The Author Burnout Coach
Episode 07: No Writing is Wasted
Hello writers and welcome to The Author Burnout Coach. Together, we will dismantle the burnout culture in book publishing and reclaim our love of stories. I am your host, Isabel Sterling, and this is episode 7.
Hello hello hello friends! Today is an exciting day – for a few reasons! First, if you’re listening on release day, it is 2 - 22 - 2022, which is just fun. Second, I’m really excited about today’s topic, because I believe so strongly in it AND it’s something I’m actively going through right now.
Today, we’re talking about the writing that doesn’t make it into a finished book. All the books you’ll query that never get an agent, the books that don’t sell on submission, and the drafts you have to throw away in pursuit of the heart of your story.
Since the spoiler is in the the episode title, I’ll give it here, too: NONE of that writing is wasted. Not a single word. Ever.
Or rather, it doesn’t have to be a waste. It isn’t inherently wasted or beneficial. It’s actually completely neutral until your brain gets involved.
The problem is, without your conscious decision to go in a different direction, your brain will let you spiral into doom, despair, and defeat.
It typically sounds something like this:
What if I spend all this time writing and it never goes anywhere?
What if I spend a year on this book and all the agents reject it?
I wish I could have figured this book out the first time instead of writing three drafts I had to throw away.
That last one? Totally happened to me with THIS COVEN WON’T BREAK, the sequel to my debut. I had three completed versions (over 200k words) that went right in the trash. The fourth draft was finally good enough to revise (and damn did we revise a TON).
You may have a similar experience (either in your past or coming in your future) but none of that time is actually wasted, though, unless we decide to waste it.
Plus, this whole concept of wasted time is built on the foundation of a lie.
If you believe writing must produce a certain outcome – like signing with an agent, getting a book deal, or making money – you create a very narrow view of success. And when success is that narrow, when it’s a binary of did I or didn’t I, you can lose sight of the other ways writing matters.
Like the joy it creates. The fun.
When you have a narrow view of success, you miss out on the incredible power of believing in yourself hard enough to write an entire fucking novel. Like take a second and let that sink in. How amazing is it that you dedicated enough of your own time, that you decide your dreams were worth that investment, and completed a book. That shit is bad ass.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with external goals. I actually love them, when done in a way that also honors internal goals. I love being a published author. I love having an agent who loves my work.
It was such a blessing to get a large royalty check for THESE WITCHES DON’T BURN the summer of 2021 - it allowed me the freedom to take parental leave with my young foster son without worrying about having enough money for bills.
I love that the on-signing portion of my advance for THE COLDEST TOUCH allowed me to have enough money for a downpayment on my house in 2020.
Those tangible things DO matter, but they’re not the ONLY thing that matters.
If those were the only things that mattered, I wouldn’t have persisted through all the years and years of rejection that I had to go through to get to this point.
There are 2 concepts I want to share with you to grow your belief that no writing is wasted – both from a time spent perspective and from a story perspective.
First, let’s talk about time.
How much do you value having fun for fun’s sake?
How much do you value spending time on creative pursuits with no pressure of a specific outcome?
Do you value play as much as work? Could you if you put your mind to it?
You know those moments when you’re writing and everything sort of clicks into place? The moment the PERFECT solution appears out of nowhere like magic?
I LOVE that shit. To me, those moments are 100% worth the time I invest into writing, no matter what happens next. I feel the most alive–the most powerful–when I figure out the missing piece of a story. It’s stunning, but if we stay too focused on sales, that magic starts to dim. We stop listening to it.
The next time you think you’re wasting your time with writing, ask yourself what you allow yourself to value. Do you only value external results like a finished book or a certain size of advance? Can you let yourself value doing something just because it’s fun? Just because it makes your heart sing?
It’s okay if you can’t make that leap all at once. Staying open and curious about it is a beautiful place to start. It also doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to want a higher advance or a big marketing plan. None of this mutually exclusive. We can want both without compromise.
Okay, so that covers the time piece of no writing being wasted. The second part is about the story itself, and for this one, I’ve got a personal story for you.
I’ve been working on my next book since March of 2021, and despite it being almost an entire year later, I haven’t finished the first draft.
