Well, how about that? I know it shouldn’t surprise me, but somehow it does. I did it. I finished The Nine, epilogue and all, which of course means that I’ve completed at least the first draft of the entire Mirrors of Bershan trilogy. Wow. I still can’t believe I’ve done it. It’s just so unprecedented in my life.
Let me see if I can explain this. I’m normally very good at starting things. I love beginnings and all the promise and hope they hold, and I’m not just talking about stories. I loved starting both high school and university. I love starting new jobs in some ways too, the stress of trying to be immediately perfect at them aside. I adore moving into a new apartment, however much I hate actually moving (that’s always a saga with me, trust me). Everything is pristine and I haven’t screwed anything up yet. I’m energized by the newness and possibility of it all.
And then time passes and reality sets in. Daily grind sets in. See? Even the language I use to describe it shows that I’m not much for middles. Historically, I rarely get through them. I held my first job for just over 5 years, largely because I was going to school most of the time, so it wasn’t the big focus of my life. After that, I think I’ve topped out at a year and a half before I leave a job, and I usually want out long before then. We won’t discuss the number of stories I’ve started then lost track of/interest in/desire to continue during the middle.
I’m starting to think that this new phase of me finishing things is partly a change in me as a person on a deeper level. I’m making it through the middle of things. I’m learning to let go of the day to day, the grind, to let it fade into a gestalt journey and embrace the parts that I enjoy, how to manage better with the things I don’t too.
Having finished a few novels now, and a whole trilogy, I’m realizing that finishing in and of itself was never the problem. Every story has an end. One goes with every beginning. I have no problem with that idea, as much as I’m going to miss Tavis and Fay and all of the other characters I’ve come to know and love in these books. No, it was learning to keep focus and direction in the middle that I lacked, and looking back, I really think that it was lack of planning and sufficient thought that held me back.
Maybe this isn’t the case for everyone, but for me, excitement about an idea isn’t enough. I need time to roll an idea around in my mind, to ask it questions, turn it over and around to see how it works. I have to ask myself over and over again, what else, what more, is that all, in order to get to the heart and soul of the story. If I start writing when I first get the idea, I haven’t done all of that. Oh, don’t get me wrong, excitement and a vague idea will get me part way. I can do a good 30-40k before I run out of that, based on past experience, but I still end up with some version of standing on a plain, lost without a path, and that means dead novel.
I’ve found the way to avoid that. I’ll admit, planning wasn’t part of my original, well, plan on how I was going to go about being a writer. From reading writers forums for years and blogs more recently, I think that it’s rarely part of any writer’s plan on how they’ll practice the craft. It’s neither sexy nor exciting, but rather unpleasantly pragmatic if you’re the sort who feel like you should be discovering the story as part of writing it. If that process works for you, then by all means, continue. But I know of more than a few people out there who have some of the same problems I used to, and not just the whole not-finishing issue, people who resolutely say that they cannot plan out their novel. It’s all in the frame of mind though, I’m telling you. I go through that whole discovery phase during the outline, which might be why I write it in an entirely linear fashion, beginning to end. I discover there what comes next. That’s where I let my characters try to side-track the story before I herd them back on the path if it doesn’t seem to be working out. When a minor character jumps up and says “But I’m a supporting major character”, that’s where it happens and I take a good long look to see if they’re right.
I’m really not trying to proselytize here, to be the outline evangelist. I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone. Anyone who has been reading this blog for long will know that I believe that everyone’s process will be unique, that you shouldn’t let any book, person, blog or article tell you that there’s only one way to be a successful writer (i.e. the kind that writes a whole story). What I do want to say is that if you’re having trouble finishing, or your not happy with the quality of your work and think you can produce a better first draft than you do, try something different. Maybe you’ve been trying to be a pantser for years like I did and it’s not working for you, so you need the structured environment of an outline to help you figure out the whole story beforehand. Or maybe you’re the opposite, doing up great outlines and reams of notes but never actually writing the manuscript. In that case, maybe you need to just once try banging on the keyboard while the idea is fresh and burning in your brain, while your characters are still close and whispering in your ears, begging for their turn, their moment. Just try something different, even small changes, if the same old way isn’t working for you, or isn’t working anymore, or just isn’t working for that idea. I know we all have limited time and we don’t want to waste it on an idea or process that won’t work, but I’m living proof that it might work, however unlikely you think it is to do so. And think of all the time you’d be wasting banging your head into a wall that isn’t helping you. Give it some serious thought if you’re having trouble and you think that maybe it’s process-related.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten all that out of my system (I honestly didn’t know that was in there until I started banging on the keyboard, I swear), I’ll throw out the final tally for you and the night’s picture. As you might well imagine, between the above and finishing The Nine, my brain’s like a wrung out sponge at the moment. And yet it’s still trying to work on rewriting Bound already. I swear, total glutton for punishment. That’s me.
The Nine has clocked in at 92,437 words, which makes it far and away my longest workable draft. I am no longer going to count the first draft of Bound, because the thought of opening the document makes me cringe, since I vaguely remember how bad it was and how wrong I was about what the story was about. Oh well, I learned a lot, both from writing that draft and from throwing it out to start over. Those lessons are well worth the 107k words it cost me. You may have noticed, I have no shortage of words to use.