Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 10, 2011

Writing 90% of a Book

At my Paton School visit two days ago, one student, who we can bet will grow up to become an amazing writer, asked, “What do you do when you have an idea that doesn’t fit into the book you’re writing?”

A scene, a voice, a character an image: these come to mind and don’t fit on the empty paper before you. I answered that I keep different notebooks to safely store ideas that may move into the next book, or the next. A lure and a way to start out without having to stare down a blank page.

I not only have those nuggets, but as I mentioned in my last post, drafts of books that haven’t been published because of timing, because they’re just not great, or because parts of them haven’t reached their potential. Sometimes I had a good subject but the wrong form: right now I’m revising a novel into poems, which I expect will occupy me for another few months. But when that student asked me if I knew which put-aside manuscript called to me most, I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t need to look through and contemplate. And ever since that exchange, I’ve been hearing a ringing call, like the bells said to have been tucked away in caskets centuries ago, so that those who were thought dead, but weren’t, could alert the living and get another chance.

Time has passed, but my love for my subject, another known but underappreciated woman, feels fresh. Yesterday I wrote what might end up as a new first page. I’ve had a few conversations about the novel with my husband. Today I’m writing a second page, before getting back to wrangling with my work in progress. I told myself to just finish what I’m working on, and I will: you have to be a little vigilant about all the voices that call you, which are why those varied notebooks are nice: listen up, take diligent notes, then get back on track.

Still, I’m giving those tinkling bells, that voice I put away eight years ago, a little more room. Maybe ten percent of my writing day. If all goes well, I’ll move on with my present manuscript, then happily fling the doors wide open, offering an old manuscript new space.



  1. Not just a diagram but a Venn-diagram. Oh the many ways we can apply math in the real world. Love it.

  2. Sounds like a very good call – appeasing that old project while keeping moving with the new!

  3. Premature burial
    Jeannine, I often read interesting and unusual things in your blog, but I don’t think I ever expected to find you referencing the fear of premature burial… and connecting it to writing! Amazing.
    I can’t remember if you read any of that book I had kicking around a few years ago — “Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear” by Jan Bondeson — but it was pretty interesting. There were even examples of people having telephones installed in their coffins or crypts! — PL

  4. Thanks for coming by, Angela!

  5. If you, oh amazing balancer of many projects, say I’m on track, that’s good enough for me. Thanks, Kelly!

  6. Re: Premature burial
    Um, sounds interesting, but a bit too creepy to delve into at book length for me. I was just drawing on a reference Cathy made on Saturday: that “saved by the bell” comes from that old practice.

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