In case you have been waiting in a tormented agony of suspense, here’s the good news: I made it through November’s NaNoWriMo juggernaut with more than 50,000 words of a novel. Unfortunately, they aren’t the rightwords. I hit November 30th with a story that had really just started cooking, and thousands of flaccid, extraneous, ridiculous words weighting down the beginning in such a way that even the most kindly and determined reader might fall into a deep sleep while trying to reach the “good” part. If my goal was only to write 50,000 words, I’d be done. If my goal was to write a really long story, I’d be in the home stretch right around New Year’s Day. Since my goal is to write a tight, compelling, readable novel, I have miles to go before I sleep.
I am learning many things as I go, and while Annie Lamott is in no danger of being de-throned by my thoughts on the process of writing. I feel a compulsion to share. Also, if I’m really honest with myself, the combination of the holidays, my holiday-related work schedule and trying to keep writing 1667 words every day is driving me to blog mindlessly. For me, it’s the literary equivalent of drinking Lime Rickeys in an airport bar and eating the stale cracker mix out of little bowls (knowing that 27 people before you have fondled every pretzel, goldfish and peanut) instead of making a nourishing, kale soup.
I am not a social writer. I have always hated talking about writing, reading about writing, and talking to people about talking or reading about writing. It is not because I think no one should do those things, or because I think they are objectively “bad;” they are simply not my thing. They make me sweat, and doubt myself, and break out in virtual hives. I read Bird By Bird , which I adored, and all of Natalie Goldberg, but that’s it. My mother insists that my first intelligible sentence was “me do it myself,” and 47-ish years later I stand by that sentiment. I write alone, and I do not read “Writer’s Digest,” books about writing novels, websites about writing novels, or anything else related in any way to writing anything. If I were not me, I would not read this blog post.
I know that even dipping my dainty toe into the Writing Advice universe at this point in my process would totally paralyze me with doubt, confusion and the compulsion to hit “back space” 50,000+ times. I read what I’ve written to my husband every day, and he (who is blessedly free of literary pretension) tells me straight up what doesn’t make sense, what stopped him cold, and anything else I need to know. Often, I get really, really mad, and extraordinarily unpleasant. He is, however, a good, honest, gauge for me, and I am grateful even as I fume. When a draft is finished and edited, I’ll show it to a few other trusted souls, but for now it stays in the family.
Writing this book is like method acting. I am writing about teenagers, and witchcraft. On my desk at this moment is a pile of “Seventeen” and “Nylon” magazines, Delia’s and Alloy catalogues, and books about drawing down the moon, casting circles, and enchanting crystals. I ask my 14-year-old-son and his friends questions that embarrass and torment him, questions like “if a girl really liked you and you didn’t like her like her, but she was okay, and you found out she liked you liked you, how would you act around her?” I want my characters’ clothes to be right, and their speech patterns, and their attitudes about life in the 21st century because there is nothing lamer than a YA book in which the author writes contemporary young characters who say things like “that was really neat.” Then I wrestle with the whole issue of making it too contemporary, so that it can’t ever be a “timeless classic” because the characters listen to and watch things that will be dated in five minutes and distract a reader. Then I smack myself upside my head for having the nerve to think that I am writing A Wrinkle in Time,because really, I’m not.
As for the witchcraft stuff, I find myself launched on a whole course of study for the sake of authenticity. I can make things up (and I do) but I like the idea that the fundamentals are real and basically correct. As I build my knowledge base, I find myself wondering at the fortitude of writers of historical fiction. I am sometimes annoyed by the three minutes it takes me to stop writing to Google a factoid, but those writers spend months assembling an historical scaffolding on which to build their fictional dwelling. Of course, as with everything else under the sun, I can second-guess myself to death in the arena of authenticity: if I am too accurate, am I basically writing some kind of barely fictionalized Pagan handbook for teenagers? If I try to make the witches moral people am I going to annoy teen readers with my heavy-handed insistence on Doing The Right Thing?
I have no idea what I’m doing. This has, at all relevant times, been the lynchpin of my novel-writing venture. I didn’t know if I was a plotter/outliner or a “go with it” person until I started; now I know that I’m a bit of both, and that I “went with it” for way too long at the beginning, before I started thinking about the fact that something eventually had to happen so that the reader didn’t grow old and die waiting. I didn’t know if I could sit down and “write my words” every day, but it turns out that I can. I didn’t know how helpful a 51-year-old man could be in shaping a book for 15-year-old girls.
And now, it’s time to put down the Lime Rickey, leave the comforting, half-darkness of this airport bar and get back to the bright lights and strong coffee of finishing the damned novel.