The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

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Warlight and secrecy

I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.

Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.

Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?

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Editing.

It’s been quiet here lately. I’ve been up to my neck in editing Book One, in between tinkering with other writing projects and sleeping off a persistent case of walking pneumonia (not recommended).

In editing Book One, I set out with the conflicting ambitions of cutting 34,000 words (85 single-spaced pages), while at the same time fleshing out certain characters and themes. As it happens, I’ve cut quite a lot of words, but I’ve also added quite a lot of words, so it might just end up still being a Large One.

That’s a problem for future me, though.

For now, I’m interested in what it means to be “editing,” anyway. This process turns the book into a Ship of Theseus. If not a single word remains the same from draft one to draft two-point-five or three or wherever we are, is it the same book?

When I started draft two, I set out only to edit draft one, not to rewrite it. I was using software that color-coded new words green, contrasting with the black text of draft one. By the end of draft two, virtually the whole thing was green. So did I write a new book? Or edit an existing one? I think the answer is “yes.”

And now I’m editing again. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between a thorough rewrite and a check for typos. There’s quite a lot of new text, quite a bit of cut text, changed names and revised dates, but the basic book is more or less the same.

If you listen to writing advice, which I often do, you’ll hear that you can never ever do anything with a first draft. Anne Lamott specifically calls first drafts “shitty,” which is liberating, because then you can just write the thing with the knowledge that it absolutely will not be perfect. But my overthinking mind then wonders: if I realized after my first draft that I needed a new section, and then I wrote that section, is that section a first draft of that section? Does it needs its own second draft? Is each new paragraph a mini-first draft, even if the surrounding text is on draft three or four?

Then even every word becomes suspect: let’s say I initially wrote that “Joe smiled,” and then in draft two I struck “smiled” and said instead that “Joe beamed.” The phrase “Joe beamed” is now in draft two, but the word “beamed” is brand-new. Does it need a second draft of its own?

Obviously not. But this is where the mind loves to go.

It turns out that editing is not the process of replacing every word with a different word. It does mean “killing your darlings,” an overused and misunderstood bit of advice that you often have to delete the little phrases and moments that you absolutely love but which are not serving the story or the characters. You might need to get rid of that long, beautiful meditation on the sunset when there’s a car chase going on. For me, this often entails wiping out sentences and phrases that have been echoing in my head for three years but just do not belong in my book.

Editing means writing the book as a reader, and reading it as a writer. Someone in my writing group shared an idea that helped her in moments of overwhelm, when she wasn’t sure she knew how to create the book she had in mind: she looked at a picture of a potter throwing a pot, to remind her that the potter is always bigger than the pot, just as the writer is bigger than the book. It can feel sometimes that the work is far larger than the worker, that it can’t be tamed, let alone perfected. But at the end of the day I’m like that potter at the wheel, shaping bit by bit until the whole is some compromise between what I wanted the book to be, and what it wanted to be.

But at some point, the potter has to fire the clay. Stop shaping it and commit. Likewise, the writer at some point has to stop editing, stop tweaking words and shifting dialogue, and decide that the thing is done.

2020 Goals, writing-related and otherwise

I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.

When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.

It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.

There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.

But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.

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History of words, words about history…

Still on the subject of podcasts in the midst of a Busy Holiday Season®️, there’s another one I feel completely compelled to share, even if absolutely none of you will be interested in joining me: The History of English podcast (recently misheard rather intriguingly as the “History of English Podcasts”) is completely wonderful.

The show, running since 2012, appears to be an extracurricular passion project of a solo practitioner lawyer from North Carolina, who says absolutely nothing about himself on the show. But he has quite a lot to say: he presents the history of English in meticulous hourlong increments, starting from the absolute dawn of the knowable history of human speech all the way up to—God knows, because seven years in, he’s only gotten a little beyond Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few hundred momentous years shy of Shakespeare.

Anyone interested in etymology or English history or both would almost certainly enjoy the show. One thing I find tremendously charming is the way that Kevin (for that is the host’s name) delivers etymological facts by theme as he marches forward in time. An episode documenting the messy bloodline of King Alfred the Great, for example, provides him an opportunity to talk about Old English words for family and inheritance. But just when it veers close to feeling like a lengthy fact dump, the show manages to keep moving along narratively.

But anyway, enough about the show. Let’s talk about me.

I’ve had a long-simmering interest in the history of languages. Before the internet, I remember staying up late with my parents’ encyclopedia, reading the cross-references to work out how languages are related to and descended from each other. I briefly flirted with the idea of majoring in linguistics, before realizing that (at my university, at least) the subject was a great deal more medical, more wetly throaty, than I’d anticipated.

But there’s no shame in being a dilettante, I hope, and Kevin from the podcast gives me hope about even the prospect of being a devoted learner and teacher in one’s spare time around a busy lawyer’s schedule.


Okay, actually, enough about me. Back to the show.

The early episodes of the podcast go way, way back. By episode 7, we’re still in the land of Proto-Indo-European, which is the language that gave birth to most European and some Asian languages. It was spoken so long ago, by people who did not write, that all we know about it has been reconstructed by linguists working backward from modern languages like forensic analysts, finding traces of ancient words in the similarities and gaps between current words.

