I hate my writing process.
I mostly try to avoid writing about writing in these updates, because there are about a bajillion other newsletters out there that are for writers. I don’t think I have much I can add to the genre. But this has been on my mind a lot, because even though this year I’ve done way, way more writing than last year — and felt way, way better about it — I also feel like I’m running on a treadmill, going exactly nowhere, and it’s frustrating as heck and some days I just want to throw my laptop out the window.
When I say I hate my writing process, what I mean is this: my process involves writing a whole freaking manuscript, realizing I hate it, throwing it out, and starting again. All I keep is the concept, character names, and the occasional nugget of a good idea that was buried in the crap version. Then, more often than not, I draft a whole second version from scratch, still hate it, and throw it all out again. And for all this, I’d like to note, I have an outline! I’m good at story structure! I always think I know what I want to the story to be, and think I’ll get it right this time, and then… don’t.
The version of Bound by Blood and Sand that I queried and eventually sold was actually the third version I’d written. Freed by Flame and Storm was only the second from-scratch version…but keep in mind both of those versions were written under deadline in the space of about seven months.
Since then, to recap: I spent 2017 writing a manuscript that was unsalvageable and stuck it in a drawer, never to be looked at again. In 2018, I was dealing with depression and burnout but managed to claw my way through a 58,000 word draft of a new fantasy project that I knew was terrible. 58k is short for a fantasy novel, but as messy as that draft was, the concept was good, so in 2019 I started rewriting it. Version 2 was written between January and July, and clocked in at 61,000 words, which is still super short — but this version actually had some potential. I let my agent and critique partners read it, got some feedback, and dove back in.
I made some major changes in the next rewrite. I upped my protagonist’s age and pulled her out of the royal family. I re-structured the first act entirely, giving the worldbuilding some space to breathe. I worked on it for months, and realized two things were true at the same time: 1) it was better than either of the previous two versions, and 2) it was somehow mostly just filler and was still going to come in super short, probably under 60k. Which was frustrating, because I really really didn’t want to start again, but also because I had no idea where I was going wrong.
So I pressed forward and began thinking about the rest of the series — because I was picturing this as a first book out of two or three. I figured, maybe I was breaking off the book at the wrong point and I could lengthen it by pulling in some of my ideas for the next book. I did some brainstorming, made some notes, and went back to writing with all that swimming around in my mind.
Then a few days later as I was sitting at my day job, it occurred to me: what if it’s all one book? At lunch time I grabbed a notebook and jotted down this:
I know that is a pretty much impossible-to-read scribble, but it’s generally how I structure my books: four quarters spread across three acts with a big change in the middle. And everything I’d written in my draft? That’s all right there in the first column, that one big note. In other words, what I thought was a first book is, in fact, a first act. Which explains why so much of it was filler, and it still was so short! There was never enough going on in it to be a satisfying story all on its own.
The other three columns are full of bits and pieces, plot points I’d had free-floating in my mind for awhile. I keep mentioning story structure but that’s how this works for me: I figure out which plot points align with which structural points and that gives me the order they fall in, and then I can connect the dots with additional scenes and exposition. When I started placing those plot points on this chart I realized I have all of my major structural points and some sense of what connects them, which means…. well, it means this is a viable story.
I can not tell you how infuriating that is.
I mean, it’s a good thing! Actually, it’s great, because after looking at it like this was I able to start filling in a ton of blanks and eventually wrote out a full outline, which is at least five times longer and considerably more in-depth than my usual page of bullet points. I started at the end and worked backwards, figuring out what I was still missing and once I knew what I needed, where I’d need to set it up. A few characters fell into my brain, almost whole-cloth already created, which pretty much never happens to me. I’m excited to dig in and begin drafting.
But also, this sucks. It sucks because it took me two years to get here. It sucks because every year since I finished Freed I’ve told myself I was going to get a project done and off to my agent, if not fully out on submission. It sucks because I haven’t finished anything decent since Freed, let alone sold anything. It sucks because I want this to be easier and it’s not, and I want my process to not require multiple versions but it does.
I know all the pressure to write fast and sell more is internal and I’ve been working on shutting all of that down. I’ve tried to stop thinking of writing as a career, since if it’s a career I’m definitely failing at it, and instead re-classify it as a side-hustle, a hobby that I’m doing because I love but also can potentially make money from as a bonus. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a few months you know that reclaiming the joy I used to find in writing has been a struggle in and of itself, and this stupid scribble in a notebook represents all facets of that. The flood of ideas that came out of my pen was an amazing rush, the kind of creative energy I’ve been longing for for ages now. But it’s also frustrating because getting here took longer than it felt like it should have, and there’s still a long road ahead, and I know I’ll hit plenty of frustrations on the way. Also, given my stupid process, there’s a non-zero chance that I’ll write this whole new version of a complete story and throw it out and start again, and if that happens, friends, I might actually have to run away to live in the woods and sell mushrooms or something, because I legit don’t know if I can take another year of this.
But the alternative to another year of this is to not do this at all, and I like that even less, so: onwards it is, I guess.
But for real, y’all. My process sucks.