Happy New Year!
I don’t know what it is about 2014, but it feels like an actual new start, which is a thing I rarely feel about the starts of new years. I guess I’m just more of an optimist.
I’ve determined to take on a rather extreme New Year’s Resolution: to write 1k words every day – of a writing project. This can include a main project such as Tallulah, or a story that I’ve got on the back-burner, or a totally new story idea I just came up with right this minute. It can also be a script or screenplay (in which case I’ll have a much smaller word-count). But it has to be a project.
One fantastic thing that happened this year was that sometime around June or July, I suddenly started updating this blog almost every day for a good couple of months. And looking back over my life ‘as a writer’, I’ve actually written something almost every single day of my life, and oftentimes it’s quite a bit more than 1k words. So I’ve already developed a really good habit, and that’s great. This new resolution is for two reasons: to take that habit and stress-test it, and to see what I end up with at the end of the year. My hope is that I’ll end up with at least one draft of another book I’m not ‘working on’. We’ll see – I’m looking forward to it.
And as I look forward, I will also look back to a few things that I learnt this year about writing. It’s been quite the year of writing for me, I have to say. It’s been quite the year in general, actually. And I’m looking to update my categories soon, which I’ve been procrastinating from doing for some time now, so hopefully this is the last post with the current ones. I feel like giving them a good sendoff.
So. What did I learn from this year?
It seems like almost a year ago since I finished the first draft of Tallulah. This is good, because it was almost a year ago. I finished it in January 2013 (the 20th), and it was great.
Honestly I can’t remember much about that day, but I did blog about it, and I just generally remember that it was good. It opened me up and also made me anxious – I spent a good portion of this year feeling anxious about Tallulah – but in the end I can learn something from all of it. The important thing, though, is that I finished. Whatever else happened, I accomplished what I set out to do. I’ve learnt the importance of recording your progress and achievements; it’s not just for posterity, but it’s also motivating. Finishing a novel is worth recording.
Oh, my dear Alpha Readers. I cannot thank you enough.
It really does. I actually feel I got pretty lucky, because the vast majority of the feedback I got was really constructive, but it’s just so hard to know how to deal with. It was made worse by the fact that these were my friends and family I was asking to help me out, and having to talk to some of them about how they gave feedback that I found unhelpful or even upsetting – it’s awkward. And it’s gotta be awkward to be on the receiving end as well. I hate giving feedback myself, because I’m so worried about upsetting the other person that I feel most of what I’d say is too sugar-coated to be of any use, so again, thank you to everyone who gave me feedback, seriously. Even the stuff that I found offputting.
Because it’s time and energy for literally no reward, except perhaps the knowledge that you helped somebody out. And I learnt a bit about gratitude through that process as well. I wrote a couple of posts about the feedback I’d gotten and a friend of mine – who’d given feedback – said that I sounded ungrateful. After the initial surge of crippling guilt, I read over it and felt even more guilty and wrote a post about, well, gratitude, to try and make up for it. That was a horrible night for me emotionally, but it was a valuable lesson, and for a few days afterwards I had a nice, humble perspective on life in general. Also I read The Tombs of Atuan to try and distract myself from my crippling shame and discovered a really touching little story that really resonated with me, and reminded me why I love Fantasy so much.
And then, there were my notes …
- I made notes on my first draft for the first time ever
First drafts are a writer’s best friend, and they only require that you finish them before upholding their end of the bargain.
There is nothing like finishing a novel, looking back over it, and learning. All of the mess, all of the bad ideas and ‘what the hell was I thinking’ moments and continuity errors, all the superfluous side-characters and sub-plots that you fully intended to follow up on until you completely forgot that they even existed – it’s amazing.
It’s also almost unbelievably difficult sometimes, because through reading over it and making notes you get so much material that, ultimately, cannot all fit into the story without making it an entirely different story. In fact one of the things I had to deal with this year was that most of that material gathered from note-taking and reading over my own work came in the form of, like, three or four different possible directions that the story could go in. Totally different stories. And then there was the incident with this song and imagining my characters cast as specific actors I like that got me even more off-track …
The lesson I take away from that now: it’s good that this happens. It’s good because it proves that there’s ‘something there’, that the thing you’ve just written over however many months or even years is alive and generating power, and the only downside is that you are its sole recipient, and the choice of what to use that power for is all on you.
This also taught me to really focus down on what the story is, and which, if any, of the various ideas generated in the aftermath of note-taking actually serve the purposes of telling that story better than it’s currently been told. And that’s not easy. There is no right way to do it. I did it by taking what I’d already written and trying to find the core of that story, and it took me reading the manuscript twice and making summaries of every chapter to eventually get there. Speaking of which …
- I had a huge hiatus during which I got really frustrated with my lack of progress but then learnt from the frustration and came up with better plans to get where I wanted to go
I came up with a lot of plans for Tallulah.
