The Way Back

Okay. It has not been that long since I last worked on Tallulah. It’s been, like, 2 years, tops. It has not been that long.

Also how the hell is it halfway through 2017 already that is just wrong.

I read through the second chapter; it’s one of the longer ones and it didn’t take too long to get through, even while making notes, and this bodes well, I feel. I did discover a whole bunch of stuff about this chapter since the last time I looked at it, and that tells me that taking time off was absolutely the right idea.

What I discovered was that I hate this stupid, pointless, confusing, reminding-me-of-how-half-assed-my-planning-was-for-this-book chapter – and it’s not even that it’s confusing. It’s not even that the characters’ motivations and opinions of each other are confusing, especially given what I know I wanted those motivations and opinions to be, because I apparently ended up writing them in order to convey the exact opposite of what that was.

It’s that it’s written so. Fucking. Badly.

And, like, I only wrote this chapter about …

Oh.

I wrote this almost 4 years ago.

Well, that explains a few things …

But it feels like it shouldn’t. It feels like I’ve been actively working on Tallulah for longer than this four-year gap suggests. This does not seem correct; I’m experiencing some serious fucking temporal dissonance here …

Because it feels like my writing style shouldn’t have changed this much during the past 4 years. I don’t feel like I’ve changed much during the past 4 years. But I suppose that isn’t true, now that I think about it.

I guess it’s just odd to think about the possibility that my writing style has changed while not ever actually thinking about it as even being a possibility. I can’t understand how this has happened, let alone how it happened without my even knowing about it.

And all of this leads to me thinking that, while taking a break from Tallulah to get some distance and perspective was a good idea, it might also have been a bad idea because now, looking it over with my 4-years-older eyes, I’m starting to think that Tallulah might actually be too old for me to write anymore. It might not be the book for me.

And yes, I am basing all of this on one chapter, because seriously you guys it is so fucking bad. It’s like an in-joke with myself; I introduce central characters as though the reader is supposed to already know who they are, probably because I went into writing that chapter after spending a whole year building up my own idea of them and how I want to protray them and how I want people to think about them … it’s just so gross. That’s the word I’m looking for here; the writing is yucky. It repulses me; it makes my skin crawl, like the meaty stench of a suppurating corpse. I hate the way this chapter is written. It’s just …

It’s just bad.

And on top of that: my fucking writing style has changed! Or my writing tastes, or writing instincts, or just whatever; I’ve changed, and it’s caught me by surprise. The only thing I feel certain about at the moment regarding this existential speed-bump is that I do feel the difference in my sensibilities. It still doesn’t make sense to me that there is a difference to begin with, but it’s definitely there. I never want to write that way again. I mean … man, was this all because I wrote an MA and a shitty YA werewolf novel in the intervening almost-4 years? Did it make that much of a difference? Or was it just taking a break letting me see what I’d actually written, which turned out differently from what I was trying to write at the time?

And what does this mean for other “old” projects? Most of the stories I think about writing on a regular basis are ideas I’ve come up with in the past 4 years; most of them I also haven’t actually written any of, or much at least. I wonder if I would feel the same sense of dissonance about these projects if I did have them written, if I were to read them over again – would I find that they were no longer stories that I could tell?

And what about future projects? What’s the shelf-life on my story ideas? How long will it be between the moments of conception and expiry on any given premise I come up with?

And I suppose I could draw the clear and obvious distinction between writing style and ideas; they’re not the same thing. But having said that, the voice of a story kind of is the story. You could tell the story of Harry Potter in the style of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Finnegan’s Wake, or The God of Small Things, and it would be an entirely different story. How a story is told tells you something about where that story is coming from, its angle, its agenda – you don’t have to agree with it or take it as written, but you can see where it’s trying to come from at the very least. Like with Tomorrow When the War Began, which is written like a children’s book but has the content of something much more mature; that tells you that it’s about childhood innocence being lost. Maybe. Maybe it’s actually telling you that the “YA voice” hadn’t been created at the point at which it was written, or that the writer just didn’t quite know how to craft an authentic-seeming adolescent voice, I know I wrote my review about that book like 2 years ago or something but I still feel flashes of annoyance for it like spontaneous allergic reactions that just come out of the blue and assail me … the point is that every idea comes with its own voice pre-packaged; you can’t separate an idea from the voice that it’s pitched in. It’s part of the idea.

But you can change it, right? Why am I asking rhetorical questions to myself? Maybe I just like panicking because I’m seriously screwy in the head and should really get around to making that therapist appointment I’ve been meaning to make for the past 5 months?

Yes, you can … which opens up some options that I have only been toying with up until this point. But that’s stuff for me to think about in private, I think. With regards to Tallulah specifically, though – it’s safe. I’m still going to write it. I know now that it doesn’t suit my voice, and perhaps during writing it I will find that it’s just not going to work out because the voice that suits the story and the voice that suits me almost 4 years later are incompatible, but up until I run into that brick wall I will indeed be running.

