Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Never throw anything away

Once upon a time at a Southern Magic meeting, we were going around the room, reporting on what each of us had written since the last meeting. Our lovely mild-mannered concert pianist mentioned that she had written a lot, hated it, and thrown it away.

To which I responded, "WHAT YOU THREW IT AWAY WHAT DID YOU THROW IT AWAY FOR DON'T EVER THROW ANYTHING AWAY?!?!?" I mean, I was being exactly that rude, and I felt terrible about it later. But as someone who has been around the block, I want to stop newer writers from sabotaging their careers. This lovely friend's admission elicited a visceral response from me--not because I have thrown writing away and regretted it later, but because I never throw anything away, and I became very glad of that on September 14. Here's what happened:

Back in March 2006, Diana Peterfreund asked 12 or so writer friends to contribute to what she called the Great Blog Voice Experiment. Apparently somebody had accused somebody else online of stealing a story idea (I am always the last to know about online kerfuffles, or any kerfuffles for that matter, but I think that was the genesis of the experiment). Diana's point was that there really aren't any new story ideas. It's what a writer does with the story idea that counts. To prove it, she gave us a writing prompt--"A young woman confronts her parents after learning that she has inherited telekinetic powers"--and asked us each to write a 500-word scene. Then she posted the scenes on her blog.

I don't think the blog exists anymore, but I can tell you it proved her point beautifully. Participating were some people like Diana and me who had sold books and were waiting for them to come out, some people like Marley Gibson who would sell a book in the near future, some people like Nalini Singh who had published a couple of midlist books and was about to become an OMG RUNAWAY BEST SELLER...and each of our scenes was wildly different from the others, even though the prompt was the same.

Now, I have to say that I panicked when I saw the prompt, because I'd never written paranormal or had any interest in doing so. The panic lasted about thirty seconds, a scene came into my head, I dashed it off in about 5 minutes, and I e-mailed it to Diana. Don't hate me--that sort of instant idea has come to me...oh...once. That time. But I was super happy with the scene. When it was posted to Diana's blog, people had incredibly nice things to say about it. You can read it down at the bottom of this blog post if you're curious.

And then people moved on to other things, and in September 2006 my YA romantic comedy about drum majors in a marching band came out (Major Crush), and that was that. For all the chance this 500-word snippet had of ever becoming part of my writing career, I should have deleted it from my hard drive.

But you know, your hard drive is pretty big nowadays. You could store all of Birmingham in there, honestly. There is no need to be deleting your 500-word snippets. You might want them back sometime.

And so, when my publisher had shot down lots of my ideas for the second YA romantic comedy on my contract, I went back through my files of STUFF I NEVER THROW AWAY, and I came across this scene, which still gave me warm fuzzy feelings. I added an adorable boy to it, named it Levitating Las Vegas, and loved it even more. I wrote a whole proposal around the idea and sent it in.

Unfortunately, the series I was writing for was set up something like a Harlequin series, with a bimonthly schedule. They had a slot for me, and the slot right before mine had already been filled by a book set in Vegas called Gettin' Lucky by Micol Ostow. They didn't want another Vegas book. The editor and I tried setting the book somewhere else magical like New Orleans or Key West or Savannah, but it wasn't the same. So I wrote The Boys Next Door instead, and since that's been my best-selling book to date, I guess I can't complain about how all of that turned out.

Except, complaining is really what I do. I couldn't let this idea go. And in November 2008, when I had written and turned in Going Too Far and The Ex Games but they hadn't come out yet, and I had written Forget You but my agent and editor hadn't read it, and I had no more contracts to fill and I figured I might never sell anything again, I participated for the first time in National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. The goal of this program is to write 50,000 words in a month. If you've never written a novel before, there's no better way to get it done than to jump in with both feet! And if you've written plenty of novels (at that point I had written 15, I think) but you feel like this YA thing might not be working out for you, there's no better way to get out of that rut than to write so fast that your internal editor can't keep up.

