I took two days off writing for Mother’s Day weekend, against the advice of all my writing instructors on Masterclass. It seems bizarre to take cues from internationally famous authors when I’m just trying to type THE END on this book and get it out of the way so I can start something new, but I haven’t had anyone teach me about writing since high school.
I had to write in college, but none of it was creative writing, and I never got feedback, just a grade (the classes were large and I studied International Affairs so the writing was dry and academic and marked by an aid). All those books we read in high school, where we had to pick apart the prose and find hidden metaphors and stylistic choices that had meaning for the story? Every day I would roll my eyes and think, did the author actually mean this or are we just over-analyzing? Now that I’m trying to write my own book, I would say most of the time those things are put there by the author on purpose, but sometimes it’s a “fortuitous happenstance,” as my husband says.
At the risk of spoiling a book that will never be published and no one will ever read, I will try to explain. Some writers swear by outlines, and some start writing and see where it goes. I split the difference and made a loose outline with where I was starting and where I wanted to end up, but not a lot of detail in between. The story is punctuated by historical events that require time jumps, and that’s how I decided how old my main character was, and what would be happening in her life.
It turns out I needed more of an outline because when I just went on a ride with these characters, the better parts were different and perhaps inconsistent with where I started, so there will be a lot of rewriting in my future. At one point, I started writing in a direction that veered slightly from the ending I had planned, and I felt boxed in by thousands of words already poured into the random choices I’d made. Some days it’s brutal to get out a thousand words, and I didn’t want to delete a single one of them, so I forged ahead even though the ending no longer matched the outline, for better or worse.
I’ve written myself into several precarious corners, and the new ending is going to be more challenging, and I thought about just stopping and starting something new, but then I remembered the rest of the book isn’t perfect either so I might as well write the awkward ending poorly and see if it can be fixed once it’s all on the page.
I’m nearing the end of the first draft, I think, and it’s been a labor of love. More than halfway through, a dear friend (who is a successful author) asked if my book was funny, and I said no. It’s serious and bleak because it’s prerevolution Russia. She said, “but, you’re funny on your blog!” I had completely abandoned my “voice” to write this book, which didn’t sound like me at all. Serious books require a serious tone, right? Maybe, but that’s not really my tone. My friend reminded me that, in their own way, Russia peasants would have normal problems and speak plainly, and I shouldn’t forget the way I like to write, so I’m trying to lighten it up a little.
To be clear: still Russian peasants, still cold and bleak, but their speech is loosening up and sounding less stiff. I am learning a lot, though. It was good to research for a bit before starting, because stopping to learn the history mid-sentence would have made writing it even harder. Most authors advise young writers to just plow through to the end and worry about the specifics later, so that’s what I’m doing. Maybe the kids are the wrong age in the wrong year, maybe that battle didn’t happen like that, maybe she wouldn’t have been wearing that kind of dress, but I’ll work it out later.
The question, according to Neil Gaiman, is is it a book? Is it a story without a plot? Is it a story where nothing really happens? Is it a story we’ve heard before in much better books? I feel like writers and my characters and my own research keep handing me eggs to hold and I try to rearrange them in my hands but I can only hold so many at once, and some get dropped. Isn’t the mother in this scene? Did I say she had two kids or three? Does this dialogue move the plot forward? Do all the characters speak the same way? Am I laying the groundwork for the ending or giving too many clues? Would a reader follow these breadcrumbs or be totally shocked by the last scenes?
My brain, she is tired. BUT, next time I will start with all the things I forgot in this book. Or, more likely, next time I will write a book of personal essays and only use a third of the brain space it takes to juggle dozens of eggs at once without dropping them.
The worst part is there are some bits I don’t know how to fix, which I think is worse than just writing a bad book you think is great. I know this or that is badly written, but I don’t know how to make it better. Like being awake during abdominal surgery but unable to alert the surgeon, so you have to feel everything and watch it happen.
The next time you read a work of fiction that’s just meh, know that it took serious work to even get to meh. I mean, if I finish the first draft in the next week or so it will have taken five weeks and still be completely incomprehensible to anyone but me (though some parts from bad days are incomprehensible even to me). The next part will be much slower, because as of now I’m just writing “and they went to the thing and it was cold and they were sad” and when I finish the last chapter I’ll have to go back and retool every word to make it sound like it was written by someone over the age of thirteen.
So, anyway, back to writing. Time to break some eggs.