It feels a bit humbling, honestly, to have this realisation. It forces me to concede that I haven’t actually learnt everything there is to know about writing a novel; I never had any good reason to think that to begin with, and didn’t think that I thought it to begin with anyway, but upon discovering these things today it’s clear that I did. And that’s fine. Learning is always a good thing, and the more I can learn about this thing that I keep doing with my time, the better. I assume. I suppose I can only assume, because it also occurs to me that I might never actually learn everything there is to know about writing a book. Infinite learning. Which means, by my standards, infinite good!

And it’s also quite comforting, honestly, coming back to this project that I haven’t worked on for over 2 years and finding that I’m still connected to it in this way. Tallulah has taught me so much about myself as a writer, as a person in general, and even after this hiatus it seems I can just jump right back in and have things be exactly the same, like meeting an old friend after a long absence, one you know so well that your friendship is like muscle memory. And it reminds me that I don’t have this kind of relationship with any of my other books.

I’d like to change that.

I’m not sure of the full ramifications of what I’ve been realising over the course of the past 3 hours since finally finishing my notes on this despicably awfully-written chapter, but I want to find out.

Totally fine

Today I finally sat down and started reading the 4th readthrough of my manuscript. Whatever excited clarity I had a month or so ago is well and truly gone, sad to say. But I did get inspired: I was inspired to go back and read the zero draft.

I wanted to know what had changed, why exactly I made the changes that I did, the discomforts that prompted this revision. So I went back and re-read the second chapter, which is kind of the most important chapter because it’s where all events are set in motion. I read what I’d originally written, expecting it to be monstrous and unwieldy and frustrating.

It might actually be better than what I revised it into.

I’m really put out by this. On the one hand – yeah, sure I can just go cut-and-paste stuff so that it all fits back in. But the superstitious part of me now worries that with each pass of revisions I’m making this story worse instead of better. I know that structurally what I did with the revision had a more concise, less unbearable-to-read end result, but some of the content was inevitably lost in the process, and it’s content that has a certain depth and richness that isn’t in the new revision.

It’s kind of like comparing Batman Returns to Batman Begins. The Nolan films are very clinical. They have a clear structure, even if that structure is privileged more than the internal logic that powers the story and ends up feeling very contrived in places. It holds together very cleanly, but perhaps a little too cleanly. Burton’s film, by contrast, is a terrible film structurally; where Nolan has forced contrivances, Burton has an almost aggressive disregard for clarity and cohesion. But the tone of Returns is what makes it so oddly engrossing; it’s less of a movie and more of a Lacanian essay (a pretty good one, admittedly), but the upsetting fusion of camp whimsy and abject misery that overshadows the goings-on is, in many ways, the main character.

And Catwoman. Catwoman is the main character also. Embarrassingly so.

It has more guts than Nolan’s films, and while I prefer watching Nolan’s version of the Dark Knight legend, I admire what Burton brought to it, in all its fucked-up glory.

That’s kind of how I feel when I compare these two drafts. The zero draft is, to put it bluntly, unusable in terms of telling a story. It’s too sprawling and unfocused, too indecisive. It feels like a chore to read it from around the mid-section until almost the very end. But every now and then there’s a seam of depth and rawness that the more polished revised version doesn’t have. What the revision does have is a better structure, tighter pacing and something resembling continuity (aside from all the continuity errors that are there because I’m lazy), but it comes with a number of very uncomfortable, trying-really-hard-to-be-meaningful moments that I am almost as embarrassed to admit I even wrote as a lot of the zero draft.

Currently I want to painstakingly read through all of this revised draft and make changes as I go, chapter-by-chapter, pretty much. I don’t think I can take another readthrough. But maybe that’s because the first half of the story is the part that seems easiest to revise, and I just want a sense of accomplishment for its own sake. I did plan to read the whole thing today, and I think I can do it. I’m just not sure I’m in the right frame of mind to really get anything out of it.

On top of that, reading just a little bit of the zero draft made me miss it, and while on the one hand I may just be prone to missing things, it is also possible that I made some revisions that didn’t need to be made at all. I know part of the goal I had in mind when I was revising was to cut it down to around 80k words, simply because that was the figure I’d heard YA novels are supposed to be if you’re trying to shop them around. I mean there was also way too much internal dialogue and a lot of it was indecisive and infuriating to try and keep up with, but some of what I cut out I probably didn’t need to.

Then again, before I went back to read it, I literally couldn’t remember what was even in the zero draft. And if I can’t remember it, can it really be that important?

I think I have a different story on my hands than when I started this whole thing, and I think that’s a good thing.

All right. I’ll read it. (The current version.) It was my plan; and you should always stick to the plan, even if only to find out that it’s a bad plan and you should do something else. That’s something worth being certain about. And I still have to work out how to juggle these characters’ sub-plots and work them into the main plot in a satisfying way, because currently it’s really dispersed and kinda jarring. I think. Maybe not.

So I should read it and find out.

Ignore this post; everything is totally fine.