Two years ago, on a windy October night, I decided it was time I started writing again, for real. No more sporadic drafts started in notebooks never to be finished. No more late night rants that never evolved to essays or blog posts. No more procrastination. I was going to get back to writing. Period.
Beaten by anosmia, anxiety, and the hum of a thousand stories trying to chew their way out of my skull, I left the warmth of my bed and trekked down to my cold kitchen. Wrapped up in a blanket, I opened my laptop and started writing. It was a story about a female contractor and a haunted house.
I got two pages in and stopped.
The humidity had left with summer. My skin was dry and itchy; a sure sign that “winter is coming.” As I sat in my chair, scratching my legs and hating my story, I decided the home improvement theme wasn’t close enough to me, even as the creek of unsecured, temporary subfloor beneath my chair indicated I was in the midst of a major renovation.
Instead, I wrote about the itchiness, about the approaching winter, and how difficult anxiety makes it to get out of bed. I wrote about my fear of what could happen when a woman is alone in the dark with a man who means her harm, and my fear about how hard it must be to overcome that kind of trauma.
I thought it was going to be a short story. I may have been delusional.
By the time 3 a.m. rolled around, I had a character: Elle, a psychic cop who was raped and tortured by a serial killer she was trying to hunt. I had a plot. Three years later, she was home, working as a journalist and unofficial consultant in her small hometown, which she fled before becoming a cop in the city. Her childhood friend, Cam, a deputy in the county sheriff department, was in love with her. Children were going missing, and the monster that had tortured Elle had broken out of prison.
Believing I had the makings of a paranormal thriller, I threw my self into writing during every free moment I had. As November rolled around, I looked at the NaNoWriMo website and thought about signing up. I had papers to grade and a novel to write. I never signed up, but I told my self I was going to finish it in November anyways.
The end of the month came and went, but my novel had no end in sight. It wasn’t until January that I finished my monster of a first draft. It was a 200,000 word, genre-bending mess: a literary fiction rape survivor narrative, a poorly plotted paranormal thriller, graphic horror, and grammatical sloppiness.
It was terrible. I loved it. It was the first time since I was 19-years-old(I was 27 at the time) that I had written a complete story from beginning to end.
I tucked that novel into a digital draw and dug an old file off of my Google Drive called “Last Days.” It was a YA urban fantasy that I had stopped writing after a certain author very successfully published a very different demon hunter story, which also happened to feature a red-headed female protagonist.
This time, I vowed that I would not let The Mortal Instruments stop me from finishing my own demon-hunter novel (plenty of other people have written novels with demon hunters since Cassie Clare). Additionally, I knew that I was capable of finishing a novel; I had already done it.
I dove into “Last Days,” kept the parts that seemed salvageable, and cut the places where the plot rambled into infinity. I found a point to start from and wrote through until I found an end around 130,000 words.
Satisfied that I finished it, I went back and cut what I was calling the “Elle story” down to about 90,000. It was a little better than the first draft, but I still hated it in spite of the positive feedback I got from the one friend that I allowed to read the first two chapters.
I spent the next year revising and editing “Last Days.” By draft 5, it had become “Inattention,” and by draft 7, it had its current title, “Out of Focus.” I handed it off to a series of beta-readers and focused on my short fiction.
By the time I got all the feedback I needed to revise, I had become addicted to the instant gratification of flash. Submittable and the Submission Grinder became my best friends. I built up a long list of publication credits, made Twitter “friends” with some amazing writers, and slowly but surely revised and edited the novel.
This week, I sent out my first volley of queries out for Out of Focus. I’ve been calling the current version Draft 9, but really, some chapters have been revised at least 20 twenty times. I’m not sure there is a whole sentence that looks exactly as it did in the first draft I began back in 2006.
I did revisit the terrible “Elle Novel” and wrote the short story I had meant to 200,000 behemoth to originally be. It got a few rejections, and is currently languishing in a literary magazine’s final round of judging decision making.
I’m done with Out of Focus until an agent or publisher tells me to revise or makes suggestions for edits, and while Out of Focus fights its way through the slush, I am embarking on a new adventure.
Five days into NaNoWriMo 2016, I am 14,435 words into a novel tentatively titled “Like Birds Under the City Sky.” This piece started as a short story I wrote over the summer. After three lit mag editors, a workshop, and a critique group told me the 5,000 word story needed to be a novel, I committed to tacking it in a month.
I know my first draft will suck. I’ll know I’ll revise it over and over again before I let any one read, and then I’ll revise it again.
However, something is different this time. I know what I’m doing. I know how to build tension, develop characters, use description wisely and use words efficiently. I know how the story is going to be structured (more or less), and I know how it is going to end.
I’ve improved my process. I’m a better writer. Hopefully, that means I will make a better novel.
What I do know for sure is that I have not gone a day without writing since I started on that cold October night, and this month, I’m doing NaNoWriMo for real. This month, I’m going to win.