So I’m setting out to write the third novella in the Miriam Aster trilogy this month. It’s been one of those projects that’s been sitting on my to-do list for far too long, and I’d largely blocked out the month of May in order to get it done when I sat down to plan out my year of writing.
As my writing projects go, this one is fairly significant: approximately 30,000 words of narrative while dealing with two novellas worth of back-story and a whole heap of reader expectations that need to be met. This is at odds with my natural impulses when writing fiction – 8,000 words tends to be my comfort zone, and the only time I’ve ever revisited a setting is when I wrote Bleed as the sequel to Horn back in 2009.
So I figured I’d try live-blogging the writing process, both to keep myself honest and ’cause I spend so much time writing about process in general terms for work that it’d be nice to write about something specific.
Also, to be honest, ’cause I want to be conscious of some of the things that I’m doing; I’d like to have a good feel for what my writing day really looks like in terms of getting words down.
SOME BACKGROUND DETAILS WORTH KNOWING
Here’s the first thing you need to know: writing this book scares the shit out of me.
It was originally meant to be finished back in November of 2010, giving Twelfth Planet time to do a 2011 release and do the whole three-books-in-three-years approach to Aster’s storyline. Then my life got complicated. I’ve posted the how and why a couple of times in the archives of this blog, but the short version: my dad had a heart attack; I ended three years of unemployment by getting a job in a toxic workplace that crushed my soul; my writing time, such as it was, got moved on to other projects where I struggled to meet deadlines.
I hate missing deadlines. Really, really hate it. And in the period from November 2010 until the end of 2011, I hit exactly one of the fourteen deadlines on my schedule. Even today, I’m still struggling to get back to the point where I can get everything done. That did some evil shit to my already battered psyche.
And yet, none of this is the entire story. Writers get derailed all the time, for all sorts of reasons, and they manage to come back from it. I hit the end of 2011 and basically disappeared into my job, blithely telling everyone I wasn’t really a writer anymore.
THE BIT I DON’T TALK ABOUT IS THE FEAR
Y’see, Horn wasn’t meant to be published. It was a story I wrote on a dare, just to prove that I could, and it only really became a novella ’cause Angela Slatter heard me reading a fragment of the autopsy scene once and kept badgering me to finish it. She then more-or-less shepherded the book through the publication process, recommending it to Twelfth Planet, and making use of her phenomenal network of writer-types to get it more attention than I ever expected to get.
And people seemed to like the book. I mean, really like it. Despite the fact that it went somewhere fairly graphic and unpleasant about three quarters of the way through.
And I desperately wanted Bleed to be a better book than its predecessor. And it’s possible, in some ways, that it is; I tried to do more, to stretch myself as a writer, and it didn’t rely on the…well, let’s call it stunt writing… that gave Horn its notoriety. There are plenty of people who like it and I doubt they’re all lying to me just to soothe my rumpled writer-ego.
Despite all this, Bleed fell short of my ambitions. It remains on the list of projects that should have been better. It’s too much of a sequel, not enough of a stand-alone story. There are bits I still read and wince, ’cause I know I could do them different now and maybe they’d improve things. There’s a whole bit in there that’s basically a dream sequence, and that bugs me.
And for three years now, I’ve been carrying the idea for Claw around in my head, telling myself it’ll be the chance to rectify that. To produce the book, more or less, that I always hoped Bleed would be.
And I am weary of being afraid. I am weary of using that as an excuse for things that are simply not yet done.
So the plan, such as it is, is to record notes of what I get down every time I open up the manuscript on my writing computer. Some days this could be quite busy. Some days, hopefully, it’ll be a handful of posts. Either way, I’m trying to get a feel for exactly how I go about working on this sort of project, since I have a feeling that it’s going to fly up against all sorts of writing wisdom.
Session 1.1 (8:00 AM – 9:00 AM)
Word count: 282
I didn’t pick May by accident.
My year is a patchwork quilt of busy-periods, largely due to the day-job and a bunch of teaching commitments, which meant May was easily the free period where I could get some sustained work done on a project.