At the end of November, what I had was 50,000 words of a novel that wasn't YA. It was adult, but very young adult--the characters were 21--younger than the hero and heroine in most adult romances set in the present day. In other words, it was "New Adult" before anybody was calling it that. (Being ahead of the times is a sign of genius and also haplessness. Pick one.) It was a romantic comedy, old territory for me, but paranormal, so a real departure. It was also the most fun, most insane thing I had ever written, and I loved it with all my heart.

Can you say DIFFICULT TO SELL? (My brilliant literary agent, Laura Bradford, refers to it by the kinder term "odd duck.")

I knew it was going to be hard to sell. And I knew I wasn't going to throw it away. I revised it and revised it and revised it again. Laura signed me on this book in April 2010 or so. We revised it some more. And on September 14--the day before my birthday--we sold it as an e-book original to Pocket Star, a division of the publisher of all my books, Simon & Schuster. It's coming out really quickly, on February 19, a week before my first adult romantic comedy, Star Crossed. You can read the summaries of both books on the adult side of my web site here.

Happy birthday to me!

A couple of months after my unfortunate outburst, at another Southern Magic meeting, another member (who hadn't been at the first one, obvs) mentioned that she had written a lot in the past month but had thrown it away. Well, I wasn't going to say anything. And so the lovely mild-mannered concert pianist said, "WHAT? WHY DID I GET YELLED AT FOR THROWING SOMETHING AWAY AND SHE DOESN'T GET YELLED AT? DON'T THROW ANYTHING AWAY!"

And now, in meetings, when new members come in and say they threw something away, everybody just looks at me, and then they tell the new members they'd better not be doing that or Jennifer Echols is going to get them. If that is my legacy, I guess I will take it.



Jennifer Echols
For Diana’s blog
"A young woman confronts her parents after learning that she has inherited telekinetic powers."

            The street in front of the casino was blocked to traffic.  Pink and blue lights flashed on the faces of a crowd of tourists gazing up.  At the top of a hundred-foot pole, on a tiny platform, stood my dad.  His arms were down, head down, eyes closed, like he was concentrating with all his might.
            Every few seconds he swayed a little as if he were about to lose his balance, and the crowd gasped.  At the base of the pole, my mom in her stilettos, gold spangled bikini, and enormous feathers slapped her hands over her mouth and squealed, pretending to fear for his life.
            All this time, they had let me fear for his life for real!
            “He’s a fraud, you know,” I said to the guy next to me, loudly enough for my mom to hear.
            “Of course,” the guy said without looking at me, still watching my dad.  “They all are.”
            “No, I mean he hasn’t trained his body through long years of concentration.  He hasn’t even made the effort to construct an illusion.  He has telekinetic powers that keep him from falling.  He’s totally cheating!”
            The man chuckled to placate the crazy girl and make her go away.  No one was going to believe me.
            So I cupped my hands around my mouth and called up to my dad, “You have freaking superpowers!  Why aren’t you the President?”
            Zoë,” my mother scolded me through the crowd.  “You’re breaking the frame.”
            She meant I was diverting the audience’s attention from my dad, ruining the illusion.  But who cared, when there was no illusion to ruin—when the fake illusion was the real thing?
            I called, “Why do you make Mom dress up like Miss Nevada lost a wrestling match with an emu?”  I gave him a little shove with my mind, take that.
            He started back like he’d been physically pushed.  Someone screamed.
            Enormous feathers pushed their way through the crowd toward me.  I wondered how my punishment would change now that I knew about my powers, and my dad’s.  Electroshock when I tried to steal my mom’s cigarettes?  Telekinetic spankings?  A force field around my room when I was grounded?
            Before my mom could reach me, I called once more, “Why do we live in a two-bedroom house with the paint peeling in big patches so it looks like a Swiss cheese?  Why aren’t we cashing in?  Why?  I gave him a harder shove.  He tumbled backward off the platform, but at the last second—imagine!—managed to catch the edge with one hand.  Even at this distance, I could see his muscled arm trembling with the fake effort of pulling himself back onto the platform.
            My mom reached me and gripped me hard.  Her lacquered fingernails dug into my arm.  I prepared to be defiant in the face of her fury.  But she wasn’t furious.  She was afraid.
            “He can stay up there, but not if you push him off!” she whispered.  “Women’s powers are much stronger than men’s.”
            Dad let go.


