Tragedy Averted or How I Almost Talked Myself Out of Another Manuscript

Years ago I came up with an awesome high-concept novel. I’d only written one other book at that point, a low-concept book begun in secret and pretty much written as a challenge to myself. I wrote early in the morning before my kids were awake, marveling at how the words added up. Writing a novel was like living an alternate existence free of poopy diapers and tantrums, and I loved it. When the manuscript was “done” I made a few attempts to get it published before recognizing it as a learning project.

The second book was a whole other matter.

By then I was a member of a weekly critique group for adult fiction. The focus was on publication.  My critique partners loved my new premise and when our annual conference approached, encouraged me to get an appointment with a visiting editor or agent. I’d only written about five chapters but with input I polished opening pages, wrote a synopsis, and practiced my pitch in front of the group. I talked about my project. A lot.

And then a strange thing happened: I had no desire to write that very cool, high-concept book with its unique setting.  In talking about my project I’d talked myself out of a manuscript.

Since then I’ve warned other writers about the perils of talking too much. I cautioned my sons’ elementary school classmates to keep story ideas to themselves until they’d written at least a first draft. I brought in an inflated balloon and as I told the story of Tracy’s Abandoned Project, let out a bit of air. Throughout the whole sordid tale of me blah-blahing to my writing partners, I slowly released more air and by the time I reached the part about losing my love for the story, the balloon was flat. And lifeless.

Shouldn’t someone who goes around bossing other people on the issue of keeping their mouths shut know better?

Despite my No-Talking-Before-Completed-Draft policy, I fudged a bit on my latest project and shared a one-line description with my new agent (and felt validated when he liked the premise). I still successfully finished the draft. But when talking to a critique partner about whether I should rewrite the book in third-person I remember hesitating before answering his questions; it felt risky. But hey, I had a first draft. So I talked.

And not only did I talk to him but also to my spouse. I’m blessed with a partner who fully supports my literary efforts and never, ever complains about me not bringing in an income. However, because he never finished reading the one manuscript I asked him to read (in his defense, my learning project), I’ve armored my heart by only speaking about my projects in generalities.

But suddenly I was talking to him in great detail and it was wonderful to finally be one of those writers with an involved spouse. It felt especially good because my agent had just read the first fifty pages and synopsis of the second draft and basically said he liked my premise but not the execution. A couple weeks later he dropped me.

I needed to start all over. Again. But I wisely recognized I was still too fragile to work on that particular project so set it aside and revised another manuscript. When that was finished and sent off, I felt ready to return to my difficult project.

I began talking about the story again, trying to sort out some character issues. I brain-stormed with my spouse and felt I was getting closer to truly knowing the kids at the heart of my story. And yet, I couldn’t gain any traction; I was unable to move beyond character sketches to drafting and despaired the story would ever get written.

Then one day not too long ago I experienced what felt like a balloon-inspired epiphany: Stop talking and write the story.

Hello, I needed to get back to the guilty pleasure of stealing away to scribble down scenes, sharing in the lives of people no one else has met. I needed to return to writing for me.  Me and no one else.  And that’s where I am right now.  I’ve got this story inside I want to tell, and if I keep quiet from here on out we’ll make it.  However, I need to trust my instincts no matter how many drafts I’ve written.

But just in case I ever falter in my resolve, I can check in with one of my favorite writers:

“It makes me so uncomfortable for them. If they’re talking about a plot idea, I feel the idea is probably going to evaporate. I want to almost physically reach over and cover their mouths and say, “You’ll lose it if you’re not careful.”   ~ Anne Tyler

(By the way, you can buy a signed copy of this quote on ebay for only $399).

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These days Tracy Abell is talking less and writing more, although she reserves the right to talk to herself when she’s feeling stuck.

Tracy Abell
  1. One question…how the heck did you ever find the Tyler quote on Ebay?!?

    • @Portia Pennington, Finding that ebay item was a total accident. The quote was in a book but when I did an online search to find its origin I stumbled upon that literary bargain!

  2. Great post, Tracy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and empathize. The first few manuscript I ever wrote I didn’t breathe a word for fear of it all disappearing! I talk a little bit now, but in generalities, not details. 🙂

    • @Kimberley Griffiths Little, Yes, this: “I didn’t breathe a word for fear of it all disappearing!” That’s exactly the feeling I had with my first manuscript and most every one that followed. I’m back to that attitude now.

      Speaking in generalities can be fine for many writers, I think. At this point, though, I’m afraid to do even that.

