This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
On Writing My First Novel: When To Let Go

In these posts, which will run every other Friday until I finish the darn thing (months? years?), I plan to share questions that come up for me as I write my first novel.  Please take a minute to share your experiences and your answers, since I can use all the help I can get!

As all of you know, I am emerging (a little bit) from the sabbatical I took to work on my first novel in order to blog on She Writes about...working on my first novel!  I plan to publish it on the newly minted She Writes Press (a unique new publishing option I hope you all will consider as well), but right now I am less than a third of the way through my first draft.  I have a lot of learning to do, and pages to write, ahead of me.

In light of that, my plan is to keep these posts short.  In each of them, I will ask a question that will serve more as a jumping-off point for discussion and knowledge-sharing than as a platform for my musings on the craft.  Who wants to hear from a beginner?  So this will be an advice column in reverse.  I am going to ask for your advice.  I hope you won't mind giving it.

So here goes!

The first question comes from the years I spent trying to get going on a novel, but failing:  

How do you know when it's time to let go of an idea and (try at least) to come up with another one?

I've wanted to write fiction since I was a girl.  But in college I wrote several absolutely painful short stories, and in my twenties I wrote a screenplay that, while it had fresh characters and a strong voice, showed a distinct lack of talent for plot.  So when I applied to MFA programs after a short career in documentary television, I decided Creative Nonfiction was the genre for me.  When it came to fiction, I thought, I just wasn't that good.  Best to accept it and move on.

From my MFA thesis came my first book, "I Do But I Don't" (nonfiction/memoir), which was published in 2006.  After it was finished, however, I realized I didn't want to write something so explicitly personal again.  (It didn't help that the book was about my wedding, and I have since gotten divorced.  And no, I am not going to write "I Didn't.")  Again I began to dream of fiction.  Couldn't I try again?  

During this time I attended my Stanford reunion.  It was fascinating to go back to the campus, and I became especially interested in the years just before I arrived, when battles were raging about what to teach, and the "politically correct" movement (if it can be called that) was at its height.  What a juicy setting for a novel, I thought.  This is it!

I worked on the idea on and off for years, mostly doing research, conducting interviews, and taking lots of detailed notes.  I struggled, however, to get past the research stage.  Last fall I joined a writing group to try to force my own hand.  But when it came time for me to submit, I had to admit defeat.  I had a subject.  I had a setting.  But I didn't have a story.

Head hung, and realizing, again, that fiction wasn't my thing, I prepared to call my workshop leader and tell her: I got nothin.

And that's when the idea for the novel I'm working on now came to me.  I had to let go, it seemed, before I could move on.

Has this happened to you?  Is there an idea you worked on, and were sure was "the one", but had to let go?  And how did you know it was time?  Please share your stories.  I would love to learn from you, since I am sure that if I ever write another novel, this will happen to me again...


Suggested past SW posts on that might illuminate the subject, ha ha:

Become An Instigator, from TAYARI JONES' "Surviving the Draft"

1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, edited by the novelist MEG WAITE CLAYTON

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  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    I love your honesty, and I agree that I can't get to a new place until I stop obsessing about the old one. (Your idea reinterpreted by and for my brain).

    Actually, as I search for an example, I realize a lot of alternate writing has crept in while I've never given up a YA in progress and a memoir still evolving.

    Maybe I'm better at setting aside obsessions than I am at letting go, but I've yo-yoed with these two projects, while also running Writer Advice,, writing a self-help book, publicizing contests, reviewing, interviewing, editing, and teaching. If all that falls into one genre, please tell me what it is.

    Thanks for helping me process this idea. I wish you all the best on your fiction. I can't wait to read the book you describe.


    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  • Oh wow, what a wonderful comment thread -- I feel such a sense of fellowship and support reading these, and hearing both from those of you who have experience with this and have come out the other side, and those of you who are, like me, still figuring things out!  It's also great to hear about what everyone is working on.  What an incredibly diverse community we have.  Keep it coming!

  • Nissi Mutale

    Thank you for being so open and honest. I am building up to writing my first novel so it is great to watch your journey and see what I can learn. I released my first book - a collection of poetry and blog posts this year called 'Finding Me' and I now feel having that foundation will make the writing process for my first novel a lot easier.

  • Pamela Olson

    I look forward to reading more! I'm working on my first novel now, after years of journalism and narrative nonfiction. The freedom is intimidating -- and because it's so much fun, and I'm not "formally trained" in fiction (not that I was "formally trained" in journalism or writing a memoir...), it's easy not to take myself seriously. I just sold my memoir (Fast Times in Palestine --, and I'm working on a sequel, but the novel calls -- an exploration of the terrifying freedom we truly have, and the many ways we deny and avoid it.

  • RYCJ Revising

    Kamy, thank you.I'm really enjoying the discussion.

    @ Kathleen, I can so relate to your experience, and others too. @Julia, you're welcome. Yes, I keep my heels dug in the thought, fiction writing shouldn't be the same experience as non-fiction writing, even as we can only grasp onto what works for us individually...what makes this discussion so fitting, and so filling.

  • Judy Reeves

    First novel: very autobiographical. Outlined to the teeth. Decided after the extensive outlining I didn't need to write the novel. No surprises. Second novel: rewritten over several years and many, many drafts into pancake flatness. Third novel: fourth draft and still finding surprises.I'm several years in. I did take time away to revise a nonfiction book). I hope this is close to the last draft. Thanks for sharing, Kamy.

