Writing: On Not Giving Up, But Taking a Break

rabbit horror cannibal in the woods writing story plotAs of writing this, I’ve finished the draft of a project I started in 2012. This is the seventeenth draft, and after struggling and thinking I’d never finish a coherent draft of this story, I did it. And I’m incredibly happy about it.

I just looked through my emails. For context, when I would go to my grandparents’ pretty blue house in Ellijay, right by the apple barn and surrounded by woods, I’d write stories in email and send them to myself. This way, I wouldn’t forget the stories on the computer, which was rather old and only had Wordpad as its word processor. (Ah, Wordpad. Many a fanfic was conceived on there.) This was also before I was aware of Google Docs, then called Google Documents.

On January 29, 2012, I was at my grandparent’s house. It smelled of lavender and dog hair, and I sat on the computer. I’d been working on a contemporary story that was my first novel-length endeavor with shockingly no horror elements. I was a senior in high school, and I was there tending to my grandmother, who had recently had double bypass heart surgery; of that time, I remember the anxiety the most and standing with my mother in the smoking-friendly hospital park where I watched a seemingly normal squirrel stop moving on the stone path for no noticeable reason.

But once my grandmother was home, we took care of her on weekends. I remember watching over her and getting her water; I remember stringing green beans for her. And, in my spare time, I watched low-budget horror movies on TV, as one does. As I watched, I saw a movie very reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wrong Turn. It was in the “cannibals in a remote place” subgenre, specifically in the “cannibals in the woods” specialty. This movie didn’t just have a dinner table scene but a TV-watching scene. Just a nice cannibal family chilling with their victims bound on the floor.

As I watched it, I thought about the horror films I’d seen, which admittedly I hadn’t seen that many, and I thought, “What do slasher villains do in their spare time? What are they like as a family? What are their hobbies? Dreams?”

So, on that late January night, just past midnight, I started writing. The premise was a girl adopted by a cannibalistic couple. Because of past trauma and the loss of her biological parents, she clings to the love she gets.

As I wrote, the story was more of a series of vignettes around the same premise. The first draft killed certain characters, and the second draft others. Unlike a lot of my more recent projects, the story had no outwardly supernatural elements, the only possible ones kept ambiguous. I could tell the story wasn’t working, so I tried a different approach, more of a dark fantasy story with a Southern Gothic twist. All with the same premise: a girl adopted by two cannibals in the north Georgian woods.

From 2012 to 2015, I went through sixteen drafts. (Yes, I counted.) It was terribly frustrating, to say the least. So, I gave the story a rest and went through a bit of a time where I had no major project, eventually settling on another major project that would be my first completed novel.

Looking back, I can tell what didn’t work. I was unfocused. The point of a story is how the character changes throughout the novel and what challenges lead to that change. While I generally knew, I didn’t craft the story to fit the central conflict, and therefore the character work was messy. The main conflict is the protagonist’s need for love and acceptance versus her morals. The situation increasingly intensifies to put her priorities to the test until she’s forced to make a choice that determines who she is. The main character concerns herself with accepting the love of two killers above standing up against what they’re doing, but there comes a time when she can no longer ignore the moral dilemma and clashes with her parents.

Everything else I tried—from nonchronological storytelling to a dark fantasy story with elaborate creatures—was dressing. Once I whittled down how the MC got from A to B and directed everything toward that, this seventeenth draft became less on an impossible task, or a story I thought I’d keep on the shelf forever.

So, while the moral of this is to not give up, there are two lessons here. One, while you may be told to give up on a story, and perhaps the story isn’t working, there may be a way to salvage it, even if it’s a rewrite from the ground up. Perhaps you only need to give up on certain parts you haven’t yet distanced yourself from. And two, on that note, sometimes you just need a break for a change in perspective. It’s not giving up. If I kept trying to push myself when I was too close to see what wasn’t working and what needed to go, I would’ve only kept being frustrated, and I wouldn’t have completed three others novels I focused on while putting this one aside.

There’s perseverance, but perseverance with a project isn’t always forcing yourself to work on that one sole thing for years. In fact, without the lessons I learned with other stories, and the ways I grew as I writer, I might not have been prepared to return to this story.

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