hours and words (eventually) make a manuscript

Posted on Posted in away come away, journal, writing life

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, and as is periodically inevitable, lately I've been struggling with morale. C'est la vie.

I've hit that spot in writing a novel where the whole thing feels trivial and trifling. Although if I'm honest, it's a feeling that's been plaguing me since I can't remember when; and because I have a nasty habit of high expectations, and wanting everything I attempt to be (at least subjectively) worthwhile, the pressure for this novel to be spectacular is beginning to effect my ability to actually write the damn thing.

This novel has been difficult from the get-go, and I've come up with a hundred reasons why, and ways to fix it, but somehow none of them seem quite to explain everything. When I was writing Shadow Queen, I had a certainty that there was something about that book that would work, not just for me but for other people. Which turned into a bit of a superstition because it went on to sell, and sit on actual bookstore shelves for other people to read. So it's been bugging me that, for a long time, I haven't had a similar certainty about the faerie novel.

But superstition is not going to stop me from finishing it, for the closure if for nothing else. Perhaps that certainty will become apparent during the rewrites — it isn't wise for a writer to trust her own mindset or judgement when she's a long way into the hard slog of a novel, after all, and it's still a story I'm enjoying, which means it's still a story I believe in. (Although I have given myself permission to skip such pesky things as transitions and leave them for the next draft.)

As if to reward me for such self-enlightenment, the internet has since been sending me little reminders. One was a conversation about the power of the square bracket (hello transition which reads simply: [they go here]!), and the other was a post by John Barnes on the effort of quality:

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly at first.

I've seen this advice before, of course, more often in other guises. Give yourself permission to write a shoddy first draft. Write first, edit later. You can edit shit, but you can't edit a blank page.

The post has other gems as well — I particularly liked the remark that fiction doesn't depict nearly enough failure. As an engineer and a writer, I know what it's like to smack my head against a variety of brick walls and seemingly end up nowhere, so that trying apparently-fruitless approaches seems viable and failures teach you more about your task than achievements ever could.

The last reminder (so far) has been a startling realisation, just yesterday, of what's wrong with the faeries: I don't want them to be faeries. Somewhere in this draft I'd gotten too caught up in everybody else's mythologies, and they lost their vibrancy for me. So fixing that will change everything. Again. (I've lost count of how many fundamental everything-changing realisations I've had to slog through 100,000 words for in this book.) (This time, I shall be very good and NOT go back to the start again; I shall simply make a note in the margin for the next draft and, pretending it's fixed already, and forge ahead.)

Out of curiosity, the other day I had occasion to count all the hours and words I've spent on the faerie novel to date.

The answer? 483 hours, spread over a stint of days that add up to about 3 and a quarter years. (The first word was written in 2007.) In total, I've written 168,000 words of manuscript draft, 141,000 of them from scratch. (At one point I reached 95,000 words before scrapping all of them because of a startling realisation that made them redundant. That hurt. So far it looks like I've managed to salvage about 20,000 of those 95,000, but it was in such an altered form it may as well have been from scratch as well.)

Having said that, by the time I was done with Shadow Queen (including all publication-level edits etc), I'd spent 1,143 hours, and Shadow Bound cost me 871 hours.

So looks like I'm still only halfway at best on this sucker. Onward and upward.