Letting Go

Writers are interesting creatures. If you're a writer, or you have writer friends, I'm sure you know what I mean. But for the readers in the group, allow me to explain. Writers live in a world where the characters in their heads often feel as real as the friends they know "in real life." Writers have at minimum six trains of thought going at any given time, so when they make random tangents or laugh at nothing, it's no simple task to explain how they got there.

And yet, we still manage to be surprised and shocked by the death of characters...in our own stories. It's just part of the mystery that is the writing brain.

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is the balance between the stubbornness that tells us to hold on to every word we write and the ability to just let it go and be flexible during revisions.

Some writers call it "killing your darlings," and others remind us to "put the story away and gain some distance." And while I've typically been a pretty ruthless reviser, cutting out full chapters without so much as a blink of the eye, up until recently I've stubbornly ignored that advice.

Due to unplanned circumstances, this time I'd unintentionally taken four weeks away from my manuscript. Before this experience, I'd never really given my work time to sit. I was always a "finish the first draft on Friday and start revisions on Saturday" type gal. I never allowed the prose time to cool, never allowed the characters to sit on the page, which prevented me from seeing them as they appeared in print rather than how they existed in my head. Well, I was in for a nasty shock when I picked up those pages after a month in the drawer. For the first time, all the mistakes jumped at me from the page; my characters shouted at me, complaining about how poorly I'd captured their essence.

To which I can only say, "I'm sorry. Let me try again."

Now, perhaps you think I'd learned my lesson after that. And I did. Mostly. Until I spent five days* struggling with the same chapter. While part of the problem was indeed the huge mess I'd made of my characters, the other issue with the revision was my own stubbornness. Yet again I was ignoring advice from my fellow writers. I can't tell you how many times I'd seen "kill your darlings" on twitter, heard it from my brilliant CPs, and saw it in writing memes and blogs. But still, the stubbornness continued, an endless loop of "I can make this work," and "It's just the 'old version' of the characters."

It wasn't. And I couldn't.

The scene just didn't work, and it didn't need to be there.

But even as I realized the "purpose" of the scene was already fulfilled in elsewhere, I didn't want to let it go. Why? Because there were some stellar lines in that scene. There were bits that I just adored. Snappy one-liners between my characters. Small lines that hinted at just the perfect amount of foreshadowing for what was to come. But ultimately, those little bits I loved, my "darlings," couldn't support the weight of the scene.

So I cut it. The whole damn thing, darlings and all.

And it hurt. For a second. But then the flow of the chapters worked so much better, and my characters got to race off to the dramatic conclusion of Act I. I'm hopeful I've learned my lesson and won't struggle through days of revision on a scene I ultimately have to cut.

For many writers, letting go is hard. And I get that. It never, ever, becomes "easy." We work so hard to create these worlds, and it can really sting when someone points out the flaws in our work. It stings even when we're the ones who find those mistakes. But ultimately, if we can bring ourselves to let go, to cut out the bits that just don't work no matter how much we want them to, our writing gets better.

So from one writer to another, I challenge you to let go. Yes, be stubborn when necessary, love your work with everything you've got inside you, but trust the people involved in your writing journey. Trust your critique partners, your agent, your editor. You may not agree with everything they say, and some CPs/agents/editors truly aren't a good fit, but make yourself a promise to let all feedback sit at least 48 hours before you decide its merits. Read it more than once. Let it sink in. And above all, be willing to let go. You might just find your best ideas once you let go of the ones already on the page.

-Isabel