What to Do When the Book You’re Writing Throws You a Curve

Via Google Images
Via Google Images

The drafting of my memoir began in earnest sometime the late spring of 2012. I had jotted down notes and memories plus digging through boxes of my mother’s personal papers for years. Folders filled with potential material for a book cover a work table.

Now, here we are approaching late spring of 2014, two years later. A few weeks ago as I was considering my progress and listening to my husband’s take on what I had written for one particular chapter, I felt like I had been hit by a tidal wave of emotion.

It was as if a tsunami had taken over the life of my memoir, and what came next threw me for a curve.

An epiphany in the form of a major change in direction left me wonder struck. Not so much because it was such a stunning transformation, but because it had stared me in the eye since the year 2000, when the seed germinated into thoughts of a memoir after moving my mother to Oregon from Tennessee.

Now, what am I going to do was the next thought passing not so silently through my mind. It was simple: Regroup, rethink, rewrite–the writer’s three R’s.

Regroup: When I began writing my story of life with Mama, I sat down and started pounding out words on the computer screen without any thought for an outline or a plan. I knew the story I was writing and thought I needed no organizational scheme to get it done. So far, I believe I have a pretty good draft on that first turn. But this curve ball I’ve been thrown made me stop and take stock of the time I would have saved if I had gotten my writing act together first.

  • The first thing I decided I needed to do was spell out what I wanted to tell my readers and why. And I did.
  • I then moved on to think about outlining or story boarding. I vaguely remembered a post of Kathy Pooler’s on Memoir Writer’s Journey where Kathy talked about story boarding. Unable to find it, I emailed Kathy and she sent me the link, which is here.
Kathy Pooler's Storyboard
Kathy Pooler’s Storyboard
  • As I sat and studied Kathy’s storyboard, it occurred to me that my favorite writing software, Scrivener, uses a bulletin board with index cards to act as an option to an outline. I rarely use it, but checked it out and below is an image of my current storyboard or imaged outline in Scrivener:
Scrivener Corkboard
Scrivener Corkboard
  • I think it’s going to work perfectly, and I’ve set about rewriting my first draft.

Rethink: A good deal of rethinking went into picking up the draft and rewriting it. Was this worth making the book into a better story to share with readers? Would the rewrite get my point across any better? After all, I’d spent a goodly number of hours not only in writing but researching, retrieving and reading.

  • I decided the answer was a yes. I want to publish not just a good book, but a book people will refer to as a “really good book,” perhaps a “must read,” maybe even a “bestseller.” No matter the nomenclature used to describe it, I want it to be my best work product. So, yes, the extra time is worth the effort.
  • As I rethought the outline I’d come up with it, I could actually see the story unfolding in a much more cohesive fashion and with greater ease.
  • Rethinking taught me a great lesson: Rushing in headlong isn’t always the best route to take.

Rewrite: I am actually enjoying this “R” of the three “R’s” because I am sensing a better writing style, a tighter style. I feel the story coming together with less negativity about my mother, seasoned with a dash of her goodness here and there, because there was goodness in her. And at the end of her story and mine, I learn there was good reason for her parenting skills, or lack thereof. I think in the rewrite this will be more easily finessed.

Like schoolchildren sent off to learn their three “R’s”–reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, we writers can also learn from a different set of three “R’s”–regroup, rethink and rewrite.

We’re never too young or too far along in our writing to learn a little something or make a change in the direction we’re headed.

Happy writing!

29 thoughts on “What to Do When the Book You’re Writing Throws You a Curve

  1. Wish I could pop by and hug you, Sherrey!I SO needed to read this post this morning as my 60,000 words seem to be in quite a pickle. I’ve just invested some time getting them all onto Scrivener and would be very grateful if you could share the blogs you mention to Joan, so I can colour code what I have. I focused on style initially and have a pretty good quality 30-40k words interspersed with another 20-30 or so of more rambling junk after being spurred on by those calls to count words each day.
    The biggest problem is they’re interspersed as different layers (I’m exploring the science of memory, my own memory as well as what I did and think helped etc and as Jerry suggests, the more I write, the more I develop, the more other things seem to need emphasising – the more it changes – arrrgh!). I’ve been coming to the dreaded realisation I need to separate these strands to rewrite the junk bits properly and get sight of the wood for the trees once more. It’s been a terribly deflating realisation and I’ve been procrastinating by starting up other projects on my blog!
    Thank you, thank you for sharing this. I’m clearly not unusual in this process and this gives me hope I can sort it out!
    Cyber hug coming your way ! Lisa xx

