Tag Archives: writing

Why Writing a Novel Isn’t the Same as Finishing a Novel

“What made you decide to write a book?” 

I still get this question from time to time, though less often now than I did in my twenties and thirties. Maybe there’s something about being older that makes it more likely we’ll have something to write a book about? I still sometimes come back with my old retort, “What made you decide not to?” but I find myself thinking about it more and more often. What made me decide to write a book? 

I’ve been writing since I was a child. I love storytelling, and I love word-craft, and I love coming back to something I wrote years ago and thinking that it’s good. I’ve started more projects than I could ever finish in this lifetime, and I’ve finished more rough drafts than I will ever polish and submit, but even those tiny bits of randomly started chapters and strange pages of un-finished storytelling are good; they are glimpses into something that my mind created and could be something spectacular if I ever get back to them. 

The real answer to the question of what made me decide to write a book is that I have always written, and I’ve always had stories bouncing around in my head that are eagerly waiting to flow out onto paper. The more important question is why did I decide to finish a book. I’d been writing for decades. Why didn’t I have more finished work, more complete manuscripts? I had thousands of pieces and no comprehensive complete work to distribute, nothing finished. 

Enter a collaborative writing adventure, an online text-based RPG, where I was writing with the most amazing authors I’d ever worked with. It was exciting, dynamic, and ongoing- Our stories never ended, just flowed into new adventures. We had story-series that went on for years, flowing and changing as players joined and left, and sometimes returned. Then, one day, one of the writers mentioned National Novel Writing Month. “1660 words a day? Oh, I could never do that…” I said. And then I tallied up everything I’d written in our collaborative world for a week, and discovered that I’d written over 40,000 words that week alone. If I could do that, why not try my hand at 50,000 words of finished manuscript?

First National Novel Writing Month, I failed. I wasn’t dedicated. I wasn’t attentive. It was a lark, something I took on by chance. My second National Novel Writing Month, I was between jobs, had nothing to lose, and I wrote a science fiction mystery novel. And I completed it. And I haven’t failed a NaNo challenge since. (The Kami White mysteries began with a manuscript that was my third NaNoWriMo win.)  Deciding to write a book is easy. I did that a thousand times, maybe more judging by the numbers of files in my back-up hard-drive. But deciding to finish it? That was hard. It meant taking myself seriously, as a writer and as a creator. It meant finding the passion and self-determination to make it happen all by myself.

Collaborative writing is a blast- you write until you’re stuck or tired and then pass it on to someone else. When you write alone, you’re the only one doing the work. You are your own judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. My first attempt at NaNo, I’d finish a scene and think  “Phew! I did it! Who’s next?” only to discover that I was the one who was up next. I remember sitting at my computer at our over-sized dining room table and looking around asking, “Hullo? Anyone there?” And I discovered over and over that I was the only author up next for the scene after that and the scene after that. I hated whole paragraphs and deleted them, setting myself back in word count, sometimes by days. I’d write other scenes and love them so much that going on to the next scene all alone was intimidating. What if I couldn’t duplicate that awesomeness every step of the way? In the end, I discovered more about myself and about my creative process than I thought possible. I’d always been a writer, I’d always decided to write books. But now I was an author with a completed rough draft in front of me.

I’d decided to write a novel, and that was easy. I did it over and over. It wasn’t until I decided to finish a novel that I discovered the difference between writing and finishing. I still from time to time will finish a scene and look around for my collaborative authors, wondering who is up next. “Oh, right. That would be me, then. How about I get started on that.” And I still delete whole paragraphs, and keep others long past when they actually fit because I still love them too much to let them go. But now, when I say I’m going to write a book, there are not half-finished thoughts and scrambled bits of paragraphs left behind in files labeled by dates. Now, when I say I’ve decided to write a book, what I really mean is “I’ve decided to finish writing a book.”  And that difference, between deciding to write and deciding to finish, is all the difference in the world. 

Mercury is What?

