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  • Writer's pictureMary

Finishing My Work

I have 5 drafts already sitting on my blog, waiting for me to finish them. Alas, I am terrible about actually concluding any of my thoughts, which is why I've always said that I'm a terrible blogger. I feel like most blogs write a post, have some profound thought, and then come to a conclusion.

I feel bad about not having all of my thoughts together when I begin to write, which is why I take so long to publish any of my writing. "It's not finished yet," is what I'd tell people who asked to read one of my projects. And with a smile, I'd say, "You can read it when it's done."

Unfortunately, I am 25 years old. Nothing is quite conclusive in my life now. Everything is a mishmash of thought, opinion, and experience, and none of it quite seems to line up. Being "finished" with a piece is a rare phenomenon. Often having people not read my work until it's fully completed means that I'm way more attached to it and way less likely to change anything when going through revisions. After all, it's mine. And if it's mine, then I don't want someone stepping on my ideas and my careful crafting and my hard work.

It's for this reason that I trunked a story that I'd been writing for 12 years. A "trunk story" is one that will probably never see the light of day, placed in a metaphorical trunk where it is locked away. In the NaNoWriMo world, we called it "sticking the novel into your sock drawer because you're so sick of it and it needs time to breathe". In a kind way, I've called it "shelving the novel for another time". Whatever the term I use, though, it's still putting it away, possibly for later, possibly for never.

When I tell people that I trunked my novel, the other person, understandably, gets a little concerned for me. After all, I told them very clearly that I'd been working on that novel for 12 years. That's a LONG time and a LOT of work to just stick it in a box, never to speak of it again. And it was hard. It was very hard. It required a significant amount of maturity on my part to actually put it away and to not return to it the next week after a new idea struck.

I started my first novel when I was 12 years old, in 7th grade. 7th grade was, uh...well it was a time. I was miserably lonely, bullied by other students, and gaining weight rapidly. I was dealing with my raging ADHD. I was struggling and felt very alone, and so from my loneliness, my already wildly active imagination worked on overtime and I started to create a story. It was a very typical middle school fantasy, if you can remember what those were like. There was a peasant boy and a princess, and they went on adventures together. I liberally used words like "smirk" and "quite" and "slightly". My sentences were flowy and overly wordy (a habit I still have that I have to actively remember to stop doing sometimes). It was everything that middle school writing should be, and I loved it. In fact, I finished that story before my 8th grade year even started. It was 72 single-spaced pages on Microsoft Word, which I had so carefully typed out with my beat-up laptop, sticky "E" and broken space bar be damned.

I honestly don't think I've ever been prouder. I remember whooping and cheering after I added that last period. I had written a novel.

I shared that novel with many people after that. I would email it to anyone who wanted to read it. And I received a lot of good feedback. Granted, the story wasn't good, don't get me wrong. But for a 12 year old who wanted to write an adventure story? It wasn't half-bad.

After many months, I saved that story to my laptop, counting it as finished, and moved on to other projects. I thought about it fairly often, part of me thinking it would be fun to write a sequel someday, but I had other things to work on. I started writing a lot of fanfiction (most of which is still up online). I got a lot of great feedback from that as well. Some of my readers became friends, some of whom I still talk to to this day. (Hi Chris! Hi Rachel! Hi Becky!)

So when I say I was writing that novel for 12 years, what I really mean is "I wrote it in a year. Then I thought I had finished with it for about 5 years, but I picked it back up to rewrite it when I was 18, worked on it until I was 24, then decided it really, truly needed to be trunked."

Sometime in my freshman year of college, when I was wildly lonely and struggling (are you sensing a theme here?), I thought it might be interesting to go back and read my old stories, and happened upon this original novel I had written in middle school. Skimming through my old, often terrible, prose, I remembered how much I loved the characters and the world I had built.

Calder was sweet and gentle, if a little naïve and clueless. I had always described Aisha as "fierce" and "sassy", but I had no idea how to write those as actual traits. Calder's phoenix companion Destiny was wildly underutilized, but seemed interesting. I read through it and realized that I could do it better this time. I could give these characters the story they deserved. I was a much better writer than I was in middle school.

I was hooked on this idea. I threw myself into it. The story had to change pretty dramatically. The original story meandered in the wildest possible ways. One of the characters had 5 dragons, none of which were actually important, and all of which had been put into the story simply because I liked dragons. The dragons had to go (for now). Calder's backstory became one of isolation and fear, which is what lead to his naivete. Aisha was more noble and genteel, but was torn between her desire to do what she wanted to do, and what she felt she had to do as a leader. A new character appeared in a rival love interest, who had many different names, different backstories, and different desires. Years later, he turned into Lysander, a character whom I still hold very close to my heart as one of my favorites. I ended up loving him so much that I gave him a set of POV chapters, and threw in a new backstory for him, and a twin sister, Annalise.

