Two years ago, in December 2011, someone on a discussion board I sometimes frequent asked if anyone was up for some ‘fast-drafting’. The goal was to complete the first draft of a novel over their winter (our summer). I’m a slow writer but three months seemed on the doable side. It would be good for me! Optimistically, I raised my hand. A thread was opened and we duly began to post our progress.
Two weeks ago, in December 2013, I submitted the draft to my editor, having long abandoned the thread out of sheer embarrassment. My ‘progress updates’ to that point had mostly consisted of explanations as to why I was making none.
At one point, shortly before I fled, I commented:
I swear that when this book is done I’m going to go through this thread, collate the many reasons I have offered for my lack of progress, run them through Wordle, and generate a giant cloud of excuse-o-rama. If nothing else, it might show me where my problems lie.
And lo’, here it is:
I’m not sure it tells me anything much, to be honest. There are words in my book? I do a lot of thinking? I’m often time poor? I have a back problem?
The truth is that I know all those things. What’s more interesting to me is that in writing about this, I wrote the word ‘excuses’, changed it to ‘reasons’, changed it back to ‘excuses’, changed it again to ‘explanations’, and then back again to ‘excuses’. The games we play! I guess the truth of it lies somewhere in the slippage between those words. There are reasons but there are also excuses; there is the practical, necessary stuff of life and there is also the impractical, less necessary fear of not being able to get the wonderful thing in my head into a shape that works – both for me and for a reader.
In May this year, I wrote the following Facebook post:
Just wrote the line: “The maps in her mind’s eye were complex and beautiful, but there was no way of getting them onto the page.”
Suspect I may be writing about writing itself.
That anxiety is definitely one reason/excuse/explanation for my slow pace. Another is that I always write far too much. In the process of writing a manuscript of some 65,000 words, I probably wrote around 150,000. Most of that is where it should be – on the cutting room floor. The image below is of Scrivener’s ‘target’ tool; I estimate that at this point, I was about 2/3 of the way through the story.
Another reason is that no matter how I try, I cannot ever write a true first draft. The draft I’ve sent to my editor is the first finished draft; it’s the first version in which I wrote right to the end of the story. But my project folder looks like this:
And lest you should think, Oh, that’s not so many versions, allow me to point out that within each of these folders – even those optimistically labelled ‘Final’ and ‘SubDraft’ – there are also many versions. By way of example, here is what you would find if you were to open the folder entitled ‘OldVersions’:
There are two reasons why I didn’t write to the end until the absolutely final ‘first draft’:
* I didn’t know how it was going to end until I reached that point. I had a sense of things, but no detail. I knew the feeling I wanted but not the nuts and bolts of how I would achieve it. And each version brought substantial changes to the story. People sometimes say you should push through to the end, and some writer friends advised me to do this when I was tearing my hair out over still being stuck endlessly revising the middle. But I couldn’t. I would have been writing a placeholder ending to a story that didn’t really exist. I would have known it wasn’t real while I was doing it and it would have felt like (and been) a waste of time.
* But more importantly for me, I wanted the satisfaction of the end being the end. I wanted to get to that point knowing that I’d resolved the major issues, that I had a story with legs, however wobbly they might be. It’s a glorious thing to write ‘The End’ and I needed to have a true sense of that in myself.
So, after all this, a manuscript is written and I am breathing an extended sigh of relief. I’m hopeful it will be a book one day but that remains to be seen. In an interview earlier this year, I wrote:
I’m at the stage where I have no idea whether it’s going to be terrible, amazing, or somewhere in between. That space of deep uncertainty is quite unsettling, but also normal for me!
I can’t say I’ve left that space behind yet but at this point I’m just happy to have finished a submittable (and submitted!) draft. There’s satisfaction in that, and the rest will play out as it will.
For now, I’m taking a break over Christmas and New Year and then moving on to something new. I’ll post again once I hear something editorial-ish. Fingers crossed for good news.
Fingers crossed indeed. Three months or two years is no matter – congratulations for finishing the draft at all. Am sure it will be brilliant!
That's such a lovely thing to say, Sally, and you are quite right about the time taken. To a certain extent, I guess each project just takes as long as it takes. I'd love to be so philosophical about it in the midst of all the muddiness, though. I guess part of what's difficult in terms of the way I write is that I never know if the story is going to work until it actually does (to paraphrase EL Doctorow, I can't see further than the road just ahead) and that moment can come quite late in the piece. So sticking with something for such a long period of time becomes a kind of act of faith – or foolishness; I guess time will tell me which (though I should add that I wrote this post a while back and there has been some movement since then; nothing I can talk about yet, but let's say my fingers have relaxed a little … 🙂 )