Start Over

Post Date: March 9th, 2012

Was it possible that I had found my calling only to discover that I really sucked at it? Could the world be that cruel? I was certain it could. But somehow, whether from sheer stubbornness or a refusal to accept what I believed to be the truth, I stuck with it. It was not until years later that I would understand that doubt is oftentimes a good signifier of talent, that it actually is talent.

Eugene Cross, “A Powerful Sort of Doubt”

Image found here

How many times when I’ve graded student essays or edited friends’ stories do I cover their pages with my ink, tracking heavy with my changes? All those notes, edits, deletions, additions–they are my well-intentioned help. Right?

Many times, without saying it directly, I’ve basically shouted to apprentice writers, Start over. This sucks. 

Now it’s my turn, and I mean, really my turn.

My agent has asked me to start over.

I’ve wrestled with every kind of reaction, ranging from

  • Oh he-e-e-e-ell no. I’ve done three major revisions this past year–and several before that!
  • Start over? Sure. I’ll leave traditional publishing and start over with self-publishing!
  • But so-and-so on such-and-such bestseller list commits worse literary sins than I! 
  • But-but-but I won that award for the first 100 pages!
  • Maybe 16 year-olds I know won’t read this.
  • Maybe I really do need to rip this thing up.
This is a crossroads moment where I’ve had to consult spirit and soul (they’re very helpful if I would shut up once in a while) and where I’ve leaned on every patient family member and friend. My husband gets the medal alongside my parents, sister, and several pals who’ve heard the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement of my literary crisis.
Crisis! That’s what HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is lacking. It’s a post-po-mo sort of meandering trek through a lot of cool scenes with sharp dialogue. And these scenes lead nowhere for the modern YA reader–the 16 year-old girl who might willingly gobble up my book, writ right. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that however interesting my current draft might be to me, I have the opportunity to attempt what Sarah, my agent, asks and do what I’ve coached other writers of all ages: Come on, give it the old college try.
So what if you started this story in 2009. So what if it’s 2012. So what if people’s interest in Michael Jackson, Tim Tebow, Millennials, and various cultural phenomena might be waning–elements your book echoes–because remember–REMEMBER!–your book was not written to showcase these folks or hop aboard a pop culture train. Will this book sustain interest? Will it sell? These are the questions my agent is asking, and she’s asking me to forget the prior drafts, forget the sweat and enslavement, to see the work anew and ask myself, What’s the story? What is the story.

Serious writers walk hand in hand with doubt. Author Eugene Cross reminds us in “A Powerful Sort of Doubt” to stay doubtful. Serious writers know when to listen to a range of voices and when to cover their ears and yell la-la-la-la-la. Serious writers can be coached and still not compromise.

That’s right, coached. The image of the author in the garret struggling to write alone is no more for me. In fact, I abandoned that pose back in 2003 when I applied for an intensive week-long workshop with author Doris Betts. There I met lifelong writer pals Nancy, Bob, Susan, and David–all with fascinating writing projects and blogs. The moment you give your baby up to the group for commentary, and they dig in with knives, cheers, and questions, you’ve sent the world a message that you care what it thinks.

To brainstorm through your outline with someone else–to trust that someone else might know audience and story development better–to gamble away scenes, characters, and assumptions–that’s a tall order for me. But these last two weeks, I’ve been doing it. I’ve sent off a two new synopses with the faith that around this blind curve is a new story line, like a freshly-paved road.

What do I want to be doing 20 years from now? What will get me published without losing my artistic integrity? Those two questions juggle career, audience, publishing, muse, and soul for me. I will try to keep Wendy who she is while taking her on a new journey in her present. Starting over could mean scrap Wendy’s past history of abuse and make her live it in real time–a tall order for sure. How I will keep her unique faith in Michael Jackson’s sainthood is another challenge. All of this overhaul is in the quest to get Wendy to actively pursue something very focused in the present, react to real conflict and change with simplified action, and to then resolve the crisis that forced her out of her cave.

I may also try this and find none of it works. I have to live today in that not knowing of the restart.

In all the one-on-one tutorials and thousands of coaching words I provided students, I never directly said, Start over, but perhaps I said, Good start, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Or maybe I said, Let’s go back to your outline. I know teachers who write alongside their students, crafting the same academic papers, and if time permits (which it does not), it certainly is an ideal exercise. For all those years I didn’t start over with my kids, well, rest assured I am doing it now.

What goes around, comes around, kiddos. In the end, we all have to sweat after our grades and our dreams. And what I’m asking today is how I will get an A in this market and whether it will be worth the sacrifice. I must live in the gray, that hybrid space of not knowing my next steps, and see if my head, heart, and soul can hang with the twists and turns.

Writing Prompts:

  • There’s a hand out called “20 Ways to Say ‘You’re Wrong,'” meant for teachers to use while steering kids toward better answers in discussion. What are some ways you tell people No, start over, but nicely? How has one of those situations led to a difficult but meaningful encounter? Is there a story there?
  • Is your writing market-driven or muse-driven or both? How do you know? Write a love letter to your manuscript and tell it what it needs to hear about its integrity and purpose.
  • Write a poem called “To Market, To Market.”
  • How badly do you want to be published? What are you willing to do–and not do–to see your name in official print from a traditional publisher?
  • How does your coaching of other writers (whether young students or professional colleagues) reflect honesty and kindness? How can we be better critics of one another’s work? 
  • Go find a piece that’s not working and start over. 


  1. DF says:

    I can’t believe there’s no crisis. You can’t have gotten this far, attracted an agent, and done this much revision to not have one. If you really think there’s no crisis then you’ve got to have one, I guess. But keep the original draft. You might find later on that putting in the crisis ruined a perfectly good story.

  2. Thank you, Dave…am keeping all 20-some drafts in my e-vault, and am keeping an eye on the horizon for when this fog lifts. It’s hard to see what’s true and what’s not somedays.

  3. Bob Mustin says:

    You’ve climbed a ladder most wannabe writers never get to touch. Now you’re at the (almost) top rung. Persistence. Persistence! PERSISTENCE!


    (Perhaps it was prophetic that I saw John Paul Jones’ statue last December on a visit to DC. Finally I heard the story behind the famous phrase.) Thanks for the cheer.