If It Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Force It

23 Feb

by Susan Dennard


In Germany, there is a saying:

It it doesn’t fit, it can be made to fit.

While this phrase is appropriate for suitcases, skinny jeans, and dishwashers, it does not work for your novel, memoir, short stories, etc.  In fact, I have recently learned that the opposite is true when it comes to creativity:

If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

I did NaNoWriMo last year (2010). I wrote 52,000 words in a YA dystopian called Screechers.  Of those 52,000 word, about 20,000 have been revised into Something of Moderate Quality.

But I hate it — hate Screechers, I mean.  I hate the story; I hate the main character; I hate the stupid world building; and I hate the fact that it’s a dystopian and high concept when neither of those things interest me.  It’s just one big BLEH.

So after two months of knowing I should get back to Screechers but not wanting to; knowing that if I just made a butt-in-chair for a few months, I’d finish; and knowing that my agents would be very happy if I handed them my high concept MS all polished and pretty,

I am letting it go.

Sometimes I think writers (read: ME) are reluctant to throw out manuscripts (um, raise your hand if you insisted your first novel would be publishable…only to realize much later that it wasn’t even close).  Heck, no one wants to throw out anything they’ve worked hard on — be it a novel, a painting, or a crooked bookshelf.

It’s like when you’re making a cake but you royally screw up the recipe (maybe you added 3 egg yolks instead of 4 egg whites), and the only solution for you is to START OVER.  (Well, there is another option: eat a wretched cake. But no one wants to eat wretched cake.  No one normal, anyway. ;))

Sometimes we really just gotta let it go. You know, in one fell swoop like an awkwardly placed band-aid (wait — aren’t all band-aids in bad spots?), hit delete, toss it in the trash, and say “good-bye”.

I realized (like 4 days ago) with Screechers that no matter what, I will never like the story as it currently is.  And the only way to turn it into a story I love is to start over. And this time, I’m not going to do the stupid things I did with the first draft.

What were those stupid things?  And how do you know if you’re committing them too?  Answer these questions and let’s find out.

Are you:

  • Writing in a style that is popular, but isn’t your own?
    • I wrote in first-person present.  While I think some people can pull this off really well, I am NOT one of those people. I struggled (read: was clawing my eyes out and screaming) to make first person present work. Present tense just isn’t natural to me, so it never felt natural on the page.
    • Plus, I had MAJOR problems with too much narrative distance (1st-person present ≠ immediacy, contrary to popular belief) and filter words.
  • Writing something high concept?
    • Screechers is high concept premise — complete with action, irony, an instantly sympathetic heroine, and more.
    • BUT, I had so many problems trying to hard to fit into my high concept logline that I just couldn’t tell a good story anymore (high concept ≠ good story, contrary to popular belief).
  • Writing it FAST?
    • A lot of the speed was because of NaNoWriMo, but the speed-revising had more to do with my own insane determination to finish revising Screechers by April 2011.
    • Sometimes, taking it slow works better — especially when the story isn’t coming naturally and you need time to think.
  • Writing in a popular genre?
    • Dystopian ≠ automatic WIN, contrary to popular belief.  Some people handle it really well (Suzanne Collins, George Orwell, John Wyndham, etc.), but again, I am NOT one of those people.
    • I like fantasy more thank I like dystopian. I like sci-fi more than I like dystopian.  I like paranormal more than I like dystopian. SO WHY THE HECK WASN’T I TRYING TO WRITE THOSE GENRES?
  • Writing an MC with whom you can’t connect?
    • I could not find my MC’s voice — partly because of the first-person present thing and partly because I didn’t like her (even if she was immediately sympathetic).
    • She was a Tough Girl, and some people write Tough Girls well (Suzanne Collins, Holly Lisle, Cherie Priest).  I don’t.  My Tough Girls just come across 2-dimensional.
    • Plus, I just didn’t want to tell a dystopian story, so I found I couldn’t care about my dystopian heroine.

Are you running into any of these?  If so, you’ve got a problem, and more importantly, you have to decide:

Is the manuscript worth it?  Should you try to salvage this cake or just bake a new one?

For me, starting over is definitely worth it because somewhere in the premise for Screechers is the story I originally wanted to tell.  If I get rid of all the crap I don’t like about it and add all the story-telling sparkles I love, then I’m going to wind up with a better book.

So if any of the above questions above apply to you, then take a long hard look at you MS (or your cake…or your leaning bookshelf).  And if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

Have you ever had this happen?  Is there something you’re working on now that just isn’t clicking for you?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.


30 Responses to “If It Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Force It”

  1. K@ February 23, 2011 at 2:10 AM #

    This is a great post, Sooz. I admire your determination to do what’s right for you as a writer, and I think the New Screechers will turn out even better than you’ve imagined.


    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 2:19 AM #

      Thanks, KAT! 😀 Fingers crossed this newer version is actually good — either way, I’m having more fun writing it!

  2. Alexander M Zoltai February 23, 2011 at 2:32 AM #

    O.K., I don’t like NaNoWriMo and I would never try to force fit it.