  2. Sherrey, as Shirley and others have pointed out, your experience is all a normal part of the writing process. Congratulations on getting to this point! Your perseverence is admirable and indicates you have what it takes to write the quality of book you’re aiming for.
    I’m going to have to argue with your comment, “But this curve ball I’ve been thrown made me stop and take stock of the time I would have saved if I had gotten my writing act together first.” I think you probably realize by now that, at the beginning, you did not have the insight into your story that you needed to do the kind of planning you’re capable of now. They say the path unfolds as you walk it, and when you are at the beginning of the journey, you can’t see far enough ahead to understand the precise route you’ll need to follow. That’s why I and many others recommend writing a download draft first. (I have chosen the term “download draft” rather than “shitty first draft” or Jennifer Laucks’ “vomit draft” so I can speak about it in mixed company!)
    Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at another turning point like this where you backtrack, regroup, rethink and rewrite. Many books have several incarnations before the author settles on the final version.
    Now that I’m almost to the end of my teaching contract, I’m hoping to catch up with all you’ve been doing soon.

    1. Sue, thanks for weighing in on the discussion. I’m so glad you read this post and chose to comment on it. We’ve had discussions previously about my book and it means a great deal to “hear” your thoughts. Yes, I agree with your disagreement of my one particular statement. You are right–I did not have the insight that I now have having written this first draft. So much becomes more clearly defined as we right. The story we at first believe we know so well eventually replays itself not only through our fingers but in our minds and most importantly our hearts until we realize the story has become one of greater focus and clarity.
      I look forward to the opportunity to catch up. It may not seem so to you, but it seems the contract period went by quickly. Much has happened in my life while you’ve been teaching. But that’s for later.

  3. Sherry, I’m inspired by your tenacity, plus it takes courage to turn a BIG corner and do a monumental rewrite. The first draft of my 1st novel flowed out of me, but I kept changing the beginning which, in turn, changed the sequence of many chapters. Plus I got off track towards the end, writing a different story than I’d intended in the first place. It became confusing. In the end I revised at least 5 times! So first drafts are definitely only the beginning…
    I could’ve used Scrivener then. Another friend keeps telling me how wonderful it is…but I’m half done with my 2nd novel and don’t want to incur a learning curve. Maybe I’ll try it with my next book. Will look into it at my leisure, since you’ve shared its wonderful features here.
    Many blessings sent your way in this new, exciting endeavor!

    1. Kas, I love that you’ve stopped by and shared your story of revisions and rewrites. This last year you have inspired in many ways, especially surrounding your husband’s illness and recovery. What strength I saw in your book and then as you shared the ups and downs of caregiving. So when you speak of tenacity, please take a look inside yourself. You are a role model in tenacity! Returning blessings to you and looking forward to your 2nd novel.

  4. Sherrey, others have spoken for me above. Both about discovery about our true subjects and how long it takes to find them and about the value of planning after “pantsing.”
    The one thing I might emphasize is that the “sh–ty rough draft” is the rule, not the exception. We seem to be constructed in such a way as to need to dump the first draft. There’s a new book out on creativity written by the CEO of Pixar. Apparently, Toy Story was terrible at first and took years to produce into the classic it became.
    You’ve got your own Toy Story. Keep finding the joy in the process.

    1. Anne Lamott’s famous words popped into my head as I found myself facing this decision. Why did I even think the first draft would be it? 🙂 I grabbed my copy of Bird by Bird and read a bit, and then the decision was so much easier just being reminded, as you have here, that this is the rule, not the exception. I must look for the book on creativity and Toy Story’s story.
      The joy comes with each little portion rewritten. It will happen, and it will happen with abundant joy!

  5. Sherrey … this was the story of both my memoir and my novel. For the memoir, I had 400 pages of journals from the trip, but didn’t know until well into the second draft, exactly what story I wanted to tell. A lot of writing hit the cutting room floor when I finally figured it out. For the novel, I had the general structure, but I kept moving scenes around (or onto the cutting room floor) when my characters would protest. Scrivener arrived on the scene too late for me, so I just used an excel spread sheet.
    Kudos for having the courage to go on!

    1. Mary, your words are like a balm to my bruises as I toss pages and words and yet as I rewrite the story it is a joy to see it unfold in a totally different perspective than I first imagined. I think that this is part of the story writing we often overlook — the growth that comes in writing memoir or any book for that matter. Writing friends like you who have persevered are the reasons for the courage to go on! Thanks for your support and encouragement.

  6. Great post, Sherrey! And good luck with the rewriting. It’s hard work, but once that lightning strike hits, you can’t not do it.

    1. You know, Stephanie, I grew up in thunder and lightning country, so your analogy to the lightning strike is perfect! Thanks for always underscoring my thoughts in my posts.

  7. I purchased Scrivener a year ago, but only recently began using it on a regular basis. Love it. Still learning, and I love the colored storyboard. I wish you all the best on your rewrite and I look forward to reading your book!