This is super unusual for me. In the past, I’ve typically drafted a book in 2-3 months. I do a lot of my best work in revision, so I used to do whatever it took to get to the end of the first draft so I could shift to revision-mode.
After my experience with COVEN though (and the 200k words I had to toss out), I’ve learned to tell if a story isn’t working and can confidently pull the plug without needing to write the entire thing.
Over the past year, I’ve had lots of partial drafts, each time taking the book is a slightly different direction. It’s always been about a girl who can see ghosts and has to help a (very cute) ghost solve her own murder. Each time I’ve started over, I’ve approached it from a different angle.
I didn’t keep track of all the drafts, but from a quick search through my emails, I’ve pulled this basic timeline.
I started initial development and brainstorming in March of 2021.
In June, I had the first act done (about 17k or 65 pages), which I sent to my then-agent for feedback. From her notes, I decided to toss what I had and shift the voice so it was a bit older.
Then by early September, I had a new act one completed, this one around 12k and 50 pages. It felt a lot better than the first version, so I kept going. I got all the way to the midpoint of my plot when I realize that the plot was way too thin. It was less than 120 pages (about 30k) and I was very quickly running out of story.
There were bits I loved of course. The opening line was super fun. Here, I’ll even share it I love it so much: It’s hard to care about physics homework when a very cute—very dead—girl walks into the coffee shop.
Like that is so fun for a queer YA novel about a girl who sees ghosts!
Even though I enjoyed lots of things about the book, I could tell it still wasn’t quite right. I paused for a few days and thought about what was going on in the book. Eventually, I realized I was trying to create based on avoiding things I didn’t want in the book instead of embracing the things I DID want.
With that realization, I asked my then-agent to check in with my publisher about scrapping the whole thing and starting over. I wanted to lean into the thriller aspect and center the investigation into the ghost’s muder.
Once I got the green light, I stepped back and did some new world building, I had to reimagine all of my characters. I figured out the reason the ghost was murdered, and started writing again. By December, I had a new first act, this one about 10k words and 40 pages.
This version was a lot better, but the character motivations felt a bit too thin to propel through an entire novel. I read through this draft and developed more of the character backstories and revamped the plot the opening of the plot (I decided the murder happened too soon and we didn’t get enough of life pre-death).
I personally consider what I did next to be a revision, even though I only revised two of the scenes and all the rest were 100% brand new content. So I guess you COULD consider it the 4th attempt at writing the first draft of this book.
That new act one (50 pages, and about 15k) is currently (at the time of recording) with my new agent, so I don’t know yet if this will be the version that I draft all the way to the end, but I’m still proud as hell anyway, because it is so much better than each version that came before.
I could look back at this past year and be upset by the nearly 60,000 words that I tossed out, basically an entire novel worth of words that will never see the light of day.
But I’m not. At all.
Because I truly believe that I couldn’t have found the current story without going through those other ideas first. They weren’t a waste of time → they paved the way to the story I have now.
Why would I choose to be upset by those previous attempts when they brought me to a story I adore?
Why would I belittle their value and importance, just because they won’t ever be finished or bound into a hardcover and sat on a shelf?
Those drafts also happened over the course of a year where I became a foster mom for the first time. I learned through them how to balance writing with caring for small humans.
10 years from now, I won’t look back at my writing career and see 2021 as a waste.
I trust that I’ve found my way to the correct story, that I’ve learned an entire new skill of writing while being a mom – with no childcare for the vast majority of that time, too, I’ll add! I feel like a fucking superhero that I got any writing done.
And that sense of pride and peace is what I want for you, my fellow writers. Imagine if you stopped believing some writing was a waste? Imagine if you believed that each false start helped pave the way to the best version of your story? Imagine valuing fun as much as you value productivity. Imagine letting go of guilt for resting?
I’m living proof that it’s possible, one tiny shift at a time.
You might not being able to get all the way there on your own, and that’s okay! I couldn’t have done this without all the coaching I’ve received along the way. I am here to help you love writing, no matter what is happening on the publishing side of things.
If you want help, visit my website (isabelsterling.com) to learn more. Please reach out if you have anyway questions.
Until next time, friends, happy writing!