    I would love to know (if you know) why you went against most of your self-knowledge of who you “are” as a writer. I mean, things like trying a different genre to stretch the writing muscles might be beneficial but you went against what seem to be all your home bases… Were you in an experimental mood? Did you feel you needed an impossible challenge??

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 2:42 AM #

      Good question! And none of the above.

      Quite frankly, I felt it was so commercially viable and high-concept, that I just HAD to make it work — for my agents’ sakes and for my own.

      But what weighed most heavily in my decision to write SCREECHERS was that I THOUGHT I could be that dystopian writer. I honestly thought I could be the next Suzanne Collins (haha — not even CLOSE!).

      It wasn’t until about a month ago that I even realized that I’m not a huge dystopian fan (this was after I read two very hyped-up YA dystopians both in first person present and I wound up loathing them!).

      It took me another few weeks to realize I should take my dislikes and see if that was why I couldn’t connect with my own story — why I just kept avoiding SCREECHERS. Turns out, it was! And now that I’m taking a different approach, the story seems to flow from me, and more importantly, I’m enjoying writing it!

      • Alexander M Zoltai February 23, 2011 at 3:18 AM #

        Your explanation makes you, in my book, a very brave person…

        • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 3:19 AM #

          Hahaha — thanks, Alexander. Brave or very dumb. 😉

  3. Heather February 23, 2011 at 3:02 AM #

    Great post Sooz! This is one of the things that fascinates me most with writing: that as unique as YOUR idea might be to you, there are still *countless* possibilities as to how it develops. BUT! As often as this makes the creative process “easier” it also makes it freakishly-frackishly hard!

    Decisions? What do you mean I have to make decisions!?

    I recently realized that half of the times when I sit down with a new premise or scene or character, I feel like I want to write down *every* narrative possibility and see what I “like” better–what “fits.” Then I get frozen stiff at the prospect! I always have to take deep, long breaths, and remind myself that I *can* actually *use* the “delete” button.

    All this deep breathing is probably good for my cardiovascular system, too. 😉

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 3:18 AM #

      Hahaha! I hope it’s good for my heart because I don’t in too much exercise these days… :-/

      And you make SUCH a good point that we want to write *every* possible narrative — I definitely do that! And even now with my new SCREECHERS (SCREECHERS RELOADED, as my husband keeps saying! ;)) I still have this urge to incorporate everything!

  4. authorguy February 23, 2011 at 8:47 AM #

    Quite a few, unfortunately, but none fatally. My tendency is to write stories that are just a little out of my comfort zone, which has the side-effect that sometimes I don’t feel like writing them, or I have nothing to say. I have tried writing stories for other people’s reasons, such as contests, etc., and they often bog down. Only when I can make the story for my own reasons will they make any progress.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Susan February 23, 2011 at 9:51 AM #

      I’m glad to hear someone else has been through this! Contest entries — nice point! Definitely when I write something for someone else do I find I have troubles. 🙂

  5. Rowenna February 23, 2011 at 9:24 AM #

    Great post! I mean, sometimes you add egg yolks instead of egg whites, and your white cake is not going to happen–but you can still pull a fab yellow cake out of it. And sometimes…well, sometimes you just made a cakebrick and should toss the whole thing. Thank you for acknowledging that! I think experimenting is fine–how else do you grow? But experiments are just that–potential successes, potential inedible crap. If you’re going to be an artist, a writer, or an experimental cake baker, you have to be willing to toss things you worked hard on, but retain what you learned. I mean, it’s not really a failure if you learned what makes your story fall flat (aka how to write a cakebrick)!

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 9:56 AM #

      Mmmm, yellow cake. Nice point! Sometimes we can turn our experiments into something wonderful! Especially if you’re a good cook/baker (which I’m not)… I make a lot more bricks than cakes–even when I follow the recipe.

      Fortunately, my writing skills are better than my baking skills, but STILL…wrecks do happen!

  6. Holly February 23, 2011 at 10:41 AM #

    Excellent post, and such a good point! As you know, I did the same thing with my first project. All the writing books I read at my outset advised me to write in 3rd person, past tense. But guess what? It does NOT come naturally to me, at all.

    My new WIP – first person, present. And it’s so amazing how much better the whole story *feels* to me just because of that difference.

    Sometimes letting a project go is the best thing we can do for ourselves. 🙂

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 12:22 PM #

      And first person present works perfectly for your WIP! 🙂 You handle it really well, unlike MOI who can’t make it seem natural to save her life… 🙂

  7. Ellen February 23, 2011 at 12:20 PM #

    I hear you. I’m actually rewriting that first novel I thought would be published, mostly because it’s been a few years and I can’t quite let go of the characters. Not to mention I know I can do the story more justice now with a few more years of experience under my belt.

    Also, I’ve got the novel that is not going where I want it to go. I’ve been fighting this chapter almost since I started writing it, and if I even manage to finish in its current incarnation, I have a feeling there will be massive, massive changes afoot.

    Great post. I related to, you know, all of it. 🙂

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 12:23 PM #

      I’m so glad to hear that — not that you have troubles with your MSs, but that you relate to the post. 😉

      I can’t let go of my SCREECHERS characters or premise, but I’m definitely rebuilding the world and the plot from the ground-up.