I just realized that Mercury has begun transition to Retrograde and that Retrograde will be in effect through almost the entirety of April. Now I’m afraid to even start work on book four as my CampNaNo project. I know, I know. It’s all so silly, the idea that the position of Mercury in the space of the heavens relative to other heavenly bodies can possibly be problematic for us mere mortal humans down here on Earth going about our daily stuff. And you all know by now that I’m as skeptical as a girl on a first date when the guy tells her he has to leave because he’s a secret agent and would tell her where he’s going but then her life would be in danger. (Maybe that only happens to me?) But if there’s one thing I learned from five years of living in Mount Shasta, it’s that sometimes weird stuff happens. Weird. Stuff. Happens. (That’s a blog post all on its own!) 

If you don’t know what Mercury Retrograde is, Wikepedia has a great explanation of what physically happens when planets appear to be reversing their direction.  This is straight up astrophysics. What we perceive from earth to be a planet backtracking in the sky is actually the Earth’s rotation lapping a planet with a tighter orbit around the sun. That’s the astronomical definition of Mercury Retrograde. 

In astrological terms, here’s what happens during Mercury Retrograde. (And if you don’t believe me, Astrology Horoscope does a good job of defining it.) Communications go crazy; emails go missing, phone calls get missed, texts get misread, even face-to-face conversations can be more difficult. Transportation snarls; flights are canceled, trains are off-schedule, cars break down, road delays increase. Communications about even the most basic things, like “Are you picking up the kids after school today?” can blow up into misunderstandings of astronomical (excuse the term) proportions.   

The first time I really understood the implications of Mercury Retrograde was shortly after I’d moved to Mount Shasta. I’d always laughed a bit about astrology. Sure, right. Mercury is in retrograde. Don’t sign anything. Don’t negotiate anything. Don’t take transportation for granted. But there I was, sitting on the side of I-5, an extremely curt and gruff CHP officer writing me a speeding ticket. Now, the truth is that I was speeding,  but not out of line for Interstate 5 at 4:30 on  a Monday holiday afternoon. I’d managed to slow-mo my way through several speed traps already that day (It was a holiday, after all.) and so I was rather surprised to get caught out when  I thought I was free and clear. 

“Mercury Retrograde messes up all transportation.” my coworker said the next morning when I complained about my ticket. “I bet hundreds of people got ticketed yesterday, and things will only get worse from there.”

I laughed. Mercury Retrograde indeed. I wondered what would happen if we all turned up in court and claimed we were innocent of speeding on the grounds that it was Mercury Retrograde.  Instead of risking it, I wrote a check for my ticket, along with a nice note of apology to the court, and mailed it off, trying to forget about being so irresponsible as to be speeding. A week later it came back to me. Why? Because I apparently hadn’t completely sealed the envelope properly and my check, ticket copy, and note were all half-shredded in the post office equipment.  When I told my coworker about it, she once again shook her head. “Mercury Retrograde. Communications are a disaster.” So I took a half-day off work and drove to the courthouse to pay my ticket in person. The courthouse closes at 4:00. I arrived at 2:30 only to find them in the middle of an emergency services drill and closed for the rest of the day. It took yet another trip to finally pay my ticket.  Still, I was kind of chuckling about the whole Mercury Retrograde thing. It seemed like a silly way to excuse getting caught speeding and not sealing an envelope.  “Wait and see,” my coworker said.  A week later, a friend decided to come visit, but the Amtrak train broke down, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere and arriving in my town eight hours later than planned, at 3:30 in the morning. “Travel,” my coworker said. “Never travel during Retrograde.”  After that, I started paying attention. Really paying attention. 

What begins one retrograde period will likely not be finished or resolved until the next one. I hired an employee during one Mercury Retrograde and soon realized I’d made a terrible mistake that resulted in an event that required my firing him. When did that happen? The very next Mercury Retrograde.  Cleaning house one Mercury Retrograde, I found a check that had gone missing a year before. I checked the date on the check, just because, and sure enough, it had been written during a previous Mercury Retrograde. Another Retrograde, I entered and was a finalist in a contest run by an online sci-fi magazine. The prize was publication in their online edition and automatic entry into a contest being held for their print anthology. The very next Mercury Retrograde I got notice that the magazine was going out of business and all rights to my story were being returned to me. This is how it goes. Anything started one Retrograde will come back around in a future one.  

