Since summer is my most productive writing time and that has pretty much come to an end (seriously, how is it September??) I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I’ve accomplished this summer.
Or put another way, I’ve been reflecting on where I started the summer and where I am now. I was surprised to discover that they are quite different places.
In terms of the “deliverables” of what I’ve done—the practical stuff you can tally up on paper and count on your hands—I significantly revised the first 1/3 of an MS and crafted a revision outline for the rest; I FINALLY finished the first draft of a YA fantasy I’d been working on for over a year; and I wrote 40,000 words of a new YA contemporary in about 2 and a half weeks (which is STUNNINGLY fast for me as a drafter). Maybe, for some people, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me, it was an incredibly productive summer.
I’m honestly shocked I got as much done as I did because I was wrestling with a lot of self-doubt. Most of it stemming from that fantasy I was trying to draft.
I adore contemporary and science fiction, but, as a reader, fantasy has always been the genre of my heart. They’re the books I gravitate towards first at the bookstore, that I’m most likely to reread, that most often stay with me long after I’ve reached the last words. But I’ve never tried to write one (with the exception of my first MS, which was a paranormal romance and has been permanently placed on the “never see the light of day again” shelf).
So a year and a half ago, when the idea for this YA fantasy struck me, I got super excited and dove right in. But I didn’t “fall in” like I have with all my other first drafts. Usually, I am able to get so caught up in telling myself the story that I don’t worry about how messy those initial drafts are. That’s what revisions are for. With this fantasy, though, I couldn’t turn my revision brain off. Every chapter, and even sometimes every scene, I was making notes of things I would need to fix. Sometimes it made it impossible for me to write, because I couldn’t stop criticizing myself. The world-building felt so generic and derivative. The characters seemed to either lack depth, or have too much going on. The plot kept spiraling out of control. And my brain kept telling me, you can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do this.
I kept chipping away at it, because I am nothing if not stubborn and unwavering in my goals, but I wondered if this would be the first MS I ever wrote that didn’t make it past the first draft. I also wondered if I was wasting my time and if I should just give up and go start one of the contemporary projects I’d pitched to my agent that she really liked.
In a fit of desperation to be able to see the story more clearly, I asked a few trusted CPs to read along as I wrote. My hope was that maybe some external validation would help to push me past this self-doubt. I trusted them enough to believe that if there was truly nothing there, they’d tell me. And no one did. Instead, they all seemed really excited by what I was doing.
That helped. Some. It got me to my computer most days with the document open. It motivated me to put some words on the page because I knew they were waiting for more. But whenever I shared something new with them, it was always with the caveat, “this is really rough” or a gif of a dumpster fire. Even with people whose words I adore and whose opinions I take seriously, I couldn’t really hear them tell me that there were amazing things happening in that story.
The voice in my head, screaming This isn’t good enough You don’t have the chops to write fantasy, drowned them all out.
The more down I got on myself, the harder it became for me to produce word counts. Sometimes I would sit with that MS for 3 hours and write only 450 words because I second-and-third-guessed every one of them.
At the start of the summer, I’d planned to have this MS finished and revised to go to my agent by the end of August. But in mid-July, I’d begun to worry I wouldn’t even have the first draft finished by then.
So when I got back from all my vacations in July, I made a little deal with myself. JUST FINISH IT. It doesn’t matter if it is good or not. For now, it just has to be done. I needed to prove to myself that I could write a fantasy. That I could create a brand new world, and the people and cultures and beliefs that populate it. That I could get from the beginning to the end and tell a story that was at least somewhat coherent and cohesive. That was all I was asking of myself for now.
With that challenge driving me, I managed to do it. About a week and a half into August, I hit THE END on that MS. And I celebrated like it was a book deal, not the completion of a first draft. Because that book had been my struggle. My Everest.
Three days later, I opened a new document and started drafting a new YA contemporary project I’d conceptualized during one of my trips this summer. From the moment I decided I was going to put aside a few other projects I had lined up and jump into this draft, this story was SCREAMING to be told. I have never written so fast. Or so easily. I’ve never had a story pour out of me so clearly. I know it is going to need some cleaning up and development, but it doesn’t look like any first draft I’ve ever written. There are almost no notes to myself like “science this later” or “I know this makes no sense but just keep going and fix it in revisions” or “what does this character look like again?”.
I’ve also never had a story make me so damned…well….happy…while I am writing it. Sometimes my husband will walk into the room and just laugh because I am sitting on the couch with my fingers flying across the keyboard, smiling like a fool.
I should finish this MS this month. Which means I will have written the entire story in a month and a half. That is UNHEARD OF for me.
But here’s the thing. I think I needed both those books this summer.
I needed a story that challenged me. Even one that unsettled my confidence. I needed to prove to myself that I could do the thing I was most afraid to do—write a big, epic fantasy—and that I could finish it. It is also the story that gave me a place to put all my anger and frustration and disillusionment about the state of our world right now. I was unhappy with my writing and upset by the political and cultural climate in the US, and this MS gave me somewhere productive to direct all that energy. It’s no coincidence that its last words are “Burn it down. Burn it all down.”
But I also needed this fluffy, romantic, fun contemporary. After a summer of doubting myself and wondering if my writing was even good enough, this project has changed my whole relationship with my words. It’s reminded me that the only thing I can control about this industry is what I put on the page. It’s given me back the joy I’d lost over the summer while writing felt more like digging in dry sand with only your hands than frolicking on a beach.
I’m frolicking again.
And maybe this MS will be trash when I’m done. Or maybe my agent will read it and we’ll decide there is no place in the market for it. Or maybe it just won’t sell. But even if nothing were to happen to this MS beyond me reaching THE END, it will still remain such an important part of my journey because it was the book that gave my writing back to me. That reminded me what it’s like to write for fun. And for me. And for no other reason than I just really wanted to tell this story.
I guess that’s the point of this whole post. We write books for different reasons.
Sometimes they’re like DOT, the MS that got me my agent last November, and they hold your soul in them.
Sometimes, they’re your marathon. Your greatest nemesis. You write it to prove you can.
And sometimes we write books because our heart just really needs them.
I think that’s what people mean when they say don’t write for the market or for trends. Write for you.
Write your soul. Write your nemesis. Write your heart.