Some authors get an idea for a book and finish writing it within a year or two. Others let their story ferment for a decade before they set it down on paper. I don’t seem to be either of these types – I’ve been working at a novel on and off for over a decade. It needs at least one more rewrite before I can think about sending it to an agent or publisher.
What’s taking me so long?
Short answer: life. Being disabled. Being a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student. University took huge bites out of my mental and physical endurance, for all that I loved what I was learning.
Looking back, I also seem to be vulnerable to the influence of whatever fiction I was reading at the moment. My pacing became more deliberate after I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement at thirteen, and I blame my attempts at a verse novel on The Odyssey, which was assigned in my first year of university.
Plot, point of view, title and characters have all morphed as I wrote them. Writing this novel has been a weird, delightful, infuriating journey.
For your entertainment, here’s a timeline of my early years as a writer.
2003: My first attempts at a novel. I find that writing is not quite as exciting as my daydreams of being published, earning great success, and then starring in a movie adaptation, but I persist.
2004-2006: I fill several notebooks with variations on the same fantasy adventure story. I don’t yet understand the concept of rational world building: my protagonist has exceptional magical powers, but she rarely uses them to solve the problems. My antagonist exists simply to be evil.
2007-2008: I read how-to books on writing and take copious notes. In the light of this newfound wisdom, I realise that my earlier work is not fit for public consumption.
2008: In our treehouse, on a spring day, I start writing a fresh draft of my story. I’m certain that I will finish it this time instead of giving up after a few hundred words – I have written plot outlines and character profiles, and studied different cultures to make my fantasy world more believable. But school begins to demand a lot of time and focus; I can only work on my novel in short occasional bursts. During the holidays, I alternate between visiting family, reading for ten or more hours a day, and scribbling ideas for stories that have nothing to do with the novel I meant to finish last summer (and the summer before that).
2012: At last, the first draft is finished! But when I read it over, I can’t stand it. There are clichés and inconsistencies everywhere. I never want to look at it again.
2013: I make a few attempts at starting draft two. Despite having several new ideas, I can’t make anything happen after 500 words. University preparation takes priority for most of the year.
2014: I want to submit an excerpt of the novel to my creative writing class, but I still haven’t begun draft two. Determined to produce something, I enter a trance-like state in front of my laptop and pound out the first chapter…in verse. Strange. I’ve never tried to tell a story in poetic form before, but the novelty of the idea makes me feel avant-garde.
2015: I’ve produced a second chapter by February. It’s not in verse, but I’ve decided to alternate the narrative between prose and poetry for effect. Then it’s the end of the semester and I’m mired in essays, my infant story abandoned til summer.
2016: I write a chapter here and there, between semesters, and feel like I’m around the halfway point by the end of the year. I’m determined to avoid the melodrama and stereotypes I keep finding in YA fantasy, so my plot undergoes regular changes. Occasionally this leaves me so disoriented that I can’t describe what my novel is about. When I try to describe the central concept of the story to others it’s clear they either don’t understand or don’t think it’s plausible. Confusion is a common reaction in my writing classes too, whether to extracts from my novel or separate works of fiction.
And I start to wonder: how can I publish anything if my writing doesn’t make sense? Should I even bother to finish?
Part two of My Novel in Progress: A History is coming soon.