Now, the true skeptic is asking right now if these things are truly happening because Mercury is in Retrograde, or are they happening all of the time and we’re only more aware of them because we know that Mercury being in Retrograde supposedly affects them? My argument is that it really doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to our communication abilities all of the time, always striving to improve how we express ourselves to the world? Shouldn’t we always have back-up plans and be flexible and prepared for change when we’re traveling? Always carry a Swiss Army knife and a spare protein bar? Whether Mercury is in Retrograde or not, shouldn’t we always be cautious with our hearts and forward with our minds? 

 Here we are with CampNaNo under way, with thousands of writers leaping in to write and work on creative projects. The possibilities for communications and technical issues abound! And if you start your project this CampNaNo, with Mercury sliding into Retrograde, is it going to be finished or is it doomed to sit in the “unfinished” file until the next Mercury Retrograde? If you manage to finish it, manage not to have your software crash, or your back-up mysteriously disappear, or your email to your beta-reader go astray, or your editor call you to say you need to resend the entire thing because when they tried to open it, their entire computer mysteriously crashed-if none of those things happen-are you free and clear? Or is what you wrote this CampNaNo going to be a mangled pile of words that will take multiple Retrogrades worth of edits and polish to untangle into a gleaming work of prose? 

There’s the possibility that all of those things will happen anyway. That a first draft is always a tangled mess, that back-ups often fail, and editor’s computers sometimes crash, and beta readers sometimes forget to check their spam folder for missing messages. That all of those things happen all the time, and we only ever really notice them when we remember to look up into the sky and see that Mercury seems to be sliding backwards along its path.  And if all those things are going to happen anyway, why not just throw down some words and give this novel-writing thing a try! What’s the worst that can happen? (Just don’t forget to back-up your work…) 

On Location in Santa Cruz

Pleasure Point Totem PoleWhen I decided to include Santa Cruz in my novel, I didn’t really think it through. I drove over, spent a day watching surfers, drinking coffee, wading in the ocean, and thought, yah, okay, I’ve got it. I got home, sat down at my computer, and realized that one day wasn’t enough to capture the strange allure of Santa Cruz. 

Santa Cruz is new and old side-by-side. It’s an old place, with history etched into the very cliffsides, but the rush of tech from the Bay Area has brushed it with broad strokes of modernization. There’s a resentment from the old surfer/hippy culture towards the growing sprawl of the Silicon Valley culture that has invaded the town, and a growing sense of entitlement from the tech crowd. As a visitory, you can hang out at Pleasure Point and watch the surfers all day long, or go enjoy the quaint summer-vacation-by-the-sea feel of the Boardwalk with its wooden roller coaster and carousel. You can drink microbrews in posh mod-art bars overlooking the beach, or have a pizza in a surf-shack with painted surfboards hanging from the ceiling.  You can shop for new fine jewelry or old used vintage clothing. Street musicians and artists hawk their wares on the sidewalk downtown. Santa Cruz has everything, and all of its elements seem in constant battle for dominance. 

Trying to capture the feel of Santa Cruz had to happen in the opening paragraph of my manuscript; the sights, the smells, the sensation of having spent time eating vegetarian portabello burgers at Saturn Cafe and drinking espresso at Finn’s. Santa Cruz was more than a place, it was a voice, and trying to bring that voice to life was more complicated than I imagined. My partner lived in Santa Cruz for some time, went to school there, and every time I questioned my writing decisions I turned to him. “Does this feel right?”
“You’re missing something…” he would say, and the next day, I’d climb back into my red Yaris and head back down 880 and across Highway 17. 

If this sounds like complaining, it isn’t. I wrote entire chapters sitting on benches at Pleasure Point and hiding out of the blistering wind in my car in beach parking lots. I ate where my characters ate, swam where they surfed. (My spinal surgeon has politely suggested to me that surfing is on the list of things I should probably never do again, along with skiing and snowboarding. He’s such a spoilsport. *eyeroll*) I walked where they walked and drove where they drove until I felt that my descriptions did those places justice. And along the way, I fell in love with the strangeness and contradiction that is Santa Cruz. I hope when you get a chance to read the first Kami story, you will, too!