Back when I was still in college, the creative writing juices still flowing steadily, Stephen King wrote a little book titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I pored over his wisdom and candor for days upon days, sitting in the lighting booth during the college theatre’s production of “Cinderella.” It wasn’t that the book was all that long or that difficult to read, I was just that slow of a reader. And, you know, supposed to be paying attention to cues for lighting, but I digress…
On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird were my constant companions at that point in my life as I spent hours upon hours upon hours writing… [hold for a moment while I cringe and go hide under my bed before you read this next line] …fanfiction. “Days of Our Lives” fanfiction. [Don’t judge. It wasn’t complete drivel. Only mostly drivel.]
But at that point in my life, I didn’t feel like I had really lived enough to come up with characters on my own, although I certainly had in previous years. No, there was safety in taking characters that were already knowns and working simply on plot and dialogue. And it was a challenge, attempting to keep them in character, especially when said characters were based on a soap that did a pretty rancid job of keeping it’s own characters in character, but that’s a whole different ball of wax. All of that aside, though, I was writing. I was working at it. A lot. I think the last chapter I published on my website was Chapter 78, and I’m pretty sure I have outlines for about 10 more I never got around to writing. So, yeah. I wrote a lot.
I had friends who helped, contributed entire scenes, held my hand and even sometimes wrote for me when I got nervous, but I had stuff going out there, being seen, being read. And I did have an audience. A pretty decent one at that. I got feedback, good and bad. I had never liked people reading what I wrote, but publishing a serial, where people came to expect the next chapter kind of forced me out of my comfort zone somewhat.
Then, life happened. College was over, Real Life kicked in, and writing soap opera fanfic was just so…uncool. So most of my focus switched to blogging where I have dabbled off and on with writing asinine pieces like the one you’re reading now, using a lot of words to not really say anything at all, because I’m really good at stretching out a word count. Ask any of my former college professors.
Promising myself I wouldn’t return to fanfic, especially in the soap genre, forced my hand. It meant not only did I have to come up with plot and dialogue and all new settings and locations, but I had to come up with characters. And that was really what shut me down. The last thing of any substance that I wrote not for my blog or for school was a very brief foray into (not nearly as cringe-worthy as a soap opera) X-Files fanfic. It was a one shot whose archival date (because, like The Truth, it’s still out there) is listed as Tax Day of 2001.
Twelve years is a long time to not write, especially for someone who had been writing since I was six.
A few weeks ago, though, something, which is another story entirely in and of itself, happened. Suddenly – and I mean overnight suddenly – the juices started flowing. See, in 12 years, I had had kernels of ideas pop up. A scene here, a beginning there, an ending somewhere else, but nothing cohesive. Nothing with meat. But a few weeks ago, I sat down on a Friday night in a hotel room with TechPapa snoring away beside me and outlined an entire screenplay out of the blue. It was one of the most intense, focused things I have done in almost a decade. I was there, I was in it. It wasn’t just little snapshots here and there, it was tone and emotion and visuals and faces and histories.
Ever since, I’ve been working on it. People, I went from not writing in TWELVE. YEARS. to writing EIGHTY ONE PAGES in two weeks. Are they stellar? Hell no. Are they passable? Eh. Are they the bones of something that could actually turn into something? I want to believe.
But here’s the thing. Back in my fanfic writing days (will I ever stop cringing when I write that?), I threw things out there willy nilly for people to read, especially my small group of friends who some chapters did more of the writing than I did (and I still have the IRC logs to prove it!). I begged them to read, to quell my pleas for approval and HELP MEEEE and WRITE THIIIIIIS and I can’t DOOO IIIIIITTTT.
Now, I’ve…well, I’ve outgrown it. I’m not being very true to my own writing when I do that. I let it become someone else’s work and then it’s, well, are they reading this because of MY stuff or because of HER stuff she contributed? And that’s just…not right. Maybe even codependent. I don’t even know. It was twisted, but somehow therapeutic at the time, and it made for some awesome conversation when I threw out in chat one night, “I want to send Marlena into a bar full of football players and have her get smashed while John gets all jealous.” (I still have that chapter saved out individually. It was mostly written by someone else, but it. was. epic.)
Writing this thing, however, has been an entirely different beast. These are characters I never met until I sat in that hotel room the end of October and sketched out the idea. Some of the characters I still don’t know – they’re still morphing. One of my favorite things that’s happened so far was this one scene where an incidental character who, in my head when I started writing, was a ponytailed 20-something went and, in a flash, morphed into a 40-something matronly black lady. A character I thought was a good egg for weeks suddenly turned into a jerk. And there are other examples of how these characters are coming to me, telling me who they are along the way, sharing bits and bobs of their story here and there making me go back and rewrite entire scenes because suddenly they’re in my ear going, “You know, I so totally would NOT say that.”
