Tuesday, 26 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part Two)

If you haven't read part one of this series, you can find it here.

In early 2018, I finished writing the eleventy-billionth draft of a novel-length project that I had been working on, on and off, for about a decade.  Okay.  So it was the eleventh draft.  But it felt like a lot more.

Something felt different about finishing the story this time.  Wiser writers than me have said before that when something is finished, you know.  There is a severing of the cord that binds you to it.  And while I know that if my book is picked up for publication I will likely have to work on it a few more times, the sense that I have right now is that I have taken it as far as I could have.

I learnt a lot writing this particular book, and I had a lot of great milestones whilst working on it too.  I have always prided myself on having a great memory, but funnily enough, when I began writing about the process of working on this book, I realised that I can't remember the whole process in order.  There are things that stand out to me, like the ten days I spend revising while on a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in Greenmount, or the time I was asked to do a presentation on writing historical fiction at the History Teacher's Association Conference at St Hilda's.  But I don't think about these things as a timeline.  They are more like a montage.  Picture me, hunched over a desk, standing at a lectern with a powerpoint presentation, drinking tea, all the while 'Eye of the Tiger' plays in the background.  Maybe, in the end, that is what writing is like.  There's no one way to do it.  You can't follow the instructions step by step.  Sometimes, you do things out of order (like research... but I'll get to that.) . Sometimes, you repeat things that you thought you'd only have to do once.

There are things that I can take away from the last decade of calling myself a writer that hopefully will serve me well for the next one.  Things like, first of all, calling myself a writer.  I think I've mastered that, thanks in no small part to great teachers like Natasha Lester, who gave me the skills I needed to concisely explain what I write-- as that is the inevitable follow up question when you tell strangers you write books.  I've made some great connections too, in bookselling and publishing. 

But of course, there are a few things that I've learned NOT to do, as well.  Things like:

- Not sending the book out before it's ready.  Not to beta readers, not to friends and family and CERTAINLY NOT to publishers.

- Not to take criticism personally.  You waste a lot of time and emotions feeling like everyone who dislikes your book also dislikes you.

- Not to seek the kind of intense feedback this work requires from close family and friends

And finally...

- Not to feel like there is a prescribed way to research. 

I write historical fiction, and getting history right is important to me.  One of things I am encountering writing The Turning Tide (working title for book two) is that I don't yet fully know the time and place I am writing about.  I know roughly when it is set, but I haven't yet settled on a suburb.  Between the Sleepers was set in Fremantle, and it's tempting to go back there... but I'm also wondering about setting the book in the suburb where I live now, and taking myself on long walks, imagining the past and my characters a bit closer to home. 

If I were to set myself the impossible goal of getting all the facts right the first time around, I would never start writing.  There are always going to be things I don't know.  And if I wanted to just write facts, I would have become an historian.  History and Historical Fiction are different.  They have different purposes.  What interests me about historical fiction is the way that writers use it to help me connect with the past through characters, and feel empathy for people who died before I was born.  I can read historical fiction for hours, whereas non-fictional accounts are more suited to short bursts of reading, at a desk with a notebook and pen.  I did history and writing for undergrad, and the biggest appeal of the history degree was fodder for stories, so I think that tells you all you need to know.

Sometimes, I need to give myself permission to just write.  To get facts wrong.  To have people wearing clothes with zippers before they were invented, to have the drinking age wrong.  Those things will be fixed later.  And if the historical facts make the scene impossible, maybe somewhere down the track it gets thrown out.  Some of my favourite darlings have been killed this way. 

This is the stumbling block I keep hitting with the newest book.  I start to write and then I am suddenly confronted by the gaps in my knowledge.  I'm trying to remind myself that it's okay to get things wrong, but the part of me that just spent a few years fixing those sorts of mistakes keeps piping up.

So I'm researching the way I like best-- reading stories set at the time, watching films, reading old newspapers online.  It's immersive research.  I'm not taking notes at this stage unless something really great stands out to me and I jot it down for a scene idea.  The heavy lifting-- the fact checking and getting all the dates right-- that bit comes later. 

First drafts are shit but they can also be fun.  If I let myself get back into that first draft mode (and forget I've done this all before) I know I'll be in for a treat. 

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