I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel I started writing twenty years ago, when I took off a year after college to write. Shortly after writing the first three scenes, I realized I didn’t know enough about life to write the book these characters deserved, and I put it aside to focus on other projects. Many years later, I picked it up again, got halfway through, and then got completely derailed by the intensity of applying to and studying in rabbinical school. This summer I tore it down to its component parts, took the pieces that were essential to its heart, and started over from scratch. And now, finally, I have something with a beginning, middle, and end.
It’s always been a story of a young person grappling with responsibility for the first time. It’s always been a disgruntled postal worker and a teen mom saving the universe. But when I started writing, I had no concept of privilege, or institutional racism. Understanding how much those concepts were baked into the universe I’d created, and having my character realize they’re in the wrong, has been essential to the story this time around. Which means it’s going to take a few drafts to make sure I’m not doing something awful or exploitative at someone else’s expense.
Definitely not done yet. But the milestone still feels good.
When last we left our heroes, I had decided to keep working on my book using Nanowrimo’s interface for accountability, but not beat myself up for not being able to work at their breakneck pace for a month on a novel that’s already taken me more than 20 years. I decided a more sane and sustainable pace would be 60,000 words in 60 days.
In the end, I wrote about 55,000 words in two months. I was ahead of the curve when the semester started, then classes took over my brain. I had a brief return to glory when my school gave us a week off, but when I had to go back to school, I had to shut down my writing brain. I stopped a tantalizing scene and a half from the finish line: it’s RIGHT THERE, and I simply can’t work on it anymore until we go on break.
Writing out the plot beats for each character turned out to be the secret weapon for this book, particularly because this has always been a book about a self-centered young person who learns to love and communicate with people vastly different from themselves. I needed to think through what those other characters wanted in those early scenes where the main character is oblivious to them, and it means those characters are much more compelling all the way through.
I’m hoping that once I get my feet under me, I can finish off the first draft, use November to go back over what I’ve written and clean it up (for one thing, there’s a lot of timeline/continuity issues I need to settle), and then start showing it to my beta readers this winter.
Here’s hoping I have the strength to take this over the finish line.
We’re coming up on the end of the month, so it’s time for an honest check-in about NaNoWriMo, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in reverse order:
The ugly: I spent a lot of this month realizing what wasn’t working, setting aside what I’d written, and starting over, which means I’ve gone through five complete revisions of chapter one and written what probably amounts to 15,000 words in total without making a ton of “real” progress. Some highlights from this process include making an excel spreadsheet of every plot and character element in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” comparing it to my story, realizing several of my characters have no motivation for their actions in key scenes, and revising accordingly, gender-swapping my main character, fleshing out that character’s backstory, and realizing her story needs to start totally differently than her brother’s did, which also allows me to introduce the villain and the main plot threads in the first scene, and realizing that I had the wrong stakes for the story’s climax. That’s kind of a lot, and figuring it out was even messier and more piecemeal than it appears here. Not to mention, I’m probably not done figuring everything out yet.
The bad: I got sidetracked by helping other people with urgent projects. When my own creative work isn’t going well, it’s hard for me to take it seriously. It’s easier to help someone else and feel competent, even essential, rather than sit and stew in my own frustrated creativity, to respect my writing time and demand others respect it as well.
The good: I figured out some important storytelling techniques that will help me in the long run. I took a story I’ve been holding on to since I was 19 and figured out what bits are really essential to the story I need to tell and which are not. I haven’t written every day, I’ve maybe written a third of the days, but the writing days have often meant ten hours or more working on my story, and even the days that I wouldn’t count as writing days were days when my last thought before I went to bed and my first thought when I woke up were about how to make my story better.
So. NaNoWriMo was both a success and a failure: I got back to the page, I did a ton of work on my story, and I have almost no usable writing to show for it. Essentially I’m starting over from scratch and I’m going to try to write this as a full-length novel through August and September, recognizing that school and the High Holidays are probably going to complicate that timetable. I’m probably going to use Nanowrimo’s interface to keep track of my writing. Onward…
My friend Betsy said something yesterday that blew my mind. (Content warning for people who really can’t handle depressing Covid scenarios right now.)
