Notes on a Work in Progress

When I’m working on a novel, I keep track of ideas and sort through my thoughts about them in a file I call Ideas & Thoughts. In case anyone thinks it gets easier when you’ve written several, here’s a note copied from my March 3 entry, two days after I’d started thinking about getting back to work on a novel manuscript I’d set aside for a few months, after getting some pretty challenging feedback on it.

There’s a sadness in coming back to this that I probably need to acknowledge in order to free myself of it and make room for the joy that comes with bringing a story to life or at least a certain eagerness to get at it and excitement about the possibilities. I’m afraid of the sadness pulling me into the kind of funk that has me dreading my work, in which it’s all but impossible to do good work. But can I stare it down? What is this sadness?

Does it come from looking back at how I’ve thought I’d nailed this, and comparing it to how boring it looked when I skimmed through it? It isn’t boring, your group would say, and if you think so, maybe it’s too soon to go back to it. But it’s such a huge thing to have hanging over me that I just can’t fathom the idea of setting it aside for longer than I already have. And another project is going to be rife with challenges too. At least this one I’ve got the challenges identified and some material to work with. Some good material.

Has the sadness to do with my sense of incompetence? First, that I have not been able to do what needs to be done and secondly, that I have not been able to recognize how far short my efforts have left me, my project, my characters?

I suppose one way of looking at it is that I’m at the stage I was at with Fish House Secrets when I was told the characters were cardboard figures. There I had a strong setting. Here I have a strong situation. Situations. Maybe too many situations…

Doubts. So many doubts. Maybe that’s the source of the sadness. But the only way out of doubt is to forge on. Face down the problems that seem too big to fix, too tangled to untangle. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again. But 170,000 words worth of “ideas and thoughts”!? Maybe I’m not going to get there on this one. Maybe this one is a pit of quicksand and the harder I try to get out of it, the deeper in I’ll get and eventually I’ll just die here. …

Failing – which is what you’ve done (so far?) – can be a necessary step on the way to a great success. It doesn’t have to be a permanent state.

I’m really not in the mood for this pep talk. Or for any more wallowing in doubt and sadness. I want to be back in the state where time falls away and unexpected things are happening on the page. And there’s only one way to get there. Get out of here. Get back to your characters, their stories…

By the end of the day on March 4, I’d written:

Gees, going through ms with an eye to totally reorganizing the material in it, the prospect of firming up an outline for the next draft actually starts seeming like it could be fun. (I must be nuts.)

The danger of a debilitating funk seems to have passed. I’ve written another 2500 words or so in Ideas & Thoughts, and some of those thoughts seem (if I may say so) quite brilliant – at least for now. And I’ve got three different versions of a new outline, each of which will serve a different purpose when I take the plunge (very soon) into a new draft. I’ve even opened a file called March (New) Draft. So, wish me luck!

And I’ll wish you all the best with whatever your current project might be too – writing or otherwise.

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Kathy Stinson is the author of the classic Red Is Best and the award-winning The Man with the Violin. Her wide range of titles includes picture books, non-fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, horror, biography, series books, and short stories. She has met with her readers in every province and territory of Canada, in the United States, Britain, Liberia, and Korea. She lives in a small town in Ontario.

Kathy Stinson


  1. Kim on March 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Kathy,bit of a co-incidence I should read this tonight about your doubts and sadness towards returning to your project. Your trips to Liberia have piqued my interest about the country and your work there so I googled Liberia. I viewed a video on the West Point slum and felt overwhelmed by sadness and despair. I spent all morning feeling what the h.. does my "silly" novel about a Canada Goose matter with such poverty in the world? Sadness about things over which I don't have much control can paralyze me. I experienced an answer to prayer this afternoon – I need to "bloom where I'm planted" as you are. You are doing fantastic work there. Kim

  2. Kathy Stinson on March 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    There is no doubt, Kim, that the misery you saw in the West Point video can make anything we might be dealing with as writers in NA seem the most trivial concern on earth. But we cannot allow ourselves to think that what we are doing is silly. We must, as you say, bloom where we are planted. And if we find ourselves planted in a novel about a goose or a child or a road or an angel, then that is where we have to do our best to bloom, believing that it will make a difference to someone, some day, even if we have no idea to whom or how that might come to be.

    I hope you will keep in mind that the video was made by an outfit who, by their own admission, chooses to focus on human misery.

    I have been fortunate to have been introduced to another picture of Liberia, and to Liberians who have helped inspire me to find ways out of my own sadness, small as it may be compared to what they have suffered and in some cases are still suffering.

    Find Chimamanda Adichie's speech at on "the danger of the single story". And remember that the story in the video is not the only story of Liberia. Among those stories of misery are stories of beauty and laughter, stories of love and of hope.

  3. Kathy Stinson on March 16, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Kim, I found words on a slip of paper on my desk this morning that I couldn't quite find in my brain last night. "Focus on the dignified, the courageous, the beautiful – and it grows."

  4. Kim on March 16, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Thank you Kathy for your wisdom and encouragement – I will view Chimamanda Adichies speech. It was great having you with us in class a couple weeks ago.


  5. Kathy Stinson on March 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I enjoyed being there, too.

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