How I lost my albatross and started writing

TAlbatross in flighthere’s this poem I studied at school and part of a goes like this.

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In fact I had two albatrosses around my neck for many years. By which I mean two decades. Let me fix you with my glittering eye and tell you the saga.

They were two novel ideas I came up with back when I was a teenager. I never wrote them. I wrote a billion notes about them and just kept adding more and more layers to the stories, but I never sat down and wrote either story. What was I waiting for? The muse maybe? Or some mythical time when they’d be just right.

Of course they gradually became gigantic epics – or at least outlines of gigantic epics. But not in a good “A Song of Ice and Fire” way. More in a “bloated like a corpse fished out the river” kind of way. And I kept feeling guilty for not actually getting on and writing them.

Finally, back in late 2003 I started writing – but not the epics, oh no. I started writing fanfic and sharing it on the Internet. Which I loved doing and started to think, well, hell, I can actually write after all. Maybe I should start writing the epics?

I didn’t.

Between the fanfic and the original stories I started writing, other characters started taking up more of my attention. I finally accepted I would never write either of those epics. That I had to let them go.

It was the best thing I ever did.

Once I did so it freed me to come up with new ideas and eventually of course to take the step of writing for publication. It cleared up thinking room for other stories with a better chance of being written. It made me lose the guilt and sense of obligation to those stories.

They weren’t a total write off – I’ve stripped them for parts. Characters from them have popped up in other stories. Sometimes in a very different place than the one they started. I also used a small chunk of one of the epics for my NaNoWriMo novel in 2008. It wasn’t all that good. Though I tore apart the old outline and ruthlessly tried to improve on it, removing a large amount of stupid from the story, and eliminating many of the “cast of thousands” characters, it still betrayed its origins in my teen-aged brain. For all that my writing skills had improved, the story itself was fundamentally flawed and half-baked.

I’m not saying a story you thought up years ago will never work if you delay a long time writing it. But there’s definitely a risk it won’t be as good as you believed it was back when you thought it up. You’re smarter now. And there’s something to be said for going ahead and finally writing it in a mad sprint like NaNoWriMo, just to get it the hell out of your head. After that you can decide how salvageable it might be.

I think a first novel for many people is an albatross and maybe they have to write it to get it out of their systems, even if it then becomes a trunk novel nobody else ever sees. I always recall a line in a sitcom, the name of which I don’t even remember, when the main character, a writer whose first novel has been a smash hit is being asked when her next one will be coming out. She said it’s not so much the writing time as the thinking time. How long was the thinking time on the first? Oh, about thirty years… I can relate.

albatross 2

14 thoughts on “How I lost my albatross and started writing

  1. I haven’t got any albatross’s – yet! Sometimes I feel like a cheat. When I was a teenager, I was never thinking about being a writer… a dancer, yes maybe.

    The thing is I do love my first official novel (not counting the fanfics) and I am worried, as you read so many stories, that the first novel doesn’t always get published. Which means, I better hurry up and edit it, so that I can crack on with the second novel 😛 Currently, third one is brewing in head too, but I’ve got so far and got stuck.

    1. The first novel can be the big learning experience to prepare for the first published novel. 😀 Then again, lots of first novels do get published, so there are no absolutes and everyone’s path is different.

  2. That’s great that you set yourself free like that! It is liberating to let go of something that brings you guilt rather than pleasure.

    I have a fair few ideas jotted down that may never see the light of day, but they’re all fairly recent. I never used to jot down the ideas and eventually they’ve all faded. There are a few in my University notepads when I took a creative writing course, but I don’t think they’ve got any mileage and I never got beyond the vague concept stage. Nothing as thorny as a plot emerged – just casts of characters and situations.

    Mind you, that’s kind of how I like to approach writing. If I work out too much of the plot beforehand, I lose interest. If I just have characters and interesting situations, then the ideas spin as I write. Keeps me on my toes.

    1. Yeah, I’ve got plenty of recent ones that probably nothing will ever come of – though never say never!

      I’m kind of the opposite way in the writing, I do need to know the plot beforehand, but I no longer need to know it in detail, that comes to me as I write, when the characters come to life and start taking over!

      1. I need to know the broad outline of the plot as in “where am I headed?” and maybe a couple of key scenes/events, but that’s enough for me. I’ve found the more I work out, the more I have to throw away when my characters decide they want to do something different 🙂

  3. It’s not exactly an albatross, but my first novel was pretty uninspired. I did finish a draft, except for some chapters in the middle that I skipped because someone suggested that it was OK to write the parts you were inspired about now, and go back later. (Maybe for them, but not for me – I have now established that this plan does not work.)

    Luckily I’m easily distracted by low hanging fruit, and so I paused to write a quick short for Torquere when someone in my crit group sold a story there. That expanded into something aimed at a line they had which features 3-4 connected 15-20K pieces. Then I paused in that to kick out a quick short for an anthology call.

    The short sold, and my editor suggested I try something longer in that setting. That evolved into the connected 15-20K pieces becoming my first accepted novel (which comes out April 13 – yay!). So sometimes being a little ADHD when it comes to projects is a good thing.

    The first one is still sitting in the trunk, so to speak. The basic plot concept is sound, but I need a much better handle on the characters, and a total rewrite before it goes anywhere. I’ll get back to it in a year or three. I have other stuff in the queue first.

    1. Well done on getting your novel accepted!

      I’m like you in that I can’t skip bits in the story to move on to later parts. I can’t develop the characters properly that way. They don’t have an arc if I do that.

  4. I have a whole load of half finished novels somewhere on my computer. I’ve never really had a problem in letting go of ideas. For me the problem comes when I’ve got to stick with an idea for long enough to get an entire book written about it. That’s why I don’t do series – I can’t imagine wanting to stay with any one idea that long.

  5. Ithink that my last wip is a bit of an albatross – I fully intend to finish it but it pecks at me daily. I promised myself I would leave nothing unfinished because I have a bad habit of having crazes, doing them madly for a while (like Comping a few years ago) and then dropping them, and I absolutely didn’t want writing to be like that. Now I’ve started something else, and I won’t stop worrying until I Knew Him is finished and sent out.

    1. I hope you can get it sorted. Are you good at working on more than one project at once? I find I can usually do that as long as they are in difference phase, like I’m editing one while writing another.

      I’m glad to say that aside from the albatrosses I’ve never left anything long unfinished. I’ve taken a break from one before, and one took over a year before I could go back for the rewrite, and part of me didn’t want to! But I had to do it.

      1. No, I’m the laziest person in the world, all I had to do was to revamp ~Chiaroscuro a little and I haven’t even done that. Pah. This week I’m rolling my sleeves up.

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