    1. I’m still learning a lot about Scrivener and if you want can share with you some good blogs that share good tips and advice. Thanks for the encouragement that you always provide, Joan. It is a treasured piece of my writing.

  8. Sherrey, this is fabulous. I’m so happy my storyboard helped you. Thank you for the mention. Your journey certainly mimics mine–lots of curve balls along the way. But exhilarating to let the story that begs to be told reveal itself. Enjoy the journey!

    1. Kathy, encourager of mine, we’ve talked many times (and are long overdue) about the journey of your memoir and writing it. I fell back on some of those conversations as I felt this story taking a different turn. You see — you encourage me even when we’re not exchanging online, or via email, or on the phone. I am enjoying the journey! Thanks to you and so many others.

  9. Well done, Sherrey. Memoir writing at its best takes the writer to deeper understanding of herself and others. Sounds like this curve got you there with your mother. Good for you for riding (and writing) the tsunami to new heights.

    1. Ah, Carol, beautifully said: “this curve got you there with your mother.” Indeed it deed. Love your last sentence too. Thanks for stopping by with your always ready encouragement and support.

  10. Like you, Sherrey, I also sat down and pounded words out on the computer, but found I need to outline more – hate it, but it really helps me. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener – need to look into it some more.

    1. Teri, I encourage you to look closely and seriously at Scrivener. I won’t tell you it isn’t still evolving, but for me it is a user friendly, efficient way to write. And there are many who blog on how to use it, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice to think we could just pound out a book in one turn and be done with it? I think we’d be really silly in that case! 🙂

  11. Kudos to you for continuing to dig deep and do the work you feel necessary to tell your healing story in the best possible way, Sherrey. Our stories are our legacy, yes, but also often a healing tool for those who take time to read them. We honour our readers by giving them our best. Continued best wishes on your writing and healing journey.

    1. Linda, thanks for stopping by to comment. I know you are just beginning to dip your toes back in the water of blogging and social media between gardening and sitting back to take your time while doing it. I could not help but continue to dig deep and do the best for my story and my mother’s story. I cherish your continued encouragement and wishes as found in your words left today.

  12. How lucky we all are to have a brother/sisterhood of writers like you to give us food for thought and the tools to forge ahead. Writing is very recursive, I’ve found – rather like a spiral with perceived gains and losses, ups and downs. I’m not sure whether this post will prevent a tsunami forcing a change in direction from happening to me OR whether it is giving me a handle on what to do when the inevitable happens. Ha!
    Now let me go re-arrange those colored sticky notes on my story-board!

    1. Marian, I trust all those colored sticky notes are rearranged on your storyboard. 🙂 Yes, I love that the writing community is such a strong one where the sharing is prolific, both of writing highs and lows and what can be done about the latter. I hope that you don’t have to travel this pathway of rewriting, but you never knkow! Maybe you should bookmark this post. Haha!

  13. I commend you for tackling a rewrite. After working on a project for a long time, many people would either give up or keep trying to chip away at the old draft. Sometimes the best thing to do is step back, regroup, and start again fresh.I got a kick out of your screen shot of Scrivener. It’s good to see that I am not the only one who uses all the color coding features. It is such a helpful program.

    1. Elizabeth, good to know you’re also a friend of Scrivener. And the colors? I want my writing to be a happy, cheerful place to spend time with. There is no giving up on this project; it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell someone since childhood.

  14. Thanks for this fabulous article, Sherrey. It highlights the fact that writing the memoir is itself a journey, complete with highs, lows and turning points. The article starts out with a terrible setback. Then you gather strength, reach out for allies (I love that you had to ask Kathleen for the link. Nice touch). As the hero, you gain courage by remembering your highest goal. “I want to publish not just a good book, but a book people will refer to as a “really good book,” perhaps a “must read,” maybe even a “bestseller.”
    By the end of the article, you have regained your poise and momentum, and begun to travel on your new course, providing you and your readers with hope and excitement about the adventures to come.
    Yay for story writing to help us find our way and share those findings with others!
    Best wishes
    Jerry
    Author of Memoir Revolution

    1. Jerry, you have left me speechless! My husband will likely disagree and say I’m never speechless, but it’s how I feel after reading your comments. Little did I know when I sat down to write this post, this is what would be the finished product. A story, as you point out, with your comments. Thanks so much for being a part of my reading and commenting community.
      Best always,
      Sherrey

  15. Great post, Sherrey. I’m with you all the way. I’m doing a rewrite of my first draft, too, and find the rewriting refreshing and I’m actually having fun doing it. I also agree that what we put out to the public in the form of a book has to be the very best in every way. If we take our time and get it right we will reach our goal.

    1. Thank you, Joan, for stopping by. I am glad to find another in the rewriting process. I agree it’s refreshing and yes, fun too.

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