August 27, 2009 | 39 comments

Occasionally I post updates about the progress of my book for the amusement of fellow writing nerds. Those of you who don’t care about writing and/or the fact that I’m writing a book can safely skip this one and move on to something more interesting. (Like this blog post by a local man who doesn’t believe in killing scorpions, EVEN WHEN THEY STING HIM IN BED.)

Well, I finally went back and re-read the first draft of my book after a two-month hiatus. I think I secretly hoped that I’d find that my memories of a mediocre draft were completely inaccurate, that I’d behold my completed book to realize that I had written The Great American Memoir without even realizing it. Uhh, no. Now that I’ve looked at it with a fresh set of eyes I see that it needs a lot of work to even get it to the level of being decent. Like, a whole lot.

I’ve been avoiding coming to this conclusion for a couple weeks now, but after a lot of thought and discussions with my husband and some trusted friends I’ve realized that I need to rewrite it. “Rewrite” as in open up a blank Word document, “it” as in the 212-page, 78, 000-word book that I JUST SPENT A FREAKING YEAR WORKING ON.


Well, I’m being slightly melodramatic. I think there are a couple chapters that can be salvaged, and there are plenty of little scenes throughout the book that are worth keeping. But it’s not a matter of just editing and revising what I have. I don’t know how I didn’t see it until now, but I was approaching the entire subject the wrong way — writing in a voice that I don’t usually write in, taking the subject too seriously, and not having a clear vision of the structure of the story from the beginning. The result isn’t terrible, but it’s also not very good. I don’t think I’m capable of writing a classic for the ages, but I do think that I am capable of writing a book that’s a good read, and this one just isn’t there.

For a few days I was tempted to just polish up what I have and send it over to my agent. With his help I think it could have been fixed up enough that he could probably even convince some publisher to buy it. I had poured such a tremendous amount of time and energy into this project that I was ready for it to be over, to move onto something else. I found myself at a fork in the road: I could continue to let myself mentally check out of this project and just pray that God would find some way to salvage it, or I could check back in, rekindle the energy I felt when I first signed the contract with my agent, and do what I needed to do to put a good book together. I decided to do the latter. And, surprisingly enough, I’m now really excited about it — maybe even more excited when I first started last year, since this time I feel like I know what I’m doing. My agent supports this decision as well; he’s told me from the beginning to forget about timelines and just write something good.

In a perfect world I would not have, you know, spent TWELVE MONTHS on a project that was headed in the wrong direction. But I say with my teeth only slightly gritted that I’m sure God has a plan here, and I know that my effort was not entirely wasted since some of the material is still usable. Besides, at least I learned a lot. And I know without a doubt that it’s the right thing to do, even though it demolishes the timeline I originally had set in my mind. It might not mean that the new version will be great, but at least it will be much better. If even just a couple of people take the time to read what I wrote, I want them to know that I gave it 100%, that it was truly my best effort, and that I took the time to get it right.


  1. Amanda The Semi-Published

    Eek! I feel your pain.

    One of my critiquing partners said he knew of an author who always wrote the first draft, burned it up, and then rewrote it.

  2. Anonymous

    Please don't get discouraged! Writing is a tricky process. Maybe it's like cleaning out the garage — you have to take everything out and examine it before you can really see what you've got and where it goes. Anyway, I will be praying for you!

  3. Kelly Langner Sauer

    I wonder if sometimes, God doesn't give us chances to write from a different place with Him than we were in when we began. I hope this project comes together for you!

  4. tootie

    You definitely have a good plan and attitude about it. I admire you for wanting to give it your absolute best. And I can't wait to read it! (No pressure, of course! 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    You'll be much happier and more satisfied with what you've done if you submit something you can feel proud of. I've never written anything of any length, but I can imagine it must take some time to find your own style and voice. Keep up the good work! I'm very interested in reading it, whenever you might be finished!

    Jen G

  6. Fencing Bear

    While we (as writers) are usually the ones who can best tell when what we have written isn't right, we are often at the same time our own worst critics. If you have convinced yourself that your draft doesn't say what you want or need it to say, then nobody is going to be able to convince you otherwise. But you may not be the best one at the moment to see whether what you have written is any good. It sounds to me like you need an outside reader to help you think through the manuscript and judge what, exactly, you now need to change. Judging from your blog, the best voice for you to use would be the one you use right here: vivid, personal, caring, honest. I hope you are able to find her for your book!

  7. Ginkgo100


    Well, let me offer some words of encouragement. And I hope they will sound authentic enough to actually comfort you, because they are brutally honest. (For the record, I'm a relatively green freelance editor, among my other hats.)

