Ebb and Flow

Today I’ve been looking up information related to getting published, submitting manuscripts, genre-based word-limits, etc. All the general business stuff that everybody knows about. I assume there’s heaps of business stuff that I am completely oblivious to as well, but hey, start with what you know. For instance, literally just now I learnt that writers get royalties based on how many books a publisher sells to a bookseller, not how many books the bookseller sells.

Not surprisingly, I’m now starting to freak out about Tallulah, thanks to looking up this manuscript-submission stuff. It’s kind of a useful freakout though. It’s testing my priorities. It’s getting me to think very carefully about what the story is that I actually want to tell – and specifically, what kind of format I want to tell it in, if I really do have to make it all one self-contained story.

I told a story that I was interested in exploring at the time, but I started off with something much simpler, much more focused, and it suited being a one-shot. The conceptual sprawl that I ended up with is something I’m rather fond of, but it does a lot of things that I wasn’t planning on doing. It absorbed a lot of my life into it and as a result ended up veering off-course; I ended up with some great material, and it’s been material that I’ve struggled in balancing with the original core concept. Therefore, as I’ve mentioned before, the idea of splitting it up into multiple installments certainly has some appeal.

Now looking at word-limits and stuff, the idea of splitting this story up into a series at least has a logistical argument to back it up. And the more I consider what I know how to write about and how I’ve written this story so far, the more it seems I need to change at a core level. For instance: I have no idea what high school is like, and the main character and her friends are all high school students. Should I perhaps set this at a university instead, or even have her be unschooled like myself, just to have a point of reference? The only real reason I had her as a high school student is because I figured most people know what that’s like and can relate to the experience; but that doesn’t really work if I don’t know enough about what it’s like to write a convincing experience of it.

The idea that I’ve gotten so many things wrong is beginning to sink in. To be more specific, it’s seeming more and more like I’ve set things up to be difficult for myself further down the road. I have this manuscript that is huge and sprawling and unfocused, this story that doesn’t really fit into any one clearly-definable genre and therefore has, at best, very ambiguous ‘market appeal’, this story that also seems more like it’s actually two or three stories smushed up together and fighting for priority, turning the narrative into a contested space, combined with all of the asides and peripheral interests that continually distract me from the ‘core’ of the story – I feel like I’ve finally seen how far down the rabbit-hole goes, and am only now starting to look back up, only to find that there is really no way back up.

But. Here’s the thing.

Like four minutes after I started writing all of that skeptical doom-and-gloom introspection, I stumbled upon this list of writing tips, and #4 hit me in the face. ‘Don’t ask publishers what they’re looking for, because the good ones, if they’re being honest, don’t even know, because the best stories seem to come out of nowhere.’

And just like that, I had my faith utterly restored in this huge mess of a story, which is only a mess because the only physical form it exists in, outside of the synaptic network stored inside my skull, in a huge messy first draft, which may well just be a lot messier than I gave it credit for (and I gave it a lot of credit in that regard). Suddenly instead of looking for ways to comfortably section off the aspects of my story that I feel are too dissimilar or genre-incompatible to fit together, especially if my word limit is 80k words (assuming that the ‘real ‘story I’ve got counts as YA, but then YA fantasy can be up to 120k, so ugh I don’t know and anyway this is kind of my point), I’m interested in looking for ways in which I can find the ‘core’ of all of these seemingly disparate elements, the thing that they all have in common, the thing that will not just hold them together but bring them all into the same clan, the same tribe, the same mythos. I want to find a way to make them into a whole. Perhaps it’ll be messy. Perhaps it’ll be clunky. But so long as it feels right, then I’m more than happy with mess. Sometimes messiness is also honesty. And honesty never goes out of style.

This is why it’s so important to be careful with what we expose ourselves to when we’re feeling vulnerable (which is probably more often than we like to admit). I switched moods so fast, went from the depths of stark, rational despair to new heights of almost inexcusable optimism, just because of what words I was looking at on a computer screen. It’s not like I know that this list of writing tips is actually worth following; it just sounds like exactly what I want to hear, so I’m rolling with it. Talk about impressionable.

But I think that’s okay. And this tells me that, yes, I really do need to take this break, and I need to take it more seriously. I need to get out of this space. I’ll take this newfound optimism, because at the end of the day, pessimistic or optimistic, I still don’t know what publishers are going to say to me, so I may as well go with the attitude that makes me feel like I’m going to succeed, and I’ll go do something different. And probably not look at publishing guidelines until I’ve told the story that is bursting to get out, the one that fits, even if that fit is really tight, and messy, and sprawling, and uncomfortable. So long as it feels like it all goes together. Kind of like How’s Moving Castle (the Castle, not the book, though I do really like the book), or the Scooby Gang in Buffy. I think I’d prefer my story to be a ragtag bunch of misfits drawn together by the same calling, rather than a row of staples.

Or something. Non-conformity is still cool, right?

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