When I first moved from the beach to the country, supporting my husband’s dearest wish to become a landed gentleman (or at least have a place where he could pee outside and collect “classic” cars free from downers like homeowners’ associations and city ordinances), let’s just say I had an enthusiastic—if somewhat idealized—vision of how things would be. I’d have a garden of heirloom vegetables so bounteous and beautiful I’d need to start a farm stand! I could have sweet pygmy goats, wooly lambs, and fancy breed chickens! That was about as realistic a version of country life as Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon—and we all know how that turned out.
But the chicken part of the fantasy was doable. With the outlay of a small amount of scratch (both the cash and the corn kind) I had a good-sized pen, a coop, and an assortment of day old chicks, downier and more adorable than anyone has a right to be. I raised them by hand. I spent time with them. I named them. They got scraps from the table and our neither bounteous nor beautiful vegetable garden. They grew into gorgeous birds, and were a joy to behold scratching around the pen, or ranging through the fields. The roosters cheered me with their glossy plumage and hearty crows, the hens gave the best eggs I ever tasted. It was straight out of my idyllic vision of country life.
But you know something about living in the country? The very things that allow you to keep chickens are the things that will ultimately cause their demise. The open spaces, fields, and woods are wildlife habitat. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, possums, and snakes abound. And that’s a good thing—but not if you’re a chicken. The freedom which allows us to keep chickens, to pee in the yard, or collect “classic” cars in varying states of decay also allows our neighbors the freedom to, say, keep dozens of dogs, in (to put it kindly) a somewhat casual manner. Chicken casualties mounted. No more roaming the fields for them, then. Okay, looks like we need to put a cover over the pen. And extra wire into the ground for stray-ish dogs determined to dig their way in. A raccoon climbed the fence and tore the cover netting off. A black snake strangled my favorite setting hen while she sat protecting her clutch.
I pause to pour a little of my mimosa on the ground. This is for you, Angie Bird. May you rest in peace.
What can one do about all that? Not much, is what. Screw it. It’s the rural version of “you can’t fight City Hall.”
I didn’t give up; not entirely. But I had to revise my expectations a bit. I realized that the domestic chicken was not born for longevity. I still raise chicks from time to time. I stopped naming them. I don’t really hang out with them like I did with that first flock. They’re still pretty, I still get fresh eggs (sometimes), but I’m no longer attached. In the back of my mind, there’s still the desire to have a prize flock of show-worthy, hand-tamed birds, but I now know the extent of effort it would take to make that happen—and it’s not a priority. Maybe someday it will be—but just as likely, my sojourn in the country will end and I’ll find myself in someplace civilized, where I’ll have no chickens at all. If I want free-range eggs, I’ll just get them at a farmer’s market. And I’ll be perfectly okay with that.
So what the hell does this have to do with writing? It’s a lesson in learning when it’s time to make changes to a project that isn’t working—or scrap it altogether and move on to the next thing. One of my first story ideas was like this. I had grand plans for it, and I was so excited! But once finished, it didn’t quite work. Originally in first person, I re-wrote it in deep third, and added an additional POV. Better, but it still lacked a certain je ne sais quoi—I don’t know what, maybe a coherent plot or something. But whatever. Coherent plots are so overrated. Except they’re not.
What to do, then? That depends on you, and how passionately you feel about your project. I believe that every not-quite-there project has at least a kernel of a great story inside. It might be a compelling character or two, setting or description, scraps of dialogue that make you proud—or maybe everything sucks but the premise.
In my manuscript, I (and Jenna P., who cuts the crap and speaks the truth), felt like the beginning wasn’t working. It started in the wrong place, physically and timeline-wise. Probably with the wrong set of characters, too. And maybe something completely different needed to happen between them—but I digress. You get the idea. The new beginning was—you guessed it—only the beginning. I was on my way to a complete re-imagining of the story. I’m still putting the finishing touches on what feels like Version 10.1, but the work is better for it. It’s my manuscript version of an impenetrable chicken fortress.
But you know what? Even after all of that, my manuscript still may not be that million dollar deal that we naively envision when we first say to ourselves “I want to be a famous writer like (insert name of improbably successful author here)!” Hell, forget the millions. It might not even sell at all. If not, I’ll look at it again. If it’s a story I still really want to tell, I’ll have another go at it—maybe even self-pub if that’s what feels right. If not, I’ll move on.
Wow, what a waste of time, right? Not at all. Every word we right is a miniscule step toward our goal. We’re learning, not just about craft and basics, but about the stories that truly excite us as writers. The ones that make us want to go out and build the best damn chicken pen this world has ever seen if that’s what it takes for the vision to come to fruition.
So what are your “prize chickens?” Are you pursuing them, or not? And why? I’d love to hear about them!