  • Kathleen Kern

    My first novel was a farcical, Candide-ish account of a team of human rights activists working within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (was selected as a finalist for the Bellwether prize and won a minor writing award the proceeds of which I used to self publish:  I then embarked on another farcical novel about working in a group home in New York State governed by both a dysfunctional Christian organization and New York's Byzantine regulations and that just went nowhere.  What came out of it, though, was Spike, who became the viewpoint character in second novel Because the Angels, which I have blogged about on She Writes:  Spike was totally worth the failed Novel.2.

  • Julia Whitmore

    For you grammarians -- correction -- I'm the type of writer who pretty much ... (wishing there was a way to correct comments.  I always see the typos after pushing send)

  • Julia Whitmore

    Thank you for starting this series Kamy.  Working on novel number 2 after letting go of number 1.  Sounds like I'm talking about another kind of elimination.  Ahem.  Anyway, first attempt:  the story kept getting away from me, poorly planned, wild and willful characters who didn't want to do what I wanted them to do.  Later learned this is typical behavior for characters in novice novelists' books.  It's a good story idea, I think, but I had to start over with something much, much simpler.  Learned that I'm the type of writer that pretty much has to get everything. Blocked. Out.  Really flesh out the characters, and the plot, and the scenes.  Also, that having other things on my plate doesn't work because writing takes A LOT of time.  Kamy, envying you your sabbatical.  So, cleared my calendar as much as possible, and am toiling away.  RYCJ:  THANK YOU.  Good to know that when it's fun you are on the right track.  I'm putting fun right up there on my list of goals. 

    Looking forward to future posts and checking out everyone's blogs.

  • Cheryl Wright

    How serendipitous! I've been struggling with my own "letting go" issue for far too many years to mention. The idea has begun pounding in my head and burning a hole in my heart. Oh the pain!

    Honestly, I'm in no position to answer your question. I beg your forgiveness but I'm here purely to find the answer to my own dilemma. With a kick in just the right spot, I'm sure I can muster the courage to let go of the idea and write the dang story.

  • Julie Golden

    Ah yes, Kamy. Thanks for posting about letting go.

    Doesn't it feel good when that space you have been holding with an old idea opens up and allows something new to enter?

    I found this happened several times, in a major way, while writing Vagilantes.

    The struggle is painful when the direction intended just doesn't read well on the screen. Letting go allows us to 'kill our darlings', throw out entire chapters, write different endings/beginnings, and to surprise ourselves with twists in the story.

    Letting go doesn't mean you must delete – just set aside. Sometimes the material reforms and fits in a better place. Sometimes, it is just trash and the planner is trumped by the pantser. A part of your original intention, Kamy, may wiggle back into your pages and make you laugh. Enjoy the process.

  • Jo Michaels

    I find that it's rarely the idea that doesn't work, rather the way you go about putting it into action. If you do your legwork when crafting the idea, you'll be able to change a lot of the story and keep with your original character(s). Just remember that every protagonist must change at some point from the beginning of the book to the end. After all, that's what a story is: a journey. Your journey can take on a billion different forms and you're allowed to reject one for another. Things change, let them. Don't ever give up.

  • Kimberly Gray

    Congratulations on this series you are bringing to us.  It's odd that I come here today as I am struggling on my third book.  However my ideas are across the map, I feel useless and I can't let go.  I suppose I will take the approach of keeping these ideas all with about a chapter written, put them aside and keep on moving.  I do not know though, how to let go.  Basically this comment must make no sense, just as my ideas.  Thanks for making me feel less alone - go girl!

  • @RYCJ thank you so much for those three tips -- they are fantastic!  I think that so far, with the idea I'm currently working on, I am going on all fronts.  And Edith I will definitely check out your blog.  Daphne!, what is the URL for yours?

  • Edith O Nuallain

    This is brilliant! I am so happy that you are writing this series and I absolutely love that you are writing about the process in reverse to the usual format. Count me in as a regular and perchance I shall respond through my own blog which is not entirely dissimilar from yours! Catch me here:

  • Daphne Q

    Hi, Kamy:

        I'm so glad you're writing this column on a weekly basis. I'm going to find it quite useful.

        I've by writing a blog about my experiences while I write my first novel while I try to pay my bills at my little place in Berkeley. The blog is at, if you're interested.

        My response to your question in this column is... This is the first idea I've ever had for a book, so I haven't had to let go of any overall ideas. I have had to give up on certain ideas in the story line of this first book. That hasn't been easy. You can get attached to your ideas because you've created them.

        Even though I'm aware of that, it can be difficult, so I usually will bounce things off someone like my sister or a college professor. Sometimes that gives me enough perspective to reject or stick to an idea.

  • Thanks so much for sharing these insights, Kamy. I know from my work with writers that it's something a lot of people can relate to!

  • RYCJ Revising

    I use '3' primary gages to know when a story, either will or won't work.

    A strong premise is a must. (Not Plot! Premise.) This isn't an indication as to whether or not the story will pull through, but it is my motivation to stick with writing the story...

    ...which brings me to my number two. I just recently wrote a novel, MINDLESS (dry laugh, as this title should have clued me in), where I ended up tossing (had to be) over a dozen versions... and I'm speaking in the numbers of 70,000 words tossed... gone. What helped was working on other ideas, one of the reasons I write many stories at once. (Of course you don't have to do as I do and try having each of them published at once... the idea is to keep writing, psyching yourself to believe you will eventually get back to the one you wanted to write. This actually can work both ways. Often that second or third idea is the one most will clamor over anyway... 

    ...bringing me to the third trial for success. When I'm having fun with the characters, psyched about getting back to the story each day, adding on more, laughing, really enjoying the story myself, then I know it's working. 

    Summarizing my answer;

    Strong premise (#1); Keep writing (#2); Really 'involve' yourself in the story and characters (#3).