    Your writing on this blog is excellent. You have a lot of skill at crafting a short article that is focused and absorbing, and that has a potent "single effect" (the goal of all short story writers). You have an authentic, unique, pleasing style. In terms of copy-editing, I cannot ever recall cringing at a grammar or spelling faux pas.

    Recently, I looked up your old blog, The Reluctant Atheist, to read some of your archives. The oldest archives. You know what struck me? You were a pretty mediocre writer back then. Your way with words was no better than that of any average blogger-diarist.

    Years of blogging has honed your skills nicely.

    Now the encouragement. You now have a year's practice at book-writing under your belt.It doesn't matter if your book's first draft is flawed. Bad writing makes good writers—if there is a lot of it. Based on history, I have no doubt your next draft will be far superior to this one. Good luck!

    (By the way, I hope I do not sound condescending. I was a mediocre writer when I started blogging, too. I only assume I have improved based on the feedback of others. I think my best writing usually fails to rise to the level of your everyday blogging, and you're actually one of my role models!)

  8. Daniel Cox

    "Besides, at least I learned a lot."

    Really, isn't that what your blog is all about? Every time a read a post, your journey of self discovery is so refreshing and so convicting. And if I don't learn something new, I'm usually affirmed in what I know and understand.

    That you could see this is an incredible victory, as I see it anyway. Cheers to you as you dive back into your project.

  9. Jackie

    Sucks when that happens doesn't it? God is the ultimate when it comes to pushing us to be our best. Good for you for seeing it and rising to the challenge. I know I look forward to reading what I know will be so much more than just a good read!

  10. LauraAnne

    You know, this is EXACTLY what I do. I try something, take it too seriously, mess it up with the best of intentions, and then throw my hands up and walk away.

    I come back after a while, get over myself and it usually works out much better after that.

  11. Josephene

    And you can't write a better book not having already written this badly written book. That's the nature of writing.

    Celebrate your husband and family for having shared your year-long project and now for having to keep you strong by encouraging you through this re-writing new year.

    Congrats, Jennifer! It's just a hoop toward the final product… as annoying as it is to hear that. You've developed editing skills that are invaluable and you've become a better reader.

  12. Dorothy

    God bless — tune in, and go with God. Sounds like a good direction to me.

  13. Melanie B

    Oh Jen, I feel for you. I know the agony of looking at something you've written and realizing it just has to be scrapped since it isn't at all going where it should be. I have to say, though, that from my experience as a writing teacher and from all the many books I've read about writing, that I'm not surprised and yeah it probably will be for the best in the end. Many "experts" on writing will tell you that sometimes you have to write a draft as long as the finished product that you are going to have to throw away because it takes that long to figure out what you really want to say and how you really want to say it.

    To look on the bright side, at least you didn't know that before you started to write last year. If you'd thought from the beginning that all you were producing was a first draft you'd have to toss, you'd probably never have begun much less soldiered through the process. Now you have a much clearer vision and know better what you are trying to produce. And you have the distinct advantage of knowing from experience that you can write a book. You've already done it once, you can do it again. And the next draft will be much better.

    I'll be praying for you as you start up the mountain again.

  14. shriek house

    I'm so impressed… it must have taken a lot of courage and resolve to not take the easier path here. Good luck with the rewrite, and I hope you find the process rewarding.

  15. Anonymous

    O HAI, welcome to a writer's life. It is a long, lonely, dirty road we tred.

    Sometimes I can write a novel, and it's good the first time, only needing an average edit.

    Then there are the ones that require whole rewrites, sometimes more than once. And then they still need an average edit.

    A writer's life is frustrating, but it's usually well worth it when it works.

  16. Christine the Soccer Mom

    I'll wait as long as it takes, jen. just don't forget to come by here for a stop on your book tour! 😉

    I'm sure the new and improved book will be even better and a smash hit! You'll be a huge success; get on The Journey Home, Life on the Rock, and EWTNews; forget all your little blogging buddies from the early days; and wind up moving to Malta or somewhere extremely Catholic. 😉

  17. Anne

    I appreciated reading this. I am working on a proposal for a book idea and am really quite panicked about it to the point of wanting to forget the whole thing. I have lost all of my confidence. It's nice to know that even a polished writer as you appear to be, can be dissatisfied with her work and want to start all over again. You give me hope.

  18. Anthony Charlton

    Well done for completing the first draft. It demonstrates commitment and ability to finish the task. You are completely right; it now needs totally redoing. When you have finished the re-write, you will need an editor to really sharpen the text.

    I did all of the above and, even after 2 years of effort, my agent was still unable to get the book published. You seem to be a far better writer, however, so very best of luck to you.

