This post has nothing to do with librarianship. I started keeping a blog in 2001, and while my life has always had one dominant theme or another, I’ve never had a subject-specific blog. Since librarianship is my bread and butter these days, that’s covered most of what I’ve been posting about lately.
But this is a slight diversion. I’m working on a manuscript at the moment, so I’m going to use this space to talk a bit about that as well. The process of writing is strange, sometimes enlightening, but sometimes completely crazy, and I think getting a bit meta about the process will help to keep me sane.
The story of the manuscript: I started writing this thing at the recommendation of a wise reader. I used to write a quite a lot in amateur online writing communities, and I really really enjoyed it. I like writing, what can I say. So when I started to get significant feedback from professionals in the publication industry telling me to stop writing for the web and start something I could actually publish, I took them very seriously and started working on it. I looked at the expectations of publishers, took stock of what sort of thing got published these days, and reformatted some of my ideas to fit. I did a lot world building, a lot of character sketches, and then I started writing.
I did every single thing wrong. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t. I didn’t plan enough. I didn’t pay enough attention to the thing as a whole. I wrote one version, got some feedback, and then did a serious revision. Then I sat on it for a few months, returned to it, did another serious revision, and vowed to write one more chapter of a conclusion and that would be it. I had taken all the advice I’d gotten. I had fixed the things that bothered me, and fixed the things that bothered others. I had added characters just to kill them, added drama, cut characters, revised some basic assumptions. It was all done. And then I started my library school co-op and dropped it altogether.
I really thought I was done with writing at that point. I just couldn’t take the nitpicky tedium of it by then. I had other fish to fry. When I was writing, I really wanted to be a writer. The librarian thing might work as a fallback, but I wanted to be a writer, at least in the short term. But once I got really into librarianship that seriously changed. Librarianship is the only profession I’ve ever felt really passionate about, and once I realized I actually wanted to be good at my job and change the world in my own little way (rather than just get a steady pay cheque), my writerly dreams fell by the wayside.
So now I’m 4 months deep into my new job, I’m learning a lot and enjoying myself, and suddenly I’m feeling the pull of this manuscript again. Or, at least, the idea of it. It’s not the idea of being a writer that interests me, or even the idea of publishing. I don’t want to change my profession, I don’t want to quit if the writing thing works out. It’s this story, these characters, and the simple fact that I still really enjoy writing that’s bringing me back to it.
I never returned to the original files of my last revision. They’re zipped up and on my hard drive, but I haven’t even opened them. When the ideas, the scenes, and the characters came back to me, I decided to simply catalogue them. What were the elements of this story that I really liked? What were the events that I wanted to write about? What were the pieces of it that made me return to thinking about this story? I picked up a nifty piece of software called Idea Knot. It lets you jot down ideas and then organize them into categories (single ideas can fit into multiple categories, if you like, it’s pretty flexible). So I just wrote down everything I liked and the things I wanted to see. I re-imagined the characters, I interrogated and challenged the decisions I made the first time. I developed new answers to old problems. I discarded characters that weren’t fundamental to the plot. I massively revised the geography, added art and religion, reconceptualized the order of events. And as the list of elements grew, I started filing them into some kind of chapter order. I made notes about elements of the story that should be clear in each chapter. I talked to some writers I know about my concerns, about constructing good characters and the pitfalls of some of my plot elements. I turned a heavily event-driven story into a heavily character-driven narrative. I found a committed beta reader (thank you Caitlin) who had already sat through versions one and two and would be a soundboard for some of the crazy directions I thought the story might take. I pasted my emails to her into my collection of notes, ideas, and character sketches. And eventually I had a fairly detailed outline for a mostly (but not entirely) different story.
Now I am (slowly, carefully, hesitatingly) starting to write again. I have a solid framework for the first three chapters, and I’m going to write them. And then I’m going to look back over my three chapters, consider my plan of attack, and look at getting a solid framework for the next three chapter that will work well with what I’ve already done. Small steps!
The last time I sat down to write I could hammer through a 6000 words like it was nothing and then just keep going the next day. This time I think I’ve gone so far in the other direction that I’m almost organizing myself into some kind of creative straightjacket. The first day I sat down I ended up with about 600 words and couldn’t believe how slowly it was coming. It wasn’t painful, it was actually just as enjoyable as before, but I was so aware of how much I want this story to really work that I’m so much more careful word by word. I’m not clinging to a darling sentences anymore; I’m less sensitive to criticism and more committed to the story itself than to the individual words. By the time I was done that first night I had 1500 words and forwarded them all on to my beta reader. We discussed it, I did some expanding and editing, and now I have 3115 words. At one time I had 96,000 heavily-revised words; it’s amazing how proud I am of this 3115.
But I’m writing this story because I want to write this story, that’s it. I’m not going to look at what’s publishable or what audiences tend to like this time around. I don’t care. Now that I’m gainfully employed (and loving my job), I’m not doing this because I’m trying to change my life, or make a name for myself, or embark on a new profession. I’m going to write this story because I want to, and I’m going to write it the way I think it should be written. If someone wants to see it after that, I have no objection. But I ain’t quitting my day job either way. But it’s wonderful to be wrapped up in a story again. It’s pure delight. And as my beta reader points out, my delight seems to be shaping up into a better story.