Leave a comment for a chance to win my prize pack (US only, please): a $25 gift card from Books-A-Million, which is based here in Birmingham; a copy of my novel of your choice (choose from The Boys Next Door/Endless Summer, Going Too Far, The Ex Games, Forget You, Love Story, The One That I Want, and Such a Rush); and a copy of No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, which will get you ready for NaNoWriMo! I will pick a winner randomly and announce it around 5 p.m. Central on Friday, September 28.

And don't forget, every commenter is also registered for a chance to win a Kindle at the end of our Blog Blitz!

Edited 9/28 at 5:09 p.m. to add:
Bama, you win my prize pack, even though I went to Auburn! E-mail me at echolsjenn at yahoo dot com and I'll send you the gift card, the Baty book, and my novel of your choice. Thanks to everyone for participating and good luck on winning the Kindle!


Naima Simone said...

ROTFL!! I will never forget that meeting! Poor, poor lovely concert pianist. I think that will forever be her legacy, too! LOL! Aaaand you forgot to mention that once you screamed bloody murder at that poor woman, it instigated and burst open the flood-gates of comments from the rest of us--which wouldn't have happened if you hadn't lambasted her like that. No need to thank me for reminding you. It is my job as official record keeper of who gets verbally jack-hammered and by whom--which would be you...

Oh and HAPPY BIRTHDAY *belated* and CONGRATULATIONS!!! Two new Jennifer Echols books within months of each other! Whoo-hoo!!

Kaelyn said...

This is an excellent example of why you should never throw anything away! I have a folder of all sorts of stuff that I sometimes find a way to use in new things I write. Thanks for sharing this!!

And YAY! I can't wait to read Levitating Las Vegas.

Arleigh said...

I hate throwing things away, i can have it for years and never use it then the day after its gone i find out i needed it! lol!

Bwyatt said...

LOL! I'm definitely never throwing anything away! I can't wait for the Luncheon in just over a month. Things should certainly be interesting.

Amanda K. said...

Great advice. I keep all my stuff but always lose it. Could you possibly offer follow-up advice of "How to organize your hard-drive so you can find what you want amongst all the things you never threw away" I mean maybe work on that title a bit, something snappier.

I also totally agree with the "no new ideas" It is the writing that matters not the idea. Great post!

JoAnn said...

Loved this post -- and I'm so looking forward to your new books in February!

Alison said...

I hate throwing things out. What if I NEED them again?!?!?

Anonymous said...

I shall not throw anything in regards to writing away. Seriously though, that is funny. I am actually recycling what was to be a YA into a nonfiction I am writing.

Shadow said...

lol I dont like throwing things away either. I might lose it and itll pop up years from now, but at least i know its around here somewhere. lol

Renee Carter Hall said...

I don't throw anything away either -- whether on paper or a hard drive. Part of the reason is that, even though I'm sure they were probably awful, I wish I still had some of the stories I wrote when I was little... but as a teen I pretty much chucked everything, including the novel I wrote in junior high. As melodramatic as it may sound, those were a part of my creative self that I can never get back, and that sucks, so I'm certainly not going to do it again. :)

M.E. Summer said...

Awesome post! I, too, gasped when I read that the pianist had thrown something away. That's just crazy talk! I've often cut a snippet of an idea from one story and then been able to use it in another. Good on you for saying something! :-D

VanillaOrchids said...