But here’s the thing. With this piece, I’ve realized that sometimes what you need is another set of eyes just to say, “Yeah, that’s realistic,” or “What ARE you smoking?” Someone to point out, “This character intrigues me. I want to know more about her.” Or even, “Dude, just cut the extra kid. That kid is just in the way.” What I’m writing has a key character who is a 14-year-old holy terror. I have a precocious but incredibly well-intentioned 8-year-old. Some things are just simply out of my realm of experience, and I know I need someone else to look at it and say, “You know, my kid never did that, but I knew a kid….”
Two weeks ago, I recruited a dear, sweet friend of mine to read for me because I knew somehow that she would identify, even just a little, with the main character. The first draft I sent her was, I think, 10 pages. Then I wrote more the next day and sent her that version before she’d even had a chance to read the first. She gave some great feedback, didn’t tell me flat out it sucked donkey balls, and I pressed onward. Over the weekend, the characters in my head went a little bonkers, and I think I about went too far when I was emailing a draft and almost immediately texting her, “Wait, no! Don’t read that one! It’s changed!” followed twenty minutes later by a whole new version that was completely different in three scenes and nine pages longer. I’m pretty sure after that she’s just ignoring my emails.
A few days ago, I got bold and sent a copy to another friend. Of course, I have to realize, the version she got (which I also sent to the first friend who promptly ignored my email, because, really, I went that bonkers) was, I believe 71 pages. First draft. And so rough in places it still gives me splinters. I am determined not to do to the second friend what I did to the first, so I’m trying to bite my tongue and hold my fingers and not corner her on Facebook and bombard her with about 50 lines of “Didjareadit didjareadit didjareadit?”
I also sent a copy of that version to a third friend of mine, really, just for the hell of it and because I have no doubt in my mind that she’s the one who will say, “Really? If you think this is something, you’re insane.” And because a character is partially based on her, although she doesn’t know that unless she reads this (testing…1…2…3…).
With all of this sharing, though, all of this self-exposure, for lack of a better term, my stomach is staying in knots. I need the feedback. I need a gauge of plausibility. I need to know if it is utter and complete dreck or if there is any possibility. But the exposure is petrifying. It’s been well over 20 years since anyone read anything I wrote with original characters, and I was in high school and I printed it out on an Apple ImageWriter dot matrix printer that was so loud it would wake the dead, or at least, on several occasions, my sleeping parents. Back then, I’d flounce around at the pool in a swimsuit all day long like it was nobody’s business. These days, I won’t leave the house in shorts.
The point being, the older I get, the more intimidating the exposure becomes. For the writing, I think it’s because, back then, people were impressed that I was writing a novel at that age. Now, the novelty is gone. I’m one in what seems like forty million people who want to be a writer. I like to think in the ensuing years I’ve grown a thick enough skin that if one of the three people who have seen this thing were to say, “You know, I hate to say it, but it really sucks,” I could handle it. I see myself at a place right now where I can come up with other ideas or take a segment of this and turn it into a different beast. Spin-off someone somehow. Backup ten years and tell the story from there. In college, I begged people for help because I dreaded the inevitable soul-sucking email that said, “How old are you – 10? Because this blows chunks.” (That’s what we said in the late 90’s, right?) But now, if you like it, I want to know. If you hate it, I want to know. If you like scenes 3 and 7 but hate everything else, great! Like all of it but really could do without that one particular kid? Wonderful! Thank you for making that decision for me!
But perhaps the biggest struggle is putting time into perspective. When I was writing in college, none of those friends had kids or spouses. A couple of them worked, but we were on IRC for hours upon hours upon hours a day, into the wee hours of the morning. I’d send someone a chapter and have detailed, line by line feedback four hours later. My readers now have families, kids, jobs, hobbies, lives. And learning to remind myself that it’s not all about me and that a couple of days silence is not an “Oh, God, how do I tell her this really, really sucks?” but rather a “Dude, I just haven’t had time to sit down and read through 71 pages the way I want to,” is proving to be a difficult task.
This time, the story is flowing. The characters are present. I am writing. But the waiting to find out if that writing resonates, if what I’m seeing in my head is translating onto the page, seems interminable. And while my battered and well-read (and obviously largely forgotten since I’m pretty sure I’ve broken every single suggestion laid out in both books for how to write in this post alone) copies of On Writing and Bird by Bird still sit on the shelf just above my monitor, it seems like what I need at this particular moment is a book titled “On Being Read: How to Survive the Eleventy Billion Eons Between Sharing Your Work and Receiving Feedback (Even If It’s Only Been 24 Hours).”