I was deadlocked; I had too many options and they all worked too well for me to pick one over the others. There was no clear winner, and I didn’t know what the best course of action was – should I go with one of these new exciting ideas, use what I had, rewrite the whole thing over from scratch? Eventually, for the sake of making it simple for myself (easy is another matter), I chose to go with the story and manuscript that I already had to hand, and seeing how far I could take what was already there and reworking it to tell a story that was closer to the one I felt I wanted to tell. To let the story tell itself, in a sense.
Before I could do that, I had to know what the story was. So I read it, made notes – which took a little while – let it sit, then started re-reading it and almost imploded from that horrible feeling you get when something’s wrong and it feels like your stomach is collapsing in on itself.
And that woke me up. Go simple. I started over, made much simpler notes – a general point-by-point summary as well as a little bit of analysis and plans for things I wanted to change – and it worked. I was done in three days and it was like reading a different story. After that it was just a matter of shuffling those neatly-summarised chapters and events around a bit, cutting some things out, adding very few things in (even fewer than what I planned to add in when I actually got around to the revision), and I had a functioning plan for a second draft, and most importantly, one that used as much of what I’d already written as possible to tell the story that I hadn’t quite managed to tell the first time around.
It’s like a stress-test. I wrote the first draft with a story in mind, so it stood to reason that at least some of what I’d written would work fine as it was. And I was right.
- I wrote a second draft of a novel for the first time ever
‘Light revision’ my ass.
I cut out about a third of the manuscript, rewrote over 20k words and did part of it while studying at the same time. It took me much longer than I thought it would, but I did much more than I thought I would do as well, so it evened out somewhat.
And also, I got it done, no matter how long it took.
Again: this is the only Draft 2 I’ve ever written. I have been ‘writing’ for over 13 years. I have finished three Draft 1s in that time. None of them with comprehensive revision notes, or any revision at all. So this was a massive breakthrough for me. In essence, I finished two books this year.
Because shuffling things around, cutting things out and adding things in (mostly just re-wording things, but a couple of tweaks that count as actual new content) actually made the story different. It made it stronger for one thing, a lot stronger, and the most wonderful thing was reading stuff that I’d written only recently and speculating about it like I would a book written by another author, getting excited about what could happen next. I can’t really put into words how heartening that is. It makes me want to write. It makes me want to find out what this story can be.
I try not to give writing advice on this blog (cough), but this is one piece of advice that I absolutely insist on: FINISH. It is incomparable, and it is absolutely invaluable to improving your writing. It is the best cure to that story that’s been giving you hell. Just finish it. Unless you know for sure that you want to do something else, or you’ve found that it’s not really your thing, finish it. Let it be as whole as it can be; let yourself make it as whole as you can, because there’s a huge difference between knowing how you’re going to end it and actually ending it. And then reading it. And taking notes. And learning from yourself.
- I started filling up my bookshelf
This year was a big year of awareness-raised-ness for me, and more specifically, acting on these things I became more aware of. One of these things was the fact that the books that I own that I consider my favourites are mostly written by men, and that’s not because all the ones by women are books I don’t like: it’s because there are hardly any female authors on my bookshelf to begin with. Now, if I had the Harry Potter books on my shelf that would be different, but those are family books that I don’t personally own so I don’t want to hog them just for appearances. So what did I do?
Why, I hit up The Book Despository, obviously.
I also hit up a friend and fellow writer who is also a librarian, and she hooked me up. She also lent me parts 2 and 3 of The Hunger Games, which is now one of my absolute favourite book series. I do actually put it up there with Harry Potter, for my own subversive reasons – Harry Potter I grew up with, and when I did grow up, I read The Hunger Games. They’re both fantastic stories, and very different.
I also discovered the joys of YA. The ridiculousness of City of Bones, the totally shameless and engrossing Vampire Academy, and waiting on my bookshelf are a host of others, including a story by the legendary Tamora Pierce, the first of the Song of the Lioness quartet, and the first White Trash Zombie book. At the moment I’m reading Sweep, which my librarian/writer/fellow English student pal hooked me up with. It is really damn enjoyable, and surprisingly mature for what it is, and what it could have been. I am down.
And then, there was Wonder Woman.
- I discovered the awesomeness of comics
I discovered the awesome that is comics at university, and it was my favourite storytelling medium for a little while. I have since fallen equally in love with writing and movies, and I just have more experience with those two, watching a lot of movies and doing a lot of writing. But comics are something special. They’re almost metaphysical in the way they’re read, and they’re really easy to mess up in terms of making them coherent for the reader. But it’s worth it when you find one that gets it right.
Kick-Ass the comic is my favourite anti-superhero story for the way it deconstructs the implicit relationship between hypermasculinity and the superhero narrative. I will always love the movie, but the comic just has so much more to say, and definitely comes out on top for me.