I used to write stories in tablets years ago. It was sort of a way for me to cope with some things. At that time, I didn't like reading, but I liked writing. I have since destroyed all the tablets. I think I just got in a mood once and went after them with a paper shredder. I am by no means a writer, so I don't feel bad for destroying them. However, occasionally I do wish I still had them so that I could re-read them. Now I'm obsessed with reading, so I have other people's stories to whisk me away from my life. :)

Nice bit of writing too. I must admit, when I read the last sentence I was like, "Well, what happened next?" LOL

Oh, happy birthday as well. :D


Anonymous said...

What a great post, thanks for a chance to win. Looking forward to the new book.

Savannah J. Foley said...

LOOOVE this excerpt!!! Definitely going to read book when it comes out!

Jane said...

Congrats on the book deal, Jennifer. I'm glad your hard work didn't go to waste.

Shannon McKelden said...

I never throw anything away either! In fact, I still have MY entry into Diana's Great Blog Voice Experiment. Maybe I should go dig that out... ;)

Lisa J said...

Okay, have you speaking with our receptionist? She is 77 years old and has never thrown anything away in her life. Her desk is a total disaster filled with half empty bottles of water (you never know when you'll be thirsty and it doesn't pay to waste water), magazines she doesn't like (it's possible I'll change my mind and want to read that article from 1985), and other assorted treasures.

Bama said...

too funny! :)

Heather Redmond said...

Fantastic post and your advice so very relevant to us neurotic authors!

bn100 said...

Happy birthday! Very nice excerpt.

Lisa Dunick said...

Because I am very bad at concentrating... I didn't know you were a Virgo, too. Also- good lord, I miss you talking sense into me at St@rbucks. That is all.

Jennifer Echols said...

Thanks everybuddy!

Amanda K.: If you are serious...I have a "past writing" file where I deposit everything I'm not currently working on, and I make sure I back it up so I can transfer it from computer to computer since mine crash every couple of years like clockwork.

And I do still have the journals I kept from 9th to 12th grade. I haven't used the snippets of stories, but they help me remember what it was like to be 14-17!

Tina B said...

I think you did a wonderful job with the prompt! I wanted to keep reading it. :)
As far as never throwing anything away, my friends and family say that I am a pack-rat. I have boxes and boxes of papers that I tell my husband I may need those receipts. Lol.
Is it embarrassing that they do that to you? ;)
Happy Belated Birthday, Jennifer! Congrats on the upcoming books, too!

Martha Lawson said...

Great post! LMAO!! Thanks for the awesome giveaway.

Angela N. Blount (RedPeril) said...

Thanks for the story about your story! ;)

I refuse to throw anything away when it comes to writing. I still have a spiral notebook from my 7th grade year full of poorly-worded scribbles I thought were oh-so-clever at the time. may never use a word from any of it, but now and then I get a little niggle of inspiration from scanning over the things that fell on the cutting room floor.

CrystalGB said...

Great post. I love your books. Thanks for the wonderful giveaway.

Kaelyn said...

This is such great advice!! I keep a folder on my computer of writing snippets that I will never throw away. Sometimes I even find ways to incorporate them with new pieces I'm working on.

Of course, that could just be my attempt to justify my hoarding tendencies ;)

Jennifer Echols said...

Kaelyn, advice from Mike on American Pickers: if you throw it anywhere, you're a hoarder. If you store it neatly and know where it is, no matter how much you have, you're a collector.

DarkendSorrow said...

LOL that's awesome!!! I can't throw my writing away. I'm horrible that way! Even if it's just a small sentence that I found funny... I file it away.

Meghan Drummond said...

I'm really glad you didn't throw that away, I love it! I also totally agree that throwing stuff away is an awful mistake, but would add that being hopeless disorganized is just as bad. I know it's all there...but I may never find it again. :)

Ashley G. said...

Great Post! You definitely had me laughing! I also love the thing you said in the comments about neatly storing stuff makes you a collector. Collector is a much more flattering term.

Thank you for sharing your story!