  19. Owlhaven

    Hi Jen,
    You KNOW I understand! In 1996 I wrote a 300-page murder mystery that was rejected by 4 dozen of the finest publishers in the U.S. And then I realized that non-fiction was much more my thing. And did a whole bunch more practicing. And finally this year I published two books. For me, at least, it took a lot of time and a lot of rabbit trails, but it is well worth it.

    I agree with others who've said you're an excellent writer. I know your final effort will be well worth reading, and I for one can't wait to read it!

    All the best,
    Mary, mom to 10

  20. maggie

    Well, you know what Anne Lamott says about s****y first drafts. At least you HAVE a first draft. I sometimes fear I'll never WRITE a first draft, let alone a s****y one! GOOD LUCK!

  21. Anonymous

    bravo! elizabeth

  22. laura @ peacoat

    wow, i'm really surprised by this and really impressed.

    it takes a TON of courage of honesty to make this kind of call on your own work.

    it's an inspiration. good luck on this new leg of the journey!

  23. Anonymous

    The work we do, the time we spend on things will yield results, just not as directly as we think. The book is in you, you just have to let it out in the most organic way you can. Don't lose heart…

  24. Anonymous

    I understand what you are going through. Writing is, indeed, a process..a sometimes painful one! I am having a similar experience with my thesis for my master's degree. Best of luck to you!

    P.S- I will definitely read your book!

  25. Karen E.

    "In a perfect world I would not have, you know, spent TWELVE MONTHS on a project that was headed in the wrong direction"
    I don't think it was ever headed in the wrong direction … this was just a necessary step in the process.

    I think a writer's best friend is the ability to throw one's own words away.

    I'm also reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis's "A Horse and His Boy" that I coincidentally posted today, the one that always reminds me that God is behind everything, *every* *thing* … no matter how incomprehensible or maddening or even hurtful:

    "I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at night, to receive you."

    I know this book will be what He wants it to be.

  26. Pam Elmore

    I'm sorry, Jennifer. I'm sure this is hard.

    I once read an entry in a knitting blog where the writer told of becoming discouraged because she had to rip out and re-knit something. She wrote of bemoaning her fate… and then it hit her: wait a second, I like to knit. This is my fun time. I should be enjoying knitting this project!

    Maybe that doesn't translate exactly, but I'm sure that draft was not wasted. You honed your writing. You worked through some different ways to tell the story. And you spent time doing something that you enjoy and that you're very good at.

    It pushes your publication date back, and that's got to be frustrating. But it's not a race. It will get done, and it will get published, and it will be great. I'm sure of it.

  27. Elizabeth K.

    Please don't feel bad. I worked on my first major project for a year and then sat down, looked it all over, and completely changed the entire thing. And it was so much better.

    The real writing is always the rewriting, as much as we hpe otherwise.

  28. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, fellow writing nerd here. Let's just say we'll have a lot to talk about when we meet up next month. I can't wait! It's all good. You're exactly where you're supposed to be. Can't wait to share more in person soon. 🙂

  29. Gannet Girl

    Have you seen Julia and Julia? Wasn't it eight years (or was it 12?) and at least two complete re-writes of its many 100s of pages before Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared in print? I suppose going to movies is not high on your priority list these days, but you should go to this one if you haven't. Plus it's a lot of fun for a hopeful blogger!

  30. 'Becca

    One must know that there is a path at the end of the road.

    That's a fortune cookie I got on a particularly discouraging day about a year ago. It reminds me of several experiences I've had, in which I thought I'd totally failed at something and put so much effort into going down a road only to find that it was a dead end…and then, after a while of banging my head against the dead end and bemoaning my fate, it turned out there was a little path leading away from there in an unexpected direction, which ultimately took me to a new road that I wouldn't have reached without the previous journey.

    I think you've accomplished something terrific just in realizing that your first draft is not the right one. But DON'T THROW IT AWAY. Put it aside, just in case when you read the second draft with fresh eyes you find yourself thinking, "This is so much better, except for that part; how did I say that the first time?" You may wind up with a hybrid of the two drafts.

  31. Jen Raiche

    Sometimes in life, we don't know what we're looking for until we try and fail. Homeschooling can be like that. Creating anything can be like that. Heck, even painting a wall can be like that.

    Once we end up on the other side, we can see back with 20/20 vision. And, we see where we can modify the process to end with a better result.

    Bravo for having the courage to take the long road. You are right, indeed, in that you will end up with a better book!