But as for straight-up superheroes, Wonder Woman takes the cake.
I read The Circle, deciding that instead of shooting my mouth off about how female action heroes are always written really weakly and perpetuate all sorts of horrible sexist trends, I should actually investigate what all the fuss about some of the big ones were, and who’s bigger than Wonder Woman?
At first, I thought it was pretty boring. Wonder Woman really is just an archetypal superhero; she’s noble, she’s honourable, she’s always doing the right thing and things always work out for her, one way or another. And her personality flaws are few and far-between.
But I appreciated that, hey, at least she isn’t being saved or set straight by some dude.
Upon subsequent re-reads, I realised just how feminist the story was, and while she is hardly an antihero, she does have flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – she struggles with them, but she also owns them. And when I read the older comics …
It was hysterical, and so amazingly sexist. But for its time, yeah, I have to appreciate the precedent that it set. And after a while I just found it amusing.
Most of it.
And then I read a Batwoman/Wonder Woman crossover where she was just so … dull. And constantly showed-up by Batwoman. Who I like, but yeah, the Bat-family does have a tendency to outshine everybody else, for all that they’re supposed to strike from the shadows.
But the potential for Wonder Woman to be awesome is made manifest in Simone’s version of the Amazonian princess, and I really hope that her appearance in the upcoming Superman vs Batman movie will lead to her own stand-alone flick. And that it’s good. I don’t think it will be, but I will hope, because if there was a good Wonder Woman movie?
That would kind of be wonderful.
(I also read her first Batgirl comic – it’s good, but oh boy do I wish she was still writing Wonder Woman.)
In fact I spent a good 6 hours fantasising about a Wonder Woman movie, and felt the crushing despair of knowing that it would never come to pass the way I envisioned it – the way it was meant to be, dammit.
- I rediscovered the joy of copying parts from other stories that I like in order to tell a story of my own, how it feels to not feel ashamed of my own imitation
This one is courtesy of City of Bones, the movie. So corny. So formulaic.
It was just so blatant. The book actually does a slightly better job of burying its roots, but it still reads like fan-fiction. The movie is just so unashamed of what it is, and it reminded me of how I used to write things the same way – take bits and pieces from all over and mush them together as my own story. It’s fun. And it’s good training.
- I changed my mind about fan-fiction
I was, until attending a Harry Potter marathon early last year (where I borrowed the first Hunger Games book from the hostess), firmly set against fan-fiction, despite having written over 60k words of a Dragon Ball Z fic in my youth, and in fact that’s part of the reason why I was so against it.
But fan culture is so fascinating, and so much of it is so positive – and furthermore, I believe in the vitality of stories, of how important they are, and that their power is to be respected. I mean come on, Disney made its name off fan-fiction, more or less. Why are the stories of Rowling or Collins any less part of culture at large than those of Grimm and Dickens and Austen? Copyright law. That’s all. And I absolutely believe that writers deserve to make money for their work.
But I also think that, so long as money is not an issue, fan-fiction should be seen as a legitimate artistic expression. We all borrow, we all take inspiration, and one of my favourite stories, Wicked (the musical), is very much a fanfic.
I may never actually write any of my own, or read any (other than My Immortal, which is truly beautiful in its awfulness), but just for the reason that I believe stories are more than commodities, that they are an integral part of our cultural and individual identity, they ought to be things that we can interact with creatively.
But at the end of the day, I still prefer original ideas.
- I came up with several really cool story ideas that I really want to write
Last year was probably the most generative in terms of new stories that I wanted to write, and also getting back to my roots of storytelling, of why I wanted to tell stories – not to make a political point or social commentary, but for fun. Because it made me excited.
Right at the end of last year I came up with three or four ideas that I really liked, and when we put the house up for auction and then it hit me, when we sold it, that we were moving, I also got inspired to write my bumbling, constantly-on-hold and in-progress fantasy epic – and to write it as it really was, without trying to update it or make it ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘progressive’. These are all good things, but they’re not this story. And I’m not saying this story is good. It’s not. But it’s mine, and I’ve had it for 12 years. This may be the way I say goodbye to this house, to this stage of my life.
That’s the thing about stages in your life – often, you aren’t the one who chooses when they end and begin. Something happens and you adapt.
Okay, that is still technically your decision, but you know what I mean. You take the idea and put your own spin on it, make it your own. Use it to tell your story, instead of having it told to you.
And the great thing is that it’s always both. Both is unavoidable. We are at the mercy of the fates, and we define our own destiny. We always have both.
It was a good year. I think it was slightly less jubilant than 2012, but on the whole much more satisfying. I feel like I’ve grown and changed, and that this is actually a next step in my life.
Those 1k words are going to have to be counted here today. I guess I’ll allow for blog posts as well.
Thank you all for following me, or just checking in, whether for the first time or if you’ve been around for a while, for the past year. I hope you’ll stick around for another.