      • @Tracy Abell, And yet, I have to add: The last few novel manuscripts I’ve written I *have* done some brainstorming with my crit partner. She and I have been reading for each other for at least 10 years (Carolee Dean, YA novels with S&S) and she is a huge talk-it-out-brainstormer gal. I was horrified the first time she told me this. But after helping her brainstorm ideas of her own I slowly ventured out and now I do a bit of it, too, actually. Especially if I have holes in plot or character that I’m trying to fill. Brainstorming can now even get me excited to work. So it’s been really interesting to see how my work habits (or idea and novel building) has changed with time. Of course, this is over a very long period of time and about 20 novel manuscripts! Most of which are in a drawer as practice novels. 🙂

  3. I also loved this post, Tracy. We all go through these moments. Plus everyone seems to worry so much more about publishing (high concept, duh) than just letting the story come.

    • @Michele Weber Hurwitz, You’re so right about that high-concept angle and from my very unscientific polling, it seems to contribute to more blabbing. I have a friend who started to tell me his high-concept idea and I begged him to stop (explaining my concern) but he kept going. That was a year ago and I don’t think he’s written the manuscript yet.

  4. That’s a fantastic analogy with the balloon, Tracy. I can definitely empathize with this post!

    • @Michelle Schusterman, Thanks much for sharing in this writer’s journey. Let’s keep our balloons inflated with good story energy!

  5. Tracy,

    Now you’ve got me rethinking the first draft of my novel, that remains mostly in my head. I’ve shared the first chapter and haven’t written beyond it. Perhaps finishing the first draft on my own and then sharing is a far better plan. Thanks! Probably lots of people quit that wouldn’t have, if they had heard and tried this advice. Terrific advice!

    • @Linda Andersen, Yes, try that approach! I think it’s incredibly difficult to share early chapters before the story has been written out (in at least rough form). Then you start getting input from people who don’t have the same vision and it’s easy getting confused and overwhelmed to the point you can’t write.

      I encourage you to finish that draft in silence, Linda! 🙂

  6. I feel the same way, Tracy. I love to talk about my reading, and don’t mind talking about the writing process, but I don’t like to hash over a manuscript until it’s finished, which makes it hard to be part of a critique group.

    • @Laurie Beth Schneider, The comments here have gotten me thinking more about my process and I realize that while I felt one draft put me in safe territory, I’ve never had stuff critiqued that soon or even done much talking about my projects. This project was an anomaly and I’ve learned I need to go back to my comfort zone: keeping my mouth shut.

      I’m with you on liking to talk about the process, though.

  7. I so get this, Tracy! I *hate* talking about a project before I’ve finished it. I remember that I even hesitated to talk about Vanished until perhaps the ARCs were out. Some of it is just me. But I also think there is a time when it is too soon to talk, even sometimes to show. We need to give ourselves time to really build and trust in our world before sharing it with others.

    Sometimes I come up with a “fake” description of what I’m working on. Something that only vaguely has to do with what the book is about — kind of like Karen. I find that works for me. Heck, we all need to keep our balloons inflated! 🙂

    • @Sheela Chari, Wow, you didn’t talk about VANISHED until the ARCs were out? That’s hard core! But I admire you and am going to try hard to emulate that kind of thinking about building and trusting in my world before sharing it. Thank you for that insight, Sheela.

      Here’s to all our balloons remaining inflated!

  8. I totally agree, Tracy. That’s exactly what happens, just deflates the balloon. Especially if you start getting input from others and it clouds your thinking. That’s why at conferences when another writer asks me what I’m working on (unless it’s finished), I say something vague and then explain it’s too early to talk about it yet. Other writers really get that.
    p.s. Love the pictures in this post! Especially the smiley face deflated balloon. :p

    • @Karen B. Schwartz, YES! That whole clouded thinking thing is another issue. I’ve gotten confused by some input and that ends up setting me back even farther. It makes me feel I should take a vow of complete and absolute silence while writing my books. My family might love that!

      I have my conference coming up next week and I’m going to adopt your approach. Vague response and mysterious smile.

      I’m glad you like the pictures because I had great fun adding them.

  9. oh – i feel your pain! i’ve talked myself out of two manuscripts. lesson learned. thanks for the advice!

    • @Amie Borst, I’m sorry you also had to learn this lesson the hard way. It’s weird how that energy can just slip away if we’re not careful, but weirder still that some other writers don’t seem to have this issue.