  32. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    You say you weren't "writing in a voice that I don't usually write in." This is a constant struggle of mine. Whenever I try to sound like someone I'm not, I'm not happy with my work and neither are the people who read it (except for my mom; thank goodness for moms who always cheer you on). Sometimes I try to be someone I'm not, too, and it always backfires as well. I imagine God gets tired of saying, "Know thyself and let ME help you make the best of what I've given you."

    I've often thought that writing – especially writing for the publishing world rather than blogging – is a lot like taking a look at your firstborn. After hours of exhausting labor, your cherub is placed in your arms and you have so much love for her and so much invested in her. You see nothing but perfection (even if your baby looks more like a wrinkle, alien conehead), but imagine if someone took one look at her and told you, "I'm sorry. She's ugly."

    It would hurt so terribly partly because you've poured so much love into this little being that you may not even see her third eye even if it's staring right at you. Not to mention, the rejection stings because your baby (AKA writing!) is a part of you.

    But then you take a step back, and you see that, well, your baby wasn't perfect, but she's not ugly either.

    So, too, are first (and second and third…) drafts. They're labors of love. Most of the time they need to be re-written, but they're not worthless. They have a purpose. They show us that cutting words isn't quite the same as severing limbs, although it can be very, very painful. They help us grow as writers. Like children, they end up giving more than they take, even if it's just a lesson in perseverance.

    *Now, of course, it goes without saying that this is only meant to be a silly analogy. Children are so much more valuable than anything we write, but they are both imperfect works in progress.

    I admire you so much for your tenacity (and I can't imagine you writing anything that's not worth reading). I allow my own perfectionism to cripple me. If it's not good enough the first time, then why bother? Thankfully, with a lot of prayer I'm starting to silence the inner critic in my head in my writing life and more importantly, in my life as a wife, mother, and Christian.

    There's a big difference between trying to be perfect and striving for excellence. With God's help, I'm trying to do more of the latter. (I think this has all given me an idea for an essay! There's a point even to rambling blog comments apparently, too!)

    Good luck with your writing project.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment. I've been more of a lurker lately, but I always enjoy your posts.


    I will be praying for your inspiration and the will to keep going, please don't be discouraged!

    Liturgy of the Hours

  34. ELC

    I agree wholeheartedly with Fencing Bear. You are probably… let me rephrase… you are certainly not the best judge of the quality of your work so far.

    I don't mean you personally, and yet I do mean you personally. 🙂 I think it is probably true that many a writer is not the best judge of the quality of his own work. And I think, perhaps, you just might be a perfectionist when it comes to your own work.

    I know that I myself am a perfectionist, and that a great many people judge some of my works (writing and photography) a lot more highly than I would have done.

    I don't mean to pry, but I've noticed on your blog that you are introverted, and I gather that you have taken the Myers-Briggs type indicator. If your type is INFP or INTP (I surmise you are one or the other), you are very likely to be prone to be far, far more critical of your work than is justified by what it actually is.

    Please have a few others look it over and demand an honest appraisal. Please accept their judgement, especially if it is positive: I have a hunch you would actually find it easier to take a negative judgement than a positive one. 🙂

  35. Ganeida

    Yikes. I hate rewrites so much nearly everything remains in ms form. Only short, as in really short, things have made it to the publishers. I really should get over it but alack & alas, I have 5 children & no time to get over anything, least of all myself. lol It will work out, especially as you are now excited about rewriting.

  36. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    Jen… slipping back to this post to whisper: I've been praying for you. Your wisdom, courage and hutspah is wildly laudable.

    Beginning again is no small matter, and one only a very thoughtful writer would make. One with a vision, listening closely to Father. One willing to pray for fresh endurance.

    Your example girds the weary ones.

    In His time, the words will be right…. and I'll hold them in hand and marvel and read and be changed and thank God for the work He's co-labored with you….

    Cheering you on with the angels, Jen!

    All's grace,

  37. Beth (A Mom's Life)

    I'll be praying for you as you rewrite your book. And yes, even though you are saying it through gritted teeth, God does have a plan!

  38. Todd

    I’ll be praying as you write. Revising is always the hardest work – writers are their own worst critics. I’ll pray that the Holy Spirit grants you that special inspiration that makes all the difference in the world –



  39. Nicki Schehl

    Oh, I can help you with this! I just read three books with wonderful true stories, but they were irritating to read. The story line in each book just kept repeating itself. I think they would have been better as biographies by professional authors who know how to incorporate tidbits of “story.” Remember that MILLION MILES book you recommended … I learned a lot from it, but it was not well written either. (Once again, first person

    The three wonderful stories which would have been so much better as biographies were SON OF HAMAS, UNPLANNED, and KASEY TO THE RESCUE.

    An example of a readable book written in the first person is I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE by Wally Lamb. Of course, it is fictitious …


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