Friday, January 13, 2012

[write this when you know what the hell you are doing]

I make notes to myself as I write. I write by hand, in notebooks, only on the right-hand side (recto, if we are going to be scrupulously correct) of the page. The verso side I leave as a blank canvas. Sometimes it remains that way. Other times, it gets covered in scribbles and post-it notes, all of the marginalia of creation.

These notes range from a good song for a particular character or scene, or a reminder to check details before the finished draft, or notes to myself to add more detail. Sometimes they are silly - I found one last night that read, "No, you cannot title a chapter "Panic (On the Streets of London)"" (It would have made me so happy to do so, but completely inappropriate for an alt-history set in the 16th century. Even if there is an earthquake, and the associated fires, and thus, panic, on the streets of London, in that chapter.)

But sometimes the marginal notes are more philosophical in nature. This usually happens when the writing isn't going well, or is frustrating. I mean, I don't leave myself notes that read "this scene is awesome!" Last night, I came across one that read "write this when you know what the hell you are doing."

It wasn't exactly the most uplifting thing to read, to be honest. The reason I was reading over my marginal notes was because - after a few days of false starts, of writing scenes only to cross them out the next day, of the book's stubborn refusal to let me write forward - I had realized I was writing in the wrong direction. I typed up all my pages, printed them out, backtracked to the last part that I knew was right. And realized that a minor plot thread needed to be yanked out - it was an interesting story that was in the wrong book - and that I really, really needed a new character and subplot to go with, to balance out the structure of the book. And that the new character would be important enough that I couldn't just write forward as if he had always been there, I needed to go back and rewrite, a thing I hate doing, because that loss of forward momentum can be enough to let the doubts creep in.

Write this when you know what the hell you are doing.

I do, sort of. I know enough of what I am doing to know, at least for now, what needs to be fixed. To trust myself to fix on revision the things I don't know now. To listen honestly to the feedback that I will get on the drafts of this book when I send it out to my readers.

But I also don't know what I am doing. This book is something different than anything I've written before, so it has new challenges. Some I was aware of going in, and others I've discovered along the way. I often feel like I don't know what I am doing, and I hate that. I hate not feeling competent - it makes me feel small inside, too small to write a book that feels so large in my head.

And the truth is, I can't wait. I can't wait because if I wait to write something until I think I know what I am doing, I will write very little, and most of what I write will be pale copies of what I've done before. Because the only way to get better is to keep writing, and, as Theodore Roethke wrote, to learn by going where I have to go.


  1. Kat, for what it's worth -- you are more than competent. This is a challenge, and it's the challenges that help us grow.

    Plus, knowing what you're doing? Totally overrated. It's the doing that leads to learning -- and the learning that leads to awesome things.

    My very favorite margin note of mine read something like, "He is far too Edward. Make him less so. She cannot be Bella." At least he didn't sparkle... ;-)

  2. Yes, I guess the only way to actually know is doing it.

    Now, come on. Don't you think it would be great to have a 16th century set novel in which all chapter titles were pop songs? After "Panic (in the streets of London)" you could have "Sisters are doin' it for themselves", then "The killing moon" and "Under pressure", for example. I think "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" sounds a lot better than "Epilogue".

    1. Haha. I have a serious fondness for song titles or lyrics as chapter or section titles. I did it in a law review article, even.

      But as fun as it would be, it really doesn't fit the tone of this book. I'll just sing them in my head as I write.

  3. For me, quite often the journey is more important than the destination. It's one of the reasons I do very little outlining on paper (or in a Word doc). But it also depends upon what type of tale I'm writing. If I'm penning a fairly straight-forward, action-oriented novel, I usually have a solid idea of where things are going to go. But at times I need a break from that and want to write something a little more literary or philosophical, then I usually give myself the pleasure of rambling a bit with my writing.

    When working on a novel, there is a growing pile of notes in front of my keyboard. I also often add notes at the end of where I finish a day's writing, things to remind me of for the next day.