Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Greatest Lesson I Learned in Writing This Year

In terms of writing, this year has been one of change and challenge for me. 

I published my first contemporary novel, a twisty story that was dark and hit close to home. It was a challenge to write, and it was a challenge to share with the world, and I'm still not entirely comfortable with it. 

I wrote a novel for Star Wars that will come out May 2nd of next year. It's a novelization set around the story of Rogue One, which is now my favorite Star Wars movie. If you've not seen it, go. You won't regret it. Bring tissues. 

But writing my Rogue One novel was a different sort of challenge. I was telling a story that required a lot of cooks in the kitchen, a lot of strings to tie up and not get tangled in. It was difficult, not the least because of the time constraints, but I reveled in that difficulty and loved the challenge before me. 

In between these projects, I've also been working on a fantasy novel that should come out in 2018 from Penguin/Razorbill. And this book has been the very definition of challenge to me. I've solidly written about a half million words just to find the right path for this book. 

I love the idea of it. It's about loss and love and moving on. Set in a fantasy world where people can raise the dead. 

It was the execution that tried to kill me. (Pun not intended, but so hilarious that I'm leaving it.)

First, I wrote it in first person present tense, from the boy's point of view. A key scene happened at the end of chapter three. That didn't work--too much had happened prior to that, so I needed to retell the story. And the voice was off. So I rewrote it with flashback chapters alternating scenes to fill in the past but keep the momentum of the present. It ended up being a confusing mess with little cohesion--I could see the strings tying the story together, but it was impossible for anyone else to. 

So I took a deep breath and rewrote it again. This time in third person, alternating chapters between the boy and girl POV. That worked well for Across the Universe; I tried to replicate it. It flopped. That was the wrong way to tell this story, and it felt heartless. 

Then I rewrote it again. And keep in mind--all these edits are before I've even turned the book in to my publisher! This is all stuff I'm stumbling through on my own, because I know it's not working yet and I can't turn it in until it's at least operable. 

In this rewrite, I went back--way back. All those flashback scenes were now written in the moment. Something that took a paragraph for a character to describe that had happened in the past was now about a quarter of the book, unfolding on the page. 

For lack of a better way to say it, I really went there. I didn't hold back. I challenged myself to write the scenes that I'd clearly been avoiding. I dug my fingers into the wounds. Any time I felt myself shying away from how I said something, I forced myself to rewrite it with as much graphic detail as possible. 

I had just finished this fourth draft when I had to put it away and start work on the Rogue One novel again. And during that interim, I realized that one final thing was wrong about my book--I had written in a subplot on race that wasn't my story to tell and I hadn't done it in an authentic way. Knowing this hung like a cloud over my head as I worked on the SW novel, and it lingered for months as I turned it over and over again in my brain on what to do, how to fix that subplot. The solution was to excise it, so as soon as I got the Rogue One novel turned in, I turned back to this book--this book I'd already written four times--and started again from page one, carefully plucking out the subplot that didn't work and stitching the story back together again. 

I'm nearing the end--I hope. In the new year, I turn this book in to my editor, and I start really getting to work on it. But as I read through it one last time, I know that the biggest lesson I've learned in writing--from all three of the projects I've worked on this year--has been simple this:

Challenge yourself.

Don't hold back. Whatever your best idea is, put it on the page now. Don't wait. If you're hesitant to write something because you're not sure you can, write it. Write it now and without reserve. Constantly challenge yourself to something newer, something bigger, something better. And then rise to meet that challenge.
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