      Good luck with your tricky chapter! 😀

  8. kaemccrae February 23, 2011 at 1:45 PM #

    I like to think of Nanowrimo as draft 0.5. o 3o

    I tend to write out ~ 25-35k words before I hate my project with the passion of a thousand suns.
    And then for the next three months, I find out what made me hate it, and start to fix it with research, backwriting, etc. I never open the document that has my nano in it again. xD I can’t speedwrite. At least not like that. SO it’s inevitable that whatever comes out is going to be YUCK.

    But then I start fresh about six months later, when I know what I’m trying to say, and have proper characters to say it with.

    It can be so disheartening, though.

    Kudos for starting from the beginning again. : ) Good luuuckkk.

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 2:42 PM #

      Thanks, Kae! I’m gonna need luck and persistence, I think. 🙂

      I learned from the last NaNo that I can’t speed write either. I can write fast, but it doesn’t go in the direction I want it to! Better to go slow, plan, and stay on a track I like. 😉

  9. zalijun February 23, 2011 at 2:35 PM #

    I don’t know if I’d have the courage or the heart to start over.

    I have a question though. What if on the other hand you’re not absolutely IN LOVE with your story? I mean, I have fun envisioning my characters in scenarios and definitely don’t hate/dread writing so does that mean I can keep writing? This is my first attempt at trying to complete a story/book so it’s been difficult for me to distinguish between the attitudes of “scratch it and star over” OR “keep writing.”

    Great post!

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 2:41 PM #

      That is a REALLY good question!

      I think the big thing to look out for is if you love the story and enjoy writing it. Do you? If the answer is yes, then keep going! Especially since this is your first novel, it can be really difficult to slog through, learning all you need to learn, making everything (plot, character, theme) come together, etc.

      For me, I didn’t enjoy SCREECHERS anymore. I dreaded working on it. I cringed when I saw it on my hard drive. The thought of finishing it…well, I didn’t WANT to. 🙂 Sometimes, that is solved with a looooong break. But for me, even after a looooong break, I still hated it!

      So…it’s back to the drawing board for me! 😀

  10. Brenda Agaro February 23, 2011 at 4:18 PM #

    I just printed out a manuscript I’ve written during NaNo last year…then deleted it from my computer.

    Then I read this article. XD;

    But, yeah, I was writing fast, writing in the wrong point of view, and forcing it to be high-concept. It didn’t turn out well after reading it. And I finally decided to rewrite it from the ground up, with the story I wanted to tell. I’ll admit that the majority of my ideas give me pressure because they’re “out there”, bizarre, etc. But I keep reminding myself that I should write them because I want to.

    And I’m having the same problem with the first novel I’ve written (since middle school.) But I’m going to have to let go and try again.

    Awesome article. Very relatable. 🙂

    • sdennard February 23, 2011 at 4:21 PM #

      Wow, Brenda, it sounds like we’re in the exact same boat! Writing fast, wrong POV, high-concept…and NaNo.

      We can let go and try again together! Let me know how your new version goes — I’m very interested to hear. 😀

  11. Emy Shin February 24, 2011 at 2:49 AM #

    I absolutely adore this post and cannot agree more. I was writing a YA contemporary/paranormal last year because the idea was high-concept and vaguely fascinating. However, my forte isn’t contemporary — and I am very glad I worked up the courage to abandon the story for a YA sci-fi one that I love much more. :]

    And it’s so true that “forcing” can appear in all angles, too, not just in terms of plot. I’ve been wavering on whether I should use first person present for my novel because it’s more popular, but have decided to stick to what I prefer after reading this.

    Thanks for the post, Susan!

    • sdennard February 24, 2011 at 5:52 AM #

      I tried to write a contemporary too! My first novel, actually…and I finished, but hated it! I finally realized contemporary isn’t the genre I read, so I made the next book something I would want to pick up in stores!

      And you know, maybe you could *try* first person present, but if it doesn’t feel right, change quickly! Don’t write 200 pages like I did! 😉

  12. MD Irvine February 24, 2011 at 6:36 PM #

    Great Post. I know I struggle with knowing when to let a story go. I haven’t written in a style that I thought was popular. Although I did try writing something in first person and I struggled because I couldn’t connect with the voice and I couldn’t relate to my main character no matter how hard I tried. It was also a story I stared for NaNoWriMo so I was writing it fast (maybe that was a problem) and when I didn’t know what to do- I started having new characters pop up. I haven’t decided whether to try to start over or just put it aside.

    • sdennard February 25, 2011 at 9:45 AM #

      Yeah, sometimes putting it aside is the solution. I sure tried that with SCREECHERS, but….that wasn’t enough. 🙂 Ultimately, I had to accept it was never going to CLICK for me as it was, so DELETE and REDO were my best options.

      Interesting that you had such a hard time connecting in first person — I have a friend who has the same problem! I can do alright in first (since it’s my usual POV choice), but I definitely can’t connect in present tense! I guess it takes all kinds. 🙂


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