It’s been almost a year since I dusted off the first 40 or so pages of To the North and sent them to my sister to read. I had initially written them more than two years prior, rewritten them about a year after that, and subsequently forgot about them until last May.
This was a habit of mine since… well, since childhood. I distinctly remember my first attempt to write a novel. I was 10, and I penned 20 or 30 pages of what basically amounted to Baby-Sitters Club fan fiction on my dad’s computer. I remember quite a bit of it, considering it was more than two decades ago and I don’t think I ever looked at it again after I wrote it. The plot revolved around a group of 12-13 year old girls who took it upon themselves to run a day camp-style childcare service in their neighborhood over the summer. At one point there was a basketball game. One of the characters was deaf. I remember spending a long time playing with the layout for the chapter headers, since WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS had a novel print-preview editing mode (so, not much has changed there – I still spend a lot of time playing with how the words actually look on the page. Getting mildly obsessive about things I make looking a certain way is pretty much a pillar of my personality).
I never finished this novel. At one point I realized that it little more than an attempt to actually become Ann M. Martin and, frustrated at my lack of originality, I abandoned it full-stop.
For the next decade or so I didn’t really try to write anything longer than a few pages. I wrote a lot of poetry and super-short stories (1000 words or less), mostly for school assignments but also just for fun. Every now and then I would get a vague idea for a book that I would write “someday”, condense the idea into a couple of cryptic and disjointed sentences and jot them down in a notebook. When I’d find it later, I rarely had any idea what the hell I had been talking about. I had dozens of these notebooks, most only half full (if that), with poems or paragraph-long stories or random ideas.
It wasn’t until college that I had to try and write anything of length. I’d signed up for a screenwriting class, because it sounded more fun than the standard creative writing classes, which I felt like I had already taken over and over and over again, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to force myself to strengthen dialogue, which I knew was one of my weakest points in writing. The class was only one term long, and had only two assignments. First, a complete short script, 20-30 pages, which would then be taken by the film directing class to be used for their final projects. Second, the first act (30 pages by the Syd Field method) of a full-length feature script, which had to be a different story than our first project.
For the short script, I basically adapted a little story I had written called “A Man Named Alex, Who Is No Longer a Stranger“. It was pretentious and overwrought and a desperate attempt at philosophical depth, because I was in college and therefore already knew everything about everything and was way too sophisticated to write any story that wasn’t high-concept and meaningful.
When it came time to write the next project, I decided I wanted to come up with something original. And so, naturally, I ended up creating what basically amounted to Good Omens fan fiction. I called it “Chasing Souls”, and it was about an angel and a demon living in London who, while technically working for competing employers, had a certain twisted relationship. When the angel accidentally falls and Heaven commands him to save 100 souls in order to earn his wings back, he enlists the demon’s help. Despite its rather unambiguous nod to Pratchett & Gaiman – perhaps even bordering on straight plagiarism – it was a milestone piece in my writing career. It was my first ever attempt to write funny. And it worked! My professor and classmates enjoyed it thoroughly. They openly praised it as the best script-in-progress produced in our workshop. They laughed out loud at readings and stopped me when they saw me on campus to ask when I’d be bringing the next set of pages in.
The result was a totally different approach to my own writing. Not only did I stop feeling the need to make everything I wrote somber and austere and “mature”, whatever the hell that meant, and instead embrace some gaiety and humor and basically not take myself so seriously, but I really felt like the effort had the intended effect of helping me with my dialogue. Really, the two go hand-in-hand – it’s a lot easier to write natural conversation when you aren’t trying to be excessively, even aggravatingly, deep.
Still, the end result from that class was the first 30 or 40 pages of a feature script, and no earthly idea where the story should go from there. I tinkered with it for a while afterward, but without the requirement to submit pages lest I risk failing the class, the motivation just wasn’t there.
When I transferred to another university and signed up for another screenwriting class, this time I resolved to actually do an original story. And this time, I would be required to write the entire thing. 120 pages. Beginning, middle, end. It was the first time I would ever attempt to write a complete story that was more than 5-6 pages long since I had plunked out my Baby-Sitters Club fan fiction a decade earlier.