This absolutely blows my mind, and always has. Not only do linguists figure out little clues about dead languages by finding commonalities between their daughter languages; they also bring in geography and botany and biology and genetics to connect the dots. For example, we find some clues about where these Proto-Indo-Europeans lived by analyzing which words they had, and didn’t have, to describe the world around them—no words for “monkey” or “palm tree,” so not the jungle, and none for “olive” or “grape,” so a colder climate. Words for certain kinds of sheep only, which tells us something about what kinds of animals they could have raised, and that in turn tells us something about what their world looked like.

This kind of thing is completely bananas to me: can you imagine doing this as a job? Can you imagine tracing the spoken words of people who died five thousand years ago, and also getting to learn a lot about sheep in the process? Goals, I tell ya.

Anyway.

Something I find so fascinating about the history of words is that it traces the history of thought, and the history of sound. These are things that don’t tend to leave impressions in the archaeological record, and they can be obfuscated in written histories. But words can’t help but shift and change with use, like a well-worn pair of jeans thinning around the wearer’s knees.

And one thing that language doesn’t lie about is the thought process that goes into the mundane everyday choices of words that average people make. Despite the best intentions of grammarians and usage experts everywhere, language never has been primarily about perfection. It’s about communication. It does its job to the extent that people can understand what others want to say, and can make themselves understood in the process.

People of all stripes are natural geniuses at inventing new, easier, and more nuanced ways of saying what they mean. Sometimes they borrow and break old words to do so. Sometimes, this way, words come to mean their opposite: pairs like “guest” and “host,” “give” and “take,” and “black” and “white” come from the same Indo-European root word. Through the messy process of speech occurring over generations of people delicately navigating their societies, these words took on seemingly nonsensical new meanings. And just like we’re all writers now, we’re all the masters of how to communicate our meaning, our humor, and our nuances exactly how we please.


Okay, now back to me.

In Book One, I indulged myself by writing a little sub-subplot about linguistic history. (This is the pleasure of writing a book: no one can stop you). I imagined a pair of late-Victorian scholars chasing a theory about how one might get to know the ancient inhabitants of Europe by looking at the words they borrowed from each other. As it happens, I think the theory as presented in the book is wrong, but the great thing about fiction is that, again, no one can stop you. I can do that on purpose and no one is allowed to criticize me!

I imagine most of you are either long gone or reading out of mere politeness by this point. But to sum it all up: I think there’s something tremendously beautiful about how language can pry open our deep history. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we’re not only articulating our own present thoughts—we’re also building upon the feelings and frustrations and joys and creativity of millions of people over thousands of generations. All the people that came before us still live through us in this little way, carved into our bodies in our DNA and carved into our brains with the words we keep shifting and borrowing and laughing and shouting.

Further recommended reading if you are interested: John McWhorter’s piece, which includes a fascinating idea that the weird way English uses the verb “to do” (as in: “do you like me?” Where every other self-respecting language would say: “Like you me?”) actually comes from Celtic languages.

And on that note, Merry Christmas to all!

November writing update.

It’s November, as you might have noticed. As a writer who exists on the Internet, I know that November can be a time of great pressure and great disappointment. November is “National Novel Writing Month,” abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, and many hundreds of thousands or maybe billions of people (who knows, really?) participate by pledging to write a full novel in a month. For NaNoWriMo purposes, a full novel is anything 50,000 words or longer. It does not have to be, and indeed is probably not even supposed to be, “good.” It’s just supposed to get us out of our perfectionistic delay and onto the keyboard.

Several times, including his year, I’ve half-committed to doing NaNoWriMo. This has produced a few stunted partial novels in previous years, books I had semi-planned but which I didn’t have nearly enough juice to complete, especially when there’s a target of at least 1,667 words every day to stay on track. If you skip a day or two, the writing debt piles up and the lure of a blurry, Thanksgiving-induced tryptophan oblivion becomes too much to resist.

1,667 words a day is a lot. When I was writing Book One, a good day was 500, and an incredibly good day was 1,000. So 1,667 is basically inconceivable, like an ultramarathon or a layer cake. A blinding effort that’s just going to make me sleepy to consider.

Copyright 2019

Nevertheless, I’ve been trying (until the last few days, when things have gotten away from me, as they have a tendency to do). Sometimes it’s good to push toward a difficult goal, and other times it is good to relax into enjoying what’s already present, and maybe the real work is in figuring out which times are which.

Anyway. I’m thinking about writing again, so here’s an update:

Book One is sitting in limbo at the moment, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I think I’ll do another round of edits on it and then start shopping it around to various literary agents. People on the writing internet call this upcoming stage the “trenches,” which feels a tad overdramatic even as someone who wrote a book involving a higher-than-average amount of literal trench warfare (and, after all, it’s Veteran’s/Armistice Day, to boot). But I haven’t been there yet, so what do I know?

Seeking publication, whether through the traditional course (finding an agent who sells to editors and publishers) or self-publishing, is inherently about self-promotion. So this, shoving my words into the world, is practice. Thank you for being present as I practice.

