[This the second in a series of four posts concerning my soon to be published Twelve Planets collection, Caution: Contains Small Parts. No spoilers, I promise!]
In my previous post, I made a remark about how the slow and careful nature of my writing process usually results in my “first” draft really being a “near-to-final” draft. I’ve been telling people that for a while and, while it’s not exactly disingenuous, it does leave a lot out of the picture. I don’t sit down at my writing laptop every day, or even every week. In fact, I’ve given myself six months off for the first half of this year to accommodate buying a house, moving towns, and all that encompasses. I used to beat myself up if I let too many days, let alone weeks, slip by without putting some words. Surely, I’m not a real writer if I’m not a regular writer? Right?
Wrong. So very wrong.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that the majority of my creative process — of my writing process — happens in my head, off the page, in the wings, never to be seen by anyone. I mull over sources of inspiration, letting some slip away, keeping others around for further examination, carrying all the pieces around in my pockets until I know which ones fit together. I tease out character and tone and narrative, seek out the various paths to a story until I find what feels like the right one to take. I do this before I start putting words down, I do this for the whole time — days, weeks, months, years — that a story or novel is “live” in my head. For the most part, I stopped jotting down notes for story ideas over a decade ago, favouring instead a more Darwinian approach, believing the best ideas are the ones that stick around, that keep coming back and prodding me into eventually working on them. The physical writing, the actual of sitting down with my laptop and typing? Sometimes that feels more like record-keeping.
So really, I write and rewrite and rewrite the fuck again just like every other writer I know. I just don’t do all of it — or even most of it — on the page. If I stall on a scene, I don’t take the oft-quoted advice to write through it. Instead, I stop, step away from the laptop and think through it. (Not even always consciously.) I don’t work out the story on the page. I don’t work out character on the page. All that stuff happens in my head. (Not even always consciously.) On the page is where I finally capture what I have corralled in my head and make it sing. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises and serendipities and sharp-turns almost every time I sit down with My Friend the Asus — I simply incorporate these into thinking about what comes next. (Not even, say it with me, always consciously.)
Which is all by way of saying, it’s extremely rare that I have to significantly edit a story on a structural level. I’ve done all that heavy lifting well in advance and by the time I have finished — unless I have severely misstepped along the way, usually by ignoring the annoying Fix-It Voice in the back of my head — it’s usually all done bar the shouting. The stories that I don’t know how to fix, that won’t work out in my head no matter what I do with them, those I usually don’t finish. Darwinism, see?
And then we have the peculiar creature called “What Amanda Wants”.
This is a longish story, a novella depending on whose word-count rules you follow, and the title was the first thing the came to me. Which is odd, as titles are often the last thing to fall into place — and sometimes, naming a story is like pulling teeth. But I started with “What Amanda Wants” and quickly knew precisely what that meant, and what shape the story should have. Which is also odd, as it usually takes me a while to feel my way into something new.
I worked on the story solidly for about a month over March/April 2007. I wanted to try out a traditional first-person past-tense “story-teller” voice — not something I’m known for — combined with a second narrative technique which would give the piece a sharper emotional edge. The two voices needed to at once complement and push against each other to provide tension and cohesion. The only problem was that I wasn’t feeling the conventional narrative, and I wasn’t sure whether it was me or the unfamiliarity of the voice I was using.
I finished the story and subbed it to my crit group in May with mixed results. Everybody pretty much had a problem with “What Amanda Wants” — but they were pretty much all different problems. The character was unsympathetic. The mystery wasn’t engaging. The reactions weren’t realistic. Sigh. The story seemed fundamentally broken and I couldn’t see a clear path to repair it right then. I decided to file the crit notes and put “What Amanda Wants” (Draft One) aside for a while. There were other things I needed to work on.
It was around a year later, in mid 2008, that I finally came back to my broken novella. The problem, I decided, was one of emotional tone. For various necessary reasons, I had kept Helen, the primary narrator, somewhat emotionally neutral. It wasn’t working. So I rewrote certain scenes and significantly pared back the formality in her tone. I gave her more emotion, less control. I let the cracks show.
Second time around, my crit group still had mixed reactions. Just … opposite ones. Some people liked the changes but had fresh quibbles, others preferred the story the way they remembered it. I now had so many different opinions on this story, I was finding it difficult to sort wheat from chaff. Crit groups can be like that sometimes. While feedback from clever, creative people can be utterly invaluable, you do need to keep a steady keel and recognise what advice is useful for the story and what should be allowed to float on by.
I made some tweaks here and there and tentatively sent the story out to one of the few markets I could find at the time which would accept its length. It bounced back with an encouraging rejection — this one isn’t for us, please feel free to send another — and so I put it aside again. Time is perspective, I told myself. One day I’ll figure out how to fix this troublesome thing. Besides, novella markets were few and far between and I had nowhere to submit it to anyway.
Then in early 2010, as readers of this series will know, I sold “What Amanda Wants” as part of my proposed Twelve Planets collection. Alisa loved it. Re-reading the novella 18 months later, I still wasn’t sure about the ending.
Luckily, in October of that year I was booked into a writing retreat with a fine group of people up at Noosa. Unluckily, it proved to be one of the worst weeks of my life. I had an horrendous dose of the flu, complete with infected eardrums and bonus conjunctivitis. I have never been so sick. Ever. But I managed to drag myself out of bed and into a group crit session with “What Amanda Wants” and afterwards managed to stay conscious for my lengthy debrief with Rob Shearman — who in turn managed to ignore the weeping, seeping shell-shocked zombie sitting opposite him, and provide a razor-sharp critique.
In Draft Three, I ended up changing one small but significant detail about the ending of “What Amanda Wants”. It’s a subtle tweak, one of emphasis and tone more than plot, but one that neatly excised a particular line I’d always had trouble with. I thought it needed to be in there, providing an explanation of sorts. Rob Shearman, essentially, told me not to be so bloody cautious. He was right. “What Amanda Wants” is not a cautious story; it doesn’t deserve a cautious ending — and it certainly doesn’t have one now.
Thanks to everyone, and I mean everyone, who had any input into this story along the way and kept me questioning. All the voices helped — including my internal Fix-It Voice, which I stubbornly ignored for much of the writing, and which I fear will be insufferably smug for a long time to come. It always knows. Always.
Random Trivia: Back in 2007, the titular character in the novella went by the name of Amanda Palmer. Who was the singer/keyboardist in a then little-known band called the Dresden Dolls who I loved. A harmless little in-joke with myself and anyone else who happened to know the Dolls, with no other real relevance to the story. These days, there probably wouldn’t be too many readers of this blog who aren’t at least peripherally aware of Amanda Fucking Palmer and, while keeping the name would have had some resonance for various reasons, it would have no longer been appropriate for the character. So now she’s called Amanda Fisher, the name change happening somewhere between Drafts One and Two, for reasons which may become apparent when you read the story or may not, and it won’t make a significant difference either way. But at least now you’ll know who her namesake really is.