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Don’t Finish Your Book

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Please welcome back former contributor and friend to Writer Unboxed today, Allison Larkin! Allison is the internationally bestselling author of the novels StayWhy Can’t I Be You, and Swimming for Sunlight. Her short fiction has been published in the Summerset Review and Slice, and nonfiction in the anthologies, I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship and Writer Unboxed’s own book, Author in Progress.

Allison’s latest novel, The People We Keep, releases today! Several of us have been lucky enough to read advance copies and can attest that it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story, and the buzz over it is well-deserved. Said Booklist in their review of the book: “Larkin has created a memorable character in April, whose journey toward belonging and self-acceptance will resonate with readers. The depiction of the mid-1990s is pitch-perfect and will invoke feelings of nostalgia, especially in Gen Xers who came of age during this era. Fans of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl will enjoy traveling alongside April.” Booklist (starred review)

We’re so glad she’s with us today to explain how The People We Keep, a book that simmered and stewed with Allison for over 15 years, evolved as she did. Learn more about it on her website, and by following her on Twitter.

Don’t Finish Your Book

I first met April Sawicki in 2006 while I was writing a different book. Two songs on my playlist shuffled together managed to jostle something in my brain, and suddenly, there was April, taking up my full attention. It felt like she was flashing in my mind, calling, “Over here! Over here! I need you!”

She was nineteen and wily. She observed carefully and felt deeply, but few of the constellations of thoughts in her mind ever came out of her mouth. She played guitar and traveled. She wanted a home, but staying in one place would mean she’d eventually have to face herself, and that was terrifying.

I tried to get back to the book I was already writing about a woman named Van and a dog named Joe, but April wasn’t going to leave me alone. I didn’t want her to. I was fascinated. I wrote down everything I could about her. When I reached the end of those ideas, I asked myself questions about what happened before that and realized her story needed to start when she was sixteen. I did eventually get back to that novel about Van and Joe. I finished it, and it became my first book, but April never stopped calling to me.

Today is the pub day for THE PEOPLE WE KEEP, my novel about April Sawicki. Since that first evening when she popped into my head, I’ve published three other novels. I’ve been officially in the business for twelve years and have had five agents and four editors. I spent more than a decade fighting to find the right home for this book. April’s novel is exactly the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it, and has been cared for by an agent and editor and packaged by a publisher who understand this book completely.

It was a long, harrowing path to find the right home for April, sometimes painful. My confidence took brutal hits, and it was arduous work to heal my heart and try again (and again, and again). I have often wished things had been easier. But what I’ve been thinking about in the past few weeks is that if the path to publishing THE PEOPLE WE KEEP had been even ten percent easier, I wouldn’t have fought so hard for April, and the book that resulted wouldn’t have told the story this character deserved. I also would not have had the benefit of so much time with her. I was twenty-nine when I started writing about April and forty-four when I turned in the final manuscript. I wrote at least one significant draft every year, often several.

As much as the business of this book was a painful process, writing April and getting to live with her in my mind for so long has been one of my greatest joys. I was writing from April’s teenage perspective, in first person, present tense, but over the years, as my own perspective expanded, I could see more nuanced discrepancies between April’s understanding of a situation and the realities she faced. I could write tiny details April was able to observe but couldn’t yet process, so readers would be able to gather clues to understand more about April’s circumstances than she did. I got to insert layers between layers and find new meaning in the work as the years progressed.

I think we place too much importance on finishing work and publishing work. The weight of an unfinished project is a shame we put on ourselves and shame we cast on each other. I used to keep it somewhat secret that I start projects without hesitation. When a character shows up in my mind, I write everything I can about them until I hit a wall. Someone I used to work with always acted like I was flaky because I had so many started projects —as if all the ideas somehow made me unreliable. I felt that shame. I carried it, and it was really freaking heavy. And stupid. I reliably meet deadlines when I have them. I also have a lot of ideas. Those started projects mean that I have many characters who have been incubating in my mind, accumulating layers and depths. They are my assets, not my shame. If I’d forced myself to finish one project before starting another, too many of those ideas would be lost now.

I do understand the varying levels of necessity that are tied to completing a project. I completed three other books in the time it took me to get to the end result of THE PEOPLE WE KEEP. Those characters didn’t need the time that April did, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I’m thankful that the path of this project created the space it needed. I wouldn’t have engineered this time for myself at the start, but the hardship of finding the right home for this novel bought me time, and the time was valuable.

I wish I had understood that the work and the process of the work were valuable all along, regardless of an end result. On one level, my heart knew it was. April took my breath away. I couldn’t deny her an existence. But I wish I could go back and erase that other level that burned with shame over not reaching some kind of timely finish line.I wish I had politely told the shamers where they could shove that shame. Or at the very least, not allowed myself to absorb it.

If you’re not blowing off any deadlines, who cares if you don’t finish your book in a year, or five, or ten? Who cares if it takes a lifetime? The purpose of writing is not just to finish something. The act of creating is important in and of itself. If creating stories is your joy, give yourself full permission to enjoy it. I’m not happy with this book because it’s done. I’m happy with this book because it’s everything I’d hoped it would be, and I got to spend fifteen years with this beautiful person in my mind, wrapped up in love for a creative project. When I was bored, or sad, or tired of living in my own brain, I got to think about how April would see a situation, where she might be, or how she might be feeling. I would stand in line at the grocery store and study the people around me through her eyes instead of my own. My mind had a place to go, and that place was a comfort. She was always there for me. The time I had with April was good for my writing, but it was good for my heart too, and that’s important. She lent me her momentum when I couldn’t find my own and pulled me through so many difficult times. She was just as valid then as she is now as a character in a finished book because she has always mattered to me. She brought me joy, and I am allowed to enjoy my life.

So, I’m urging you to love your unfinished projects. Be proud of the things you’ve had the courage to start. Writing and publishing are two separate processes. You’re a writer if you engage in the process of writing. It doesn’t make you less of a writer to give your work the time it needs. There’s nothing wrong with starting one project before you’ve finished another. Finishing is not the only goal. Commit to completing projects when they’re ready to be finished if that’s a goal you have, but it’s also okay if all you ever do is start things and enjoy the rush of that beginning.

You get to decide what your goals are. This work is part of our lives, and writing a book takes a lot of life time. We should celebrate this beautiful thing our imagination does for us. We should love the process. We should enjoy ourselves.

WU’ers, how many unfinished projects occupy the dusty–or not so dusty–corners of your mind? How often do you work on them? What do they teach you? How have they changed over time? The floor is yours.


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