This week we learned another Dr. Seuss book is on the way. Thank goodness he wrote it down, or the idea behind “What Pet Should I Get?” would have been lost forever.
Do you know what Dr. Seuss is most notorious for? Writing brilliant stories, with exceptional depth and purpose, using very few words.
In the very small writing community with which I am affiliated, I am notorious for writing large quantities of words, quickly and frequently, whenever I take on a new project. My likely-never-to-be-published novel, Queen Bee, is made up of about 130,000 words written across a time span of 14 consecutive days.
There may or may not have been a wisdom teeth extraction, and accompanying pain medication, to blame for this otherwise impossible feat. But you get the general idea.
If I’m normally so inclined to plow through a project at warp speed – not while taking prescription-only pain meds, mind you – why am I averaging about 100 words per day this month as I pour over a story only half-finished even in my own head? And why am I OKAY with this?
A lot of reasons, actually. The first being that it is February, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m in no rush to finish what I’ve started.
Let’s backtrack a few years. If you’ve been following my posts for awhile, you’ve probably read about the early history of my novel before. The summer of 2012, I experienced something many writers have learned to deal with as they have worked to develop their potential careers in rhetoric: I got an idea.
As many writers with a brand-new idea are inclined to do, I sat down at my computer and started writing. The scene featured a driving instructor, Caddie, preparing her student for her official driving test. The scene immediately following portrayed the student’s internal monologue depicting how learning to drive was the first step toward reaching her goal of becoming the next big shot political power. After that, I got stuck. I had one scene, a rant and no problem that needed solving. The student would pass her driving test, of course, because she had been driving underage, illegally, under Caddie’s supervision since she was 12.
So … then what?
“Then what” quickly became an abandoned project, another flicker of an idea with no plot line to support it. In fact, I left that idea shivering in the dark depths of my subconscious, alone, through two more novel attempts, both Wrimos. My mind very rarely bothered to check in on the then-forgotten story; there was no spark to set that isolated idea chamber aflame. Until a year after that first failed attempt, when I encountered a real-life problem with no pending solution.
How else does a writer try to solve life’s mysteries? By writing about them, of course.
So little bursts of dialogue came about; here, there, whenever they popped into my head. Then came an entire document filled with quotes, rules, character sketches. World-building was fun until I came to another roadblock: defining relationships between characters. Two more Wrimos passed, and at the end of NaNo 2013, I’d all but given up on “the old idea.” This time, I had plenty of plot points and developments to run with. I had zero motivation to write any of them down.
One tragic loss and several weeks of aimless grieving later, I picked up the story again, or rather, started anew. This time, I proposed the idea as my senior creative writing portfolio project. As any typical college student might do, I waited until the last minute to complete just 30 pages of the new, yet very old, story. The new dedication at the front, however, helped me continue writing even after I gripped a diploma in my hand, through two more Wrimos, and then …
Can you guess what happened?
Yes. I stopped writing. Again.
The book had gone through a multitude of evolutions by the time NaNo ended. Caddie no longer existed. There was no driving test, no monologue about ambitions and power and politics. There were 80,000+ words of progress, and with a few more months, I could have finished the story I’d started writing several years earlier. I began to notice, though, that I loved my idea. I loved how much it had grown. But it had grown so much over time that the structure of the book itself began suffocating it. It was meant to be so much bigger than a dual POV story with no definite ending. I wrestled with it for weeks before realizing the only way my idea was going to reach its full potential is if I took away the structure, took away the old dialogue and plot holes, opened a blank document, and started over.
Since then, in the past two months, I have written a total of 10,615 words. I do not write on the train rides to or from work, nor do I spend more than 30 minutes per day on the project. Yet the work I have done so far, on this brand new book with complex characters and a completely new vision for the series, is some of the best work I personally have ever done before.
This is not to say there will not come a point where I will write large sections of the story consecutively, when they are ready to unfold. But on those train rides, pretty much whenever I’m not physically sitting at my computer working on the book itself, I’m thinking about it. Recycling old portions from the original story, filling in holes I never had material to fill with before. It is slow, it is frustrating, and I am exhausted. I am conflicted about where to end it. But some days I allow myself to reflect on how far the story has come since the idea first came to me, randomly, two and a half years ago.
You’ve read my account; you know how many times I wanted to, tried, even, to give up on this little spark of an idea that has become my literary flame. As I am sure I have written before, ideas are like children. They appear, and demand our attention, and cry out when we don’t give them enough. We don’t know what they’re going to grow up to be, how they’re going to behave, what others will think of them. Yet we nurture them. We take things slow, let them develop, watch them bloom. They would be nothing without us. And sometimes, we feel we would be nothing without them.
Elite will probably become my latest likely-never-to-be-published novel. I will probably use it a prompt for another story, another retelling of the journey from a blank page to a finished masterpiece. That’s okay. Each idea, no matter how fully I opt to develop it, teaches me something new. Queen Bee taught me to be brave, to create characters I hated and figure out how to make readers love them. To finish a project, then go back and refine it. That nothing is perfect, even in the (completely natural) high that accompanies typing the last punctuation mark on the last page of your story.
This project has taught me to be patient. To trust that an idea is not always what it seems on the surface. That there is potential for depth, and change, and evolution, if you are patient, relentless and fearless. If I ever finish writing this book (at the rate I’m going, it could take a decade more), it will be forever known to me as The Story That Taught Me To Write Less, Say More, and Take My Sweet Time Doing It.
Never give up on your ideas. They will shape you more than you shape them.
After all, completely paraphrasing our friend Dr. S, an idea’s an idea, no matter how small.
Even 100 words at a time is one step closer to finishing your story.