If you’re an author, you already know the importance of discipline: stick with your project and one day you’ll finish. And if you participated in NaNoWriMo, you know you can hit that finish line a lot more quickly than you’d ever imagined.
First, you figure out whether your book is ready for market. If it’s a first draft, odds are that it’s not—not yet, anyhow. That’s where flexibility comes in.
When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and, of course, a thick skin. But flexibility was one trait no one said much about, and I believe it’s among the most vital.
I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice. Neither do I mean staying on your feet as the revolving doors of publishing present changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing, not to mention ever-increasing ways to publish. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.
It’s possible that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But not long ago, I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. As I look back on the journey, I’m glad I stayed flexible throughout the process. It made all the difference in the end result.
Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary Non-Fiction, Jon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekhovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to write about. His patient died.
“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”
Profiled by Kevin Nance in Poets & Writers, fiction writerBen Fountain tells how he learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera was published, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. The editor didn’t suggest a revision—Fountain had already done several. He advised him to scrap it.
As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. After the editor’s rejection of his novel, Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days”; Fountain’s novel went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul, while with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved flexible.
When you’re flexible, it’s easier to be objective about your work. It’s easier to avoid the mistake of trying to publish too soon, when your book is half-formed. It’s easier to understand which rejections are happening because the book isn’t ready and which are happening because you haven’t found the right agents (or readers) who love the book the way you do.