A Breakthrough Over Lunch

photo of a lightbulb with soft focus lights in background
They call breakthroughs “lightbulb moments” for a reason, don’t they? (Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash)

I had lunch recently with a friend of mine, Karen. In addition to mutual appreciation of many things (wine is high up on the list), we also have a deep and abiding love of pasta, grilled cheese sandwiches of infinite variety, and pizza. So, as we caught up over a plate of spaghetti and a margherita pizza, she also asked me, “So what happened to the sequel to The Unwanted?”

[It occurs to me that perhaps I should insert a spoiler alert right here, in case you haven’t read The Unwanted (And you can solve that by buying the book! This is a subtle hint, right?), but also a spoiler alert for this unnamed, set-aside sequel that likely never will see the light of day. If you’d rather not, just skip down to the part that says “[end spoiler alert]”. So…


If you’ve been following along for a while, you might recall that I came to the decision to set aside that particular work in progress. It wasn’t working the way I’d outlined it, my plot structure felt like a retread of previous work, and it was becoming an incoherent mess. It’s perhaps no coincidence that my life was following a similar trajectory at the time. Karen understood, and in the process of talking about it I explained to her an idea I got from my editor Greg Herren, that if you want something to happen in your story or novel, you had to work your way backwards to create the character who would be driven to do that thing.

“That’s the thing,” I said. “My reasoning for bringing Jamie back again is a mess.”

“Well, why not make that a mystery for Jamie to figure out?”

[end spoiler alert]

Solutions come from unexpected places. Watch for them.

And there, in one simple question, Karen gave me a possible solution to all the problems I’d been having with that unnamed sequel to The Unwanted. I know “lightbulb going off” and “Eureka moment” are clichés, but only because they have a passing acquaintance with truth. It felt like one of those breakthrough moments when she asked me that question. From there I could see an alternate version of my storyline unspooling, one that got me past all the speedbumps and roadblocks by removing them completely.

Never throw anything away.

Which, of course, got me thinking about going back to that novel. I would basically be writing it over from scratch, to the point where I could probably just open up a blank document and start writing again.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that everything I write down in these sporadic emails are things I need to learn myself. So writing to you, dear reader, is also a form of me trying to make myself see something. I guess that’s selfish, isn’t it? I hope you get something from them just the same.

In any case, I don’t know why I kept the manuscript. Or rather, I do know why: I never throw away anything.

OK, so that statement may not be strictly, 100 percent accurate. I’ve discarded hand-annotated pages, earlier versions of stories or chapters, dragged them to the trash can on my computer and clicked “empty.” But if there’s a fragment, a little thing somewhere in there that I think (or even just have a hunch I can’t explain) might be worth something, I copy it into a file of other fragments for future reference.

I don’t refer to that file very often. As long as I keep moving forward on something, anything, it seems that there’s no shortage of ideas to give me a reason to write.

Meanwhile, there’s that still-unnamed abandoned sequel to The Unwanted. I had no plans to go back to it, now or ever. But then I had lunch with my friend Karen, and the idea’s there now.

Maybe it’ll be worth revisiting.

Thanks, Karen. You’re a good friend.