The world, also, had to be changed. I was always terrible with map design, so I had to get better at that. I made draft after draft after draft. I made more countries, alluded to but never explored. I made the main country isolated from the rest of the magical world around it. I had to figure out where the country's many kingdoms were located. I lifted ideas from the usual places, like Lord of the Rings and Eragon, but also from lesser known stories, like the Courageous Princess graphic novel (side tangent: I had picked up the first Courageous Princess book from the library in middle school and LOVED it, and then when I was in high school, the author finally finished the series. I bought all three books when I was in college and I still cherish them).

The more I worked on it, the better it got. The world was more fleshed out. The characters had thoughts and feelings and desires. The villain actually, well, existed, as opposed to the first draft's faceless villain with a vague name who was defeated off-screen. I spent days, weeks, years working on this story. I poured my heart and soul into the characters.

It's kind of wild how exactly that made it an unworkable piece. I had become so attached to it, because of how much it meant to me as project that was all my own, that when I finally started sending the final drafts to friends to read through it and tell me how they felt, I was absolutely devastated by their critiques.

If you've never sat through writing critiques (or art critiques in general), they are brutal. Your work is torn into with little regard for how you feel about your own piece. Everything is looked at objectively. Every decision you thought was good is open season for your readers to pick apart to death. And even if you have no attachment to the work, it still hurts to hear people say that they didn't like it, or that a section you really enjoyed doesn't make sense and should be cut. You have to be ready for people to actively dislike the parts that you really, really like, and have to be open to change them.

Imagine someone doing that to something you wrote casually, for an assignment: something you're not really attached to but you enjoyed all the same. It hurts, but you can change it. No big deal.

Now imagine someone doing that to what you considered at the time to be your life's work, which you had been working on since middle school, and it had been something you were immensely proud of.

I was working as a bartender at the time. I took the next day off of work. My mother found my crying in the kitchen (which I had been doing all day), and she hugged me as I sobbed out "Nine years of my life! I wasted nine years on absolute crap!"

My poor mother, dealing with four daughters who threw themselves into the wildly subjective word of art. She's going to hear many more breakdowns from us in the future about our creative endeavors. Sorry, Mom!

The worst part of it all was...they were right. The critiques were entirely valid.

The characters I thought were so well balanced? There wasn't nearly enough nuance to them.

The world I had spent so long creating? I hardly knew how it worked, when I really thought about it.

The story had an enormous scale that I myself couldn't wrap my mind around. It wasn't concise. It wasn't fully thought out. It was all over the place. I simply didn't realize it, because I was the only one working on it. I had created something that made sense in my head, but no one had the context for it like I did. I didn't realize that I had created a story that made sense to only me.

So...what do you do with that newfound information? Where do you go when you realize that the thing you put so much work into isn't where you want it to be?

Well, I kept working on it. After all, that was 2018. It was never going to get better if I just stopped. So I wrote another draft. I started making actual changes to the story, as painful as it was. I added a new character (whom I also love), and started working on a sequel. I figured maybe if I kept writing, and really went all in on the sequel, then I'd get a better idea of how the first book should work.

I stopped writing in the middle of the sequel. It wasn't working. It was just as confusing as the first one. No amount of backtracking was going to help. I'd have to scrap everything and start over, and after so long of working on it, I couldn't bear to do it.

In November of 2020, I shelved that novel. Possibly for a few years. Possibly forever. It was hard to let it go, but at that point, I was happy to leave it behind. I had a new project I was excited to work on. When I let my old novel go, it gave me more headspace for the new one. It was like casting off old weight. I had a fresh start.

And part of the joy of starting this new novel is that it was, from basically the start, a collaborative project.

For my final project of my writing degree, I wrote a series of short stories surrounding the idea of traveling between worlds, and what that might do a person. The idea for one of the stories was basically "What happened when the Pevensie children came back to England as children when they were adults in Narnia, and what would that do to a person?" I wrote up a short little draft and handed it to my roommate to check for spelling and grammar issues, and left to get lunch.

I came back a half hour later, and she held up the paper. "I need more of this."

And thus, the story spun off into an idea for a novel, then for a series of novels, then a whole world I turned into a D&D setting. It was no longer a story that was contained in my head: it was shared with many, many people. I had a whole D&D campaign in my world with people who had never read my writing before. I sent off my drafts of chapters to anyone who expressed interest in the idea. In a way that had never been true with my old novel, this one was not going to be stuck inside me where I would cling to it tighter and tighter. From the original map to the list of gods to the designs of common tattoos in the world, this was a story that was able to change because I was always asking for input.

If someone had asked me to read my old novel while I was writing it, I would have told them that it wasn't ready yet, and that I'd absolutely send them the next draft. Now if someone asks to read this story, I've more often than not replied with "Oh yeah, sure! I've only got, like, 6 chapters fully written, but take a look. Let me know what you think!"

And already I've gotten great feedback. A few critiques, some thoughts about pacing and how maybe more of this section would be nice, or this was kind of confusing. I make notes along the way. I want to change things. I want to make it better. I don't want to keep it all to myself anymore. This is a story that welcomes input, because I know that will make it better.

In the words of Anne Lamott, from her book on writing Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."

Here's looking forward to new projects!

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Sep 20, 2021

Oh, Mary, I am so glad you have persisted in your writing! It is a wonderful gift the Lord has given you. ❤️

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