There are those who will roll their eyes at that title, and know immediately what it refers to.
Most of the following was paraphrased from a PBS documentary I watched this morning by Ken Burns.
I started watching it last night, but Burns’ documentaries usually put me to sleep, and such was the case last evening. I enjoyed it enough prior to nodding off that, with a good rest under me, I was able to endure the balance this morning.
In 1881 The Prince and The Pauper by Mark Twain was released.
Between 1874 in 1884, Thomas Hardy published return of the native. Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamatzov. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island appeared, and Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady came out.
Meanwhile, Mark Twain started work on another book based on fond memories of his own childhood, Huckleberry Finn.
“I like it only tolerably well, as far as I’ve got,” he told Howells after writing the first 400 manuscript pages, “and may possibly pigeonhole it or burn it.”
He often put it aside for other things during the next seven years.
Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation to try to idealize the struggle of the north against the south, and then in 1876 reconstruction died, the Ku Klux Klan came out, and Huckleberry Finn the book began.
He started this thing and he must’ve run into difficulty.
And then he stops the book.
He put it aside for five years.
Then in April 1882, he decides to go down the river to New Orleans on a steamboat and write a book called Life On The Mississippi – not Huckleberry Finn. In May, he turns around and starts back up the river again, all the way to Minnesota. And then at the end of that, he goes back to Hannibal (Missouri, his childhood hometown) again in the next month what does he do? He picks up Huckleberry Finn.
What does that say to you?
What did he see going down the river?
He’s been off that river for 20 years, since before the Civil War. What do you think it was looking at? He was looking at the horrible failure of freeing the slaves. As in, what a mess we’d made of it.
In the summer of 1883, Mark Twain returned to the manuscript with renewed energy.
It was a very different kind of story, told in the plain language his Missouri boyhood.
It would be his “masterpiece.”
The majority of the words above were gleaned from a PBS documentary, but it told me something important.
According to Mental Floss, Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote the 400 pages referenced above. In August 1883, he wrote, “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884.
Why am I sharing this with you today? There’s always a reason. Mine is this:
It’s okay to put something aside.
I recently wrote 90,000 words for a complete novel in about 10 weeks. (You can order Double Blind HERE; it’s part of a 25-book anthology for 99 cents, but mine’s in there.) I kicked around ideas for an outline for a week or three before I started writing on July 2 of this year, and yesterday (September 15) I sent the finished book to two trusted friends in case there’s a fire at my house and it’s destroyed from my computer. I did not work on it every day, either; I took weeks off during that span. (Necessary weeks off, believe me.) Today I give it one last look and send it to the publisher, where it will not undergo any additional changes.
First draft to finished product in less than three months, and according to my CPs, it’s a great story.
Again, you can order it HERE as part of a 25-book anthology for 99 cents.
I have another one I wrote over a few months that has been “resting” for close to THREE YEARS now. Some of you know it; some of you have read it. It even has a cover.
Until this morning, I’d been embarrassed about that. It needs a rewrite, and things kept piling up on me that took me away from it, always with the promise of I’ll do it X – with X being “soon” and then it became Christmas then next Christmas then over the break and then again at the start of this summer… and now X probably means “it’ll be my next project, I swear” …right after I compile the anthology and probably another writing contest.
If you knew each reason (or excuse, depending on your disposition) for each delay, you’d agree they were substantial.
But three years? Come on.
As of this morning, I think it’s okay that I’ve waited. One of my CPs recently said of me (again paraphrasing), “Your writing is great. Imagine how good a piece you could write if you actually worked at it.” Or something like that.
I used to think I was holding my breath and delaying on releasing that Work In Progress.
I think it’s okay to wait – as long as you produce things.
Mark Twain produced a ton of stuff while he delayed Huckleberry Finn, and he was known to be a prodigious writer. Without knowing it, I’ve emulated that. I certainly emulated elements of my style from him, but I was unaware of the work ethic. Now I’m aware, and I’m glad that almost no one but my wife thinks I’m not a prolific writer. I’ve produced a ton of stuff during my hiatus from my WIP.
And I shouldn’t say emulated, either;
I should say I realized that a lot of things I was already doing
(and feared might be wrong to do but was a lot of fun for me)
was actually okay because other – better – writers had done it, too.
James Patterson validated some of my ideas a while back, and now so has Mark Twain (again). That’s confirmation, I guess. Fine. Confirmation it is.
Other authors delayed pieces, too – like JD Salinger – so apparently it’s not a crime as I’d made myself think.
When I take up my “set aside” piece again, which I will, it may not become a masterpiece, but it will definitely become better than it was.
We all will benefit from that.