We know that the virus mutates quickly, and we’re already seeing regional strains. However, we don’t yet know whether previous exposure or vaccines to one type will protect against other types. This could mean that Covid pushes people to become more insular: we would interact with people in our local bubble but avoid outsiders. My writerly brain went instantly to the world-building implications: Communities would become more self-sufficient and inter-generational, with a resurgence of regional food, accents, arts, some people telecommuting, but a lot of needs taken care of within the local community. (Perhaps akin to the world of Marge Piercy’s “He, She and It.”) Cities would go back to their medieval roots: the place where people go to escape limitations and succeed beyond the possibilities of their home communities, but with a far higher death rate than the countryside.
Betsy, though, reminded me of the social justice implications: that if people become more suspicious of/distant from those outside their little bubbles, it will be harder to muster empathy for others or be willing to risk ourselves to stand up for those who are not in our own groups. The protests for black lives, the fight for indigenous rights, the need to protect refugees, to mitigate the damage we’ve done to the environment, we’ve seen in recent weeks how urgently needed these things are and how doable they are even in the age of Covid. We can’t let those muscles atrophy even if the new normal looks radically different from what came before.
One week in, I’ve realized that I need to completely overhaul my main character and the arcs for the supporting characters as well, which means A, I’ve spent at least 12 hours of intense work on behind-the-scenes stuff which doesn’t actually add to my word count and B, most of what I’ve already written has to be tossed as I start over fresh. It’s incredibly frustrating, particularly during a month when I feel this external pressure to make forward progress at a particular clip. But I also think this will make the story work in ways it wasn’t coming together before. And I want to be honest with you guys about where I am instead of pretending everything’s going swimmingly.
So that’s where I am: working hard, feeling good about where I’m going, way behind on my word count but in it for the long haul, however long it takes. And feeling grateful to my friend Trai Cartwright for reminding me that a good manuscript requires a ton of writing that will never show up in the finished product, because that’s how you get to the good stuff.
This is going to sound like a humblebrag, and I REALLY don’t mean it to be, I’m just super excited to have FINALLY figured out something important for my writing.
The most common feedback I get about my characters is that they’re unlikeable, and I’ve never understood why, because their behavior is within the range of characters I love whom everyone agrees are very likeable and compelling. But this morning, rereading a book by another author, I finally got it. Caring about other people is so natural to me that it’s rarely a matter of conscious thought. When I write, the things I make explicit are the things that are NOT obvious, but I don’t discuss the ways in which the character cares about other people, because it’s a given for me. But not everyone thinks that way, and so my audience, not knowing whether this character is supposed to be good, mean, calculating, etc. doesn’t assume that compassion is there unless I tell them so. To me, being this explicit feels as awkward as announcing aloud, “I’m opening the refrigerator door to get the orange juice, because I want juice this morning,” but at least I FINALLY know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.
It’s fascinating to me that I always assumed the big event I lived through that I’d be asked to recount for younger generations would be 9/11, or the Challenger explosion. I had no idea of the paradigm shift that would mean the experiences I most need to revisit are Anita Hill’s testimony, Rodney King’s beating, OJ’s trial, the savaging of Monica Lewinsky. I certainly didn’t imagine that Columbine would mark a sea change to school shootings as a daily fact of life, making that particular event unremarkable. It makes me wonder whether the events people lived through in centuries past had similar mismatches between what they thought was significant and what future generations focused on.
Thought for the morning: You know that quote about whoever causes one life to be lost, it’s as though they have destroyed a whole world, but whoever saves a single person, it’s as though they have saved a whole world? It’s from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5. It’s the injunction given to witnesses in capital cases. Which means that it isn’t just a nice aphorism about people in general, it’s meant to prevent miscarriages of justice. It’s meant to apply to people who are suspected of crimes that might warrant the death penalty (let alone petty crimes!). Even if you don’t know all the details. Even if you’re not sure if they were resisting arrest or just trying to catch their balance, their breath. It is THEIR lives you must be most careful with, you, the witnesses, the bystanders. You hold their lives in your hands and you have a responsibility to save and sustain their lives, to not allow their whole world to be destroyed. Black. Lives. Matter.
…I had the thrill of hearing two tween girls pausing on opposite sides of a street with their bikes for social distance, putting on British accents and pretending to be spies contacting each other on a mission. One of them was codenamed Side-Eye. I am so delighted by their awesomeness.