Thursday, July 21st, 2011
I’ve been on an unannounced, unintended hiatus. But don’t worry, there’s nothing bad going on to distract me. It’s just that for the past few months, all my writing mojo has been expended in the service of my manuscript.
My goal was to finish my novel (set in Alabama during the Civil War) by my 30th birthday. I am proud to say I met that goal with two hours to spare! (My other goal, to lose all my pre-pregnancy weight by my birthday, was not entirely successful, but I was only 4 pounds away at the time and now 3 pounds away … not too bad.)
I got the idea for the novel three years ago after I quit my 9 to 5 job to work from home. Somehow, I stumbled across an obscure historical incident that was really interesting and decided if I tweaked it a bit it would make a good story. I wrote an outline and 15,000 words or so.
Then what always happens to me when I try to to write historical fiction happened. I got bogged down in the research. I wanted everything to be as accurate as possible, as close to the truth as possible, and I froze.
Another major factor in my procrastination: this coincided with the time when we decided to adopt a child. I focused my energy on doing research for that, preparing our profiles, getting the house ready for the home study. Oh yeah, and obsessing and worrying myself to a frazzle every second of the day and night. That kind of thing takes up a lot of time.
Then this spring after the April 27 tornado, I reconnected on facebook with two of my closest college friends, who moved to California years ago to get in the movie biz. Turned out the two of them are still friends and also writing partners. They’d written a young adult novel (and were working on the sequel), and they had an agent. They were looking for beta readers for their current work, so I eagerly signed up and threw myself into it with gusto. I hadn’t realized I missed editing until I was doing it again. For other people, editing probably sounds like torture. For me, it is like bliss.
I recently took a Meyer Brigg personality quiz and determined I am an INTJ, which really, really values logic and problem-solving. I think that’s the reason editing is so appealing to me. Whenever I rapturously describe the joy of editing (while my audience’s eyes glaze over), I always say it’s like a puzzle, and you’re trying to find the perfect word and order to make it fit together.
Anyway, while happily working on my friends’ books, I admit I also felt jealous. My dream since childhood was to write books (literally, I thought I was going to be like S.E. Hinton, the author of The Outsiders, and write a book by the time I was 16), and I wasn’t doing anything to make it happen. But they were. One of these friends and I had been Creative Writing minors together, had classes together, were on the staff of the Marr’s Field Journal together; we were of similar talent, and here she was doing what she’d dreamed, and I wasn’t.
It lit a fire under me. I buzzed back to my chock-full “Writing” file on my desktop … chock full of half-finished stories and novels and half-formed ideas, that is. The first one I revisited was this story about a prisoner of war camp in Alabama and the women who helped make it bearable, because it had been the best formed and felt to me like it had the best potential.
I started working. I stayed up late after Ruby went to bed, writing like a fiend. I wrote while she was at Granny’s, I wrote between working on adding products to the website. I formatted the manuscript for my Kindle and took one of my old reporter’s notebooks on vacation to the beach and jotted notes, because I couldn’t stand to be away from my book for that many days.
I did research as I went along, but I tried not to get bogged down in making everything perfectly, exactly like the past. The first-person accounts of that time and place (and there are many) all differed slightly, and I realized the truth itself was elusive.
I sought advice and support from my friends, who had done it, actually finished their book and polished it and found an agent. They said, “This is the first draft. Just keep writing. Just get it down.”
And I did. The book grew and grew, sometimes in 500-word sputters, other times in 7,000-word bursts. It got big enough that knew I would finish this time. I set the goal of finishing by my birthday.
The night before I turned 30, I had only a couple of pages left to write. D and Ruby went to bed, and I stayed up alone to nail down the final paragraphs in the blissful silence of the dark house. The words flowed easily because I already knew what would happen. And then I was done with my first draft. I’d gone from 15,000 words to 106,764 in just over two months, and I went to bed glowing with the pride of accomplishment.
Of course, a first draft is only that. There is much editing to do (my favorite part!), and then I’ll send it, with equal parts terror and eagerness, to my own beta readers to get their opinions on whether my time has been well spent.
It’s so hard to get distance from my own work that I am at least half-convinced it’s terrible and will never be published. But there’s that other half that says, “Edit, edit, edit. Of course, it’s terrible now. But it won’t be.” That half is holding out hope that one day I might see a book, this book, on a shelf with my name on the cover.
So wish me luck. I said I was going to wait a couple of weeks to start editing, but I only made it three days. Let the puzzle-solving commence!