Better yet, it’s the month after the Australian Natcon, where I had the opportunity to double-check whether Twelfth Planet were still interested in a third book and catch up with a bunch of people who basically asked either a) what was I up to, writing wise, or b) if the third book was ever coming out.
I know, from experience, that I come out of Con’s motivated and ready to write. After a while, a writer-con is really just a reminder of how the Big Moat Theory of building a career in the creative arts really works, seeing how all the little projects add up to a reputation and a readership. It’s a chance to minimize the fear and hit the ground running, if only so I can get about 10,000 words into the manuscript before the self-doubt comes creeping up on me.
And while I’m technically starting today, without any real plan, there has been a whole bunch of prep work going on. I’ve reviewed all three of the previous attempts to write this book, looking for the bits I like. I’ve tried out, at current count, five different opening scenes in an attempt to figure out which is the best way to kick things off.
This is one of those things I’ve forgotten about my process: I rewrite like a motherfucker before moving on. None of those five openings have been 100% right, or even all that similar, but each time they’ve given me an element that I can use – a place, a voice, a new character who can get onstage.
There are writers who can just plough forward, content that they’ll fix things in the next draft, but I’m not one of them. I need that kick-off to be right. I need it to be a firm foundation that the entire damn story will be built around, particularly with the all the back-story I’m trying to cover. It flies against all sorts of conventional writing wisdom, but it’s the way I work.
Today is a day-job day, which means I’m working my minimum-acceptable-keyboard-time shift: the hour I’ve got before getting up and having to leave for work.
The morning’s word-count is cripplingly low, given that I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day and generally hope to hit 500 words an hour, but it’s less dire than it seems. There’s the framework of an old scene that that I’m using as a base – about eight or nine hundred words – and I’m overlaying the new bits on top.
It works. It’s not perfect – that’s a job for the redrafting – but it feels like a beginning and it covers the bits I think need covering. It locks down some characters from the previous book who are relevant to this one, introduces one of the central conflicts that makes Aster who she is, and sets the stage for the appearance of the new character who’ll be making the first chapter run.
Session 1.2 (5:52 PM – 6:06 PM)
Word count: 205 words
Fourteen minutes. 205 words. Such is the power of hitting the bits where I write dialogue instead of scene-setting and back-story. Wrote what may or may not be the end of the first scene. I’ve made three attempts to open a web-browser while doing this, despite the fact that I set up an internet-free writing computer especially for May in order to get his done. Turns out going internet free was a damn good idea.
Also a good idea: sitting down to hammer out words despite the fact that I knew I had, at most, a handful of minutes. Going out to dinner with my Flatmate and Downstairs Neighbour soon. Figure this may involve alcohol, which means there’s good odds there will be no more writing this evening.
Session 1.3 (8:50 PM – 9:34 PM)
Word count: 458 words
Back from dinner at the local bowls club. Had a ten dollar schnitzel while hanging with my Flatmate and Neighbour. The decision to blog the writing process of the novella pays dividends when I decide to limit myself to one beer. Am now slightly bummed, as I always am when I hang with these two; I know I’ll be moving at the end of this year, and odds are against me being able to afford to stay in this area, which means there’s likely to be considerably less hanging out, and my Flatmate and Downstairs Neighbour are pretty awesome.
Still in a dialogue intensive part of the screen, which means it’s relatively easy to get a burst of wordage done. I stopped writing once I hit my needed daily word count (1,000 words), and I’m in the middle of a scene that’ll make it possible to pick things up pretty easily on the morning.
My pattern seems to be 15-20 minutes of work, a quick twitter check-in, and another 15-20 minutes of work. This bothers me a bit – I used to be a lot better at focusing on writing and I’d rather be working in 40 to 50 minute chunks – but it’s nice to know it’s possible to hit the day’s expected word-count by nibbling away at it.
Total Daily Writing Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Daily Total: 1,035
Manuscript total: 1,035