By the end of the semester, I had a complete first draft for a script without a working title, because I couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t completely awful. It was a comedy about a close-knit but bizarre family. It centered around three young adult men, two brothers and their cousin, and the way their family relationships broke down after the “golden boy” made a mistake and the others became convinced he had brought a curse down on their heads. The whole thing was absurdist and character-driven and would probably fall into that vague category of “indie films”. By the time I got to the end I hated it, but much like with “Chasing Souls”, it received some praise from my professor and classmates. I got a lot of valuable feedback and input from workshopping it in the class, and part of me was convinced that I’d someday go back and finish it. Until today, I hadn’t looked at it in 9 years.
But at least I had finished something. It was rough, and needed a lot of work, but I had done it! I had written a complete story! It had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Huzzah!
A short time after graduation, I started working on a novel. I mean, I had finished one writing project. Surely I could finish another, right? Now it was time to write My Book.
So went the next seven years of my life. Seven years. I rewrote the first 50 pages of the same story over and over and over. I’d pick it up for a few months, then get frustrated with it and put it away for a year, then pick it up again. In between working on My Book I continued to create false starts. I had folder after folder saved on my computer of the same sort of cryptic and disjointed half-formed ideas that had filled my notebooks in adolescence.
Three years ago, one of these false starts took the form of a description of a little village on a hill in the middle of a northern wood. I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it, so I just clicked “save” and forgot about it.
Two years ago, again frustrated by the lack of progress on My Book, I went back and looked through these folders and came across this little village on the hill. I still liked it, and I wrote an addendum to it. I took the little girl who appeared on the church steps at the end of the description and took her out to play in the wood. By the end of it I had about 20 pages and no plot to speak of. I liked what I had written, but there was no meat on those bones. Again, it got saved and forgotten.
Then about 18 months ago my sister and I decided to start doing a regular page exchange, kind of a New Years resolution thing. We both had the same disease, IwanttowritebutIcantseemtofinishanythingitis, and one or both of us (I can’t really remember how it started) came up with the idea of holding each other accountable to send pages twice a month. I started sending her My Book, and for a few months I was churning out more than ever before.
There was a problem, however. I had no plot. Sure, my protagonist was doing stuff. I had action scenes and dialogue scenes and a hint at foreshadowing. I had a concept and even an ending. But I had no idea how to string any of it together in any kind of cohesive way. Once again, frustrated, I decided to throw in the towel.
But the whole accountability thing nagged at me. That, and the fact that I’m crazy stubborn. I didn’t want to be the one to give up first. So when I ran out of pages of My Book to send my sister, I went through my old folders and pulled out the little village and the little girl and the strange little man she met in the wood. I added an interstitial scene to bridge together the two pieces I had already and sent that.
Four months later I’d finished the book.
I don’t know what the magic formula was, exactly, that made it work this time. I suspect that my utter frustration over my current job was part of it, providing the necessary motivation to finally do what I have always wanted to do – make a living as a writer. The accountability was also a contributing factor, as well as the regular feedback from my sister as she read new pages every couple of weeks. I might say the stars aligned, if I believed in that sort of thing. It was just time.
I published To the North last December. At the first of the year, I started working on the next book in the anthology. Last week, I finished the first draft of To the East.
It didn’t take me years. I didn’t toil and struggle and give up and go back and give up and go back over and again. I just sat down and wrote the damn thing. It’s far from finished – it needs a ton of editing and cleaning up before I’ll even be ready to give it to some advanced readers for feedback – but it wasn’t this insurmountable challenge.
Allow me to don my nerd hat here, because it reminds me of the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry says he knew he could cast the patronus because he had already done it. I knew I could write this book because I’d already written one. It wasn’t as daunting as it had been the first time. In fact, by the time I wrapped up the first draft of To the East I had 20K words more than the final cut of To the North – roughly the same length as the screenplay I had been so proud of finishing in college.
Now, with this first draft finished, I’m a little bit ahead of the schedule I had set for myself. Next step is editing, and I intend to have the book released early in September. I’m on track, not just for this particular book, but for the overall goals I had set for myself when I started considering self-publishing last July – but as this post is already extraordinarily long and rambling, I’ll leave those details for another day. Suffice it to say, I still have a long way to go, but I’m pleased with how it’s going so far.