Thursday, August 16, 2012

August Theme: Walking Away (Stephanie Burgis)

Way back in early 2010, I had one of those rare, precious experiences in writing: I heard a girl's voice in my head, whispering:

Here's the thing about me: I don't give up.

I knew it was the first line of her novel. Within about an instant, I knew so much more about her (Antonia O'Toole) and about her story, too. It was going to be a road trip. There would be ghosts and gangsters and witches. Antonia would be racing across America in the 1930s, heading for Hollywood.

I was on a high of excitement as I went out to dinner with my husband that night, telling him all about it. He loved the idea, too. I wrote up the idea as a little page-long summary, and my writer-friends all cheered me on. "Go for it!"

And then reality crashed in just as I sat down to start making it happen. Wait a minute. What was I thinking? I wasn't an expert in 1930s America. I'd never structured a novel that way before. Why would I think that I could do that? Possibly worst of all, it would have to include so much personal family history that it would feel intensely vulnerable to write.

This was going to be way too hard. I fled straight to a novel I thought I could handle, one that would be so much easier.

But I couldn't stop thinking about my 1930s novel. Antonia was nagging at me, with her spiky attitude and her snarky voice. I started reading up on 1930s America, "just for fun". I devoured books and documentaries, even as I kept on working on that "easier" book. Obviously I wasn't going to be dumb enough to really write something that would be so much too hard for me to pull off, but...

Over a year later, in February 2011, I sat down again with the idea. With my heart in my throat, I started writing. I wrote the first 6,000 words...

...And then I panicked again. No way. This book was turning out to be way too personal, way too raw. Way too scary.

I wrote the first 12,000 words of a different novel, one specifically designed to be safely impersonal. It was completely different from the style I prefer reading, but that made it feel safer, in a weird way.

I sent it to my writer-friends. They said, "Ah...." Their enthusiasm was, um, less than deafening...and it resonated with a truth inside me. This book wasn't me. But my 30s book was too hard! I certainly couldn't let myself write that!

So I threw myself headfirst into another project, one that would be light and frothy and absolutely safely commercial. I wrote the first 12,000 words almost too fast to think, and I sent them to my agent and editor.

Long story short? Everyone could tell I hadn't taken the time to think. I retired, to lick my wounds.

Here's the final, essential truth I came down to.

I have no idea which ideas will be successful, which books other people will love. So when it comes right down to it...the only thing I can do, as a writer, is write the books that I love, no matter how much they scare me. That way, no matter what happens in the end, I'll still be glad to have written them.

I finally went back, with fear and trembling, to my 30s book in September 2011. In March 2012 I won a bursary from Literature Wales to work on it, based on those first two chapters of the book (tentative working title: Antonia O'Toole Takes the Low Road to Hollywood).

Today, on August 16th, 2012, I finally finished the first draft of the book. It's been over two and a half years since I first got the idea, and a year and a half since I first started writing it down. There's been a lot of walking away - or, more honestly, running away - in the meantime.

But oh, am I happy to have done it.

22 comments:

  1. If you don't love what you're writing, you can't make other people love it. Well done!

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  2. Stephanie, you are an inspiration. This is exactly the same way I'm feeling right now, as I churn through the last few inches of a draft set in a country (although in Asia, which 50% of my blood comes from) I know hardly anything about, have only a few friends from, in a time period I've had to literally scrape out of Google's barrel. And I'm still not sure if I'm doing the right thing by it.

    It's encouraging to know that it can work out. <3

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    1. Thanks so much, Kaye! Those hard ideas are so scary and intimidating because there is SO MUCH work involved in getting them right that it can feel utterly overwhelming...but the reward is so worthwhile, when it's a book you're really passionate about.

      And you probably know this already, but if you're anywhere near a university library, those can be a real research godsend! It's definitely worth paying whatever they charge to get a library card there.

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  3. Many congrats! This sounds like so much fun!

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  4. Love it, Stephanie! Writing what you're afraid to write is so hard, but you proved it's worth it.

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  5. Yah for you! True passion for your story will always show. Best of luck with it.

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  6. You told me that once, Stephanie -- that the only thing we can control is whether we love the book we're writing. Then even if it doesn't sell, we still have a book that we're proud of. I repeat that to myself constantly -- it's probably the most useful advice I've ever gotten.

    And congratulations again for finishing Low Road!!!

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    1. Thank you!!!!! *HUGS* And you know that this book would not exist without you. THANK YOU!

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  7. Massive congrats, Stephanie! The first draft is always the hardest part...

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    1. Thank you so much, Holly! I'm giving myself a few weeks off before I wade back in to start rewriting - but I'm just so glad to have that scary first draft finished.

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  8. Good for you, Stephanie! It sounds like your character isn't the only one that doesn't give up. Yay for first drafts!

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  9. I have no idea which ideas will be successful, which books other people will love. So when it comes right down to it...the only thing I can do, as a writer, is write the books that I love, no matter how much they scare me. That way, no matter what happens in the end, I'll still be glad to have written them.

    THIS. Thank you.

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    1. *hugs* I'm so glad it resonates for you, too.

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  10. Hurrah for you :-) I can't wait to read it.

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  11. Oh, it sounds wonderful! I'm so glad Antonia insisted on being born and I can't wait to meet her!

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    1. Thanks so much, Ariel! (And I'm sorry it took me until today to see your comment and reply!)

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