, fuck.

My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.

You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.

I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.

The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.

The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.

We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.

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§ 35 Responses to The Second Hand Unwinds

  • Just the post I needed to read today! I realized this very thing about my memoir yesterday (well, fuck). Back at it! tick tick tick…

  • Right there with you. Great post.

  • Ann Turkle says:

    Super helpful piece! I’m about to return to an unfinished novel and my emotions mirror many of yours. And your characterization of writerly entitlement is dead on. I’ve recently had a “But I checked all the boxes” moment.
    So thank you.

  • floatinggold says:

    Does this ever end?
    Your post was depressing, yet inspirational. Thank you.

  • Yep. More time. Ugh…and back to it.

  • AmyLeigh says:

    Allison, you are AWESOME. I love this post. I had the same experience with a novel that took 5 1/2 years to write: agented, never sold. Been told to rework it, been told to find a new agent, etc. But I don’t want to, because it’s not a good novel. I’m on to other projects now and New Me doesn’t want to return to that book. Hurrah for the messy, unpredictable and sometimes even wonderful writing life!

  • I was in a similar place recently and I feel you. I think we can all use the reminder that doing the work *is* the work, and that the work does not stop. Thank you for sharing your experience, Allison, and keep writing!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      And really, like, it’s not like one day the guy at H&R Block goes, “that’s it! All the accounting has been done, my work here is over!” so why should writing be any different? 🙂

  • As always, brilliant: “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.” Oh, yes, so hard to find that next draft.

  • DavidWBerner says:

    Time is SO necessary. Let it breathe for a bit. But SO hard to do. Been there.

  • Ed Markovich says:

    Unless we are done with the living, we are never done with the work, Abandoned work is significant because the author cares more about the process than the product. This is the hardest, best lesson to learn. What sells is not always good, and seldom great work.

  • Cameron Dezen Hammon says:

    I love this piece– and will assign it to my advanced memoir writing class. Thank you!

  • gmabrown says:

    Love the specific detail you offered as you described the problem, amped it up and yes, you get it. I love/ hate yhat part of revision. Thank you for opening my mind to my own process. What my piece might need

  • Stacy E Holden says:

    A necessary read…

  • lgood67334 says:

    Accuracy meets honesty. Sometimes a part of our minds resist the honest truth that strangers can see. (Like me using this photo of myself that’s 12 years older–and 12 pounds lighter??)

  • Thank you. It feels good to hear this. I’ve been working it out slowly as I go through the process myself, realizing that The Process. does not end. And that what I love most is The Writing. So The Process, to share that writing with others, is worth it. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Awesome post. Thank you!

  • Margaret says:

    My first response is that I’m impressed that you even finished writing an actual book. I’m still at the contemplation stage which is just another way of saying that I’m still daydreaming about writing that book. So well done you for producing something tangible and probably pretty good. Just needs more work.
    My second thought is that even with the short pieces of writing that I produce on a daily basis, mostly for work, I often find myself so bored with the revision process that I just give up. I can’t imagine going back and reworking a whole book.
    My third thought is that I’m a super-critical reader and I would love to know whether I would have had the same response to your novel.
    Lastly, I love your writing and think you are awesome.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the kind words – I’m so glad to be part of your reading world! Yeah – revising can get tedious, and it helps to change it up a little with paper, or index cards, or focusing on one thing at a time. Like, much of my published work is plays, and I realized my novel had nice dialogue but not a lot of location and character…because the actors and director usually sort that out, so I wasn’t in the habit! So I spent some time going through the whole draft and adding in a little more description 🙂

      • Margaret says:

        Your response made me laugh because sometimes I skip over descriptive passages if I think they are slowing down the story.
        On the other hand, I heard an interview with Anne Cleves yesterday where she said that story and location cannot be separated. Her books are nearly all set on the Shetland Islands so I guess you can’t get much more atmospheric than that.

  • I hope you’re not being too hard on yourself? I’ve just self-published my book on Amazon. It was 3 years in the writing. I made so many changes that the original draft read like a completely different novel. One day my son said, ‘Are you not worried about overworking it?’ He had a point. Like you, I found everyone loved it. Where a common criticism came up I made a change. I sent it to 5 agents. All wanted a different sized synopsis etc. I got 4 rejection emails and 1 full of encouragement but ‘not right for me’. I thought ‘**ck this! I’ve got a life to get on with!’ I like my writing. My reader’s like it. I get 70% royalties. I’ve not even started marketing it yet and it’s starting to sell by word of mouth. Agents have to think ‘any chance of a profit for me here?’ I guess sometimes there’s your real answer. 😉

    • Allison K Williams says:

      That’s a terrific success story! I may consider self-publishing but I’d like to traditionally publish a novel for resume reasons. I partnered with my last agent after 48 queries, and I fully expect to send twice that many for this one because it’s difficult subject matter (a comedy about mental illness and a school shooting) so it’s going to need someone who gets it. But self-publishing can be a terrific, profitable option and it sounds like you did the best investment of your time!

  • Extremely well written and well structured. No matter how terrific the story, memoir writers without instant name recognition are a tough sell. I’ve never understood why more “memoirs” aren’t turned into novels. You’ve reinforced the importance of perseverance – not just with agents, but with oneself. Take a good long break, step back, and re-examine the work from a more detached perspective before returning to do (another and another) rewrite. No one ever said this was easy! I find it difficult, too. Best of luck, Allison!

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