Speaking of which, here I am—writing. Over the past three or so months, I’ve written something north of 25,000 words here, which basically means if I keep this up for a year I’ll have written 100,000 words—a hefty novel’s length. What is this blog? Why is it? We’re still not sure. But that’s okay for now. Whatever it is I’m heading for, I’m practicing for it, I suppose.

And then there’s Book Two, the one I’m sort of trying to NaNoWriMo my way through. Until a few days ago, despite the gremlin who had been plaguing me previously, the draft was flowing fast out of me. I was writing a ton of words without terribly much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which is pretty ideal. It’s a low-stakes, low-drama endeavor, and it’s something I don’t really ever expect to do anything with. So that makes it easy to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and just keep at it (which, coincidentally, is as close as I have to a life philosophy at the moment).

Copyright 2019

There are times when I get a little tipsy on self-pity during my commute or my work day and I wish I could just be a book person all the time. But then I shake myself and realize: I am. Through tremendous fortune, I am able to read and write constantly, both for leisure and at my day job. And I go home in the evening and work on my novels and write this blog. In what way am I not a book person? It’s so easy to see the lack, even in the midst of abundance. Ain’t that always the way.

And here’s the thing: you’re probably a writer, too. Compared to any of your ancestors, even as recently as your parents, you write all the time. You write emails, and texts, and maybe tweets and Facebook comments, and Google reviews and who knows what all else? As linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in the very worthwhile examination of online language Because Internet, we’re all writers now. We’re all experts in tone and nuance, learning together in a worldwide, real-time experiment when periods are passive-aggressive and when lowercase letters are ironic. We are all creative, producing brand-new combinations of words all the time, fresh additions to the English corpus. (McCulloch suggests an experiment: Google the last text message you sent containing more than ten words, and put quote marks around the whole thing. You’ll likely find no results, meaning you more or less invented that particular sentence).

Any one of us can coin a word or compose a sentence that has never been said before, and it now exists in the language as soon as we utter it, whether it winks in and out for a single moment or whether it catches on and endures in the minds of people yet unborn.

McCulloch, “Because Internet,” 269

So say it with me: you’re a writer. I’m a writer. We’re all doing it.

…depending on how you count.

Tonight someone who had just read my book asked me how long it had taken to write. And as I generally do, I responded: “It depends on how you count.”

Really, how long does it take to write a novel?

All I have is my own minimal experience, of course, but let’s try to tabulate. Our counting options are below:

  1. Hours. I wrote for an estimated average of thirty minutes a day for roughly 182 days or six months–at least for the second draft. This works out to about 91 hours, or a hefty two-week timesheet.*
  2. Months. I wrote consistently for six months in one year, then let it sit for a while, then wrote for another six months, during which time I ended up rewriting virtually the entire thing. So that’s either six months or twelve, depending on whether I credit that first draft with really being part of the finished** draft.
  3. Years. I started seriously planning this book a little over three years ago. Serious planning involved making outlines, character sketches, and doing some research. This planning bears almost no relationship to what’s in the draft now, but it was a start. In short: planning in 2016, first-drafting in 2017, introspection and re-planning in 2018, and second-drafting in 2019 (with further edits TBD, perhaps also in 2019)?
  4. Decades. This story has been banging around my head as a little novel kernel since I was a kid. It was pretty insistent on getting out one of these days.

So there you have it, folks. If you’re looking for anecdata about how long it takes to write a novel, it’s somewhere between two work weeks and your whole life.

*I work in the government, after all.

**Ha.

I wrote a novel.

(Full disclosure: I moved this text over from a Google Docs document I started when I first started thinking of starting a blog. Writing as though on a blog, but in a Google Doc, felt very Creed Thoughts, so it’s quite a relief to know this is going out on the actual internet.) 

A few weeks ago I finished my second draft of a novel I wrote. Right now it’s out with a handful of generous people who were willing to read it. In the long run, I’d love to publish it–but for now I’m here, and here is in a welcome pause in the writing process while I wait for feedback. 

Copyright 2019

It was a long process to write the thing, taking anywhere from six months to three years, depending on how you count. Mostly it happened in little half-hour chunks before or after work, or on weekends. There were times I thought I’d never finish. But somehow I wrote a whole book in 2017, about 115,000 words, then set it aside, and wrote it all again almost from scratch, about 130,000 words, in the first half of 2019.

In the last few months while I worked toward the finish line, I fantasized about what it would be like to be Future-Kate, who was done with the draft. She was going to read so many books, make the most of living through the Golden Age of Television (literally, what a time to be alive!), go out so much more, be much better at working out and socializing. She was going to sleep more and cook like a champ and deep-clean everything. But writing seems to breed writing. I’m Future-Kate, and I started this project. Go figure.

I plan to write more later on the ideation, writing, and editing processes. I also hope Further-Future-Kate will know more than I do: will the draft go into the ether like Creed’s thoughts, or become a “real” book? Although after spending that many hours on the drafts, there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure: either option has to be fine or else it isn’t worth doing. Writing has to be its own reward, because there are much better ways of spending time if it isn’t.