Two at Once

For me, writing a novel is a lot like a relationship. Managing more than one at a time is just too complicated for my simple mind. Yet, despite my usual single-mindedness of purpose, I’m currently working on two novels.

After writing the first two books in the holiday series, I wanted to try something different. Adventures in Trauma Car is a first-person coming-of-age story very loosely based on my life. Figuring I knew the story well enough not to need an outline or character sketches, I forged ahead. But 30,000 words in, I hit a wall. I’d changed things up so much that any resemblance to my life had disappeared.

I hit this wall with every book I write. The story I envisioned at the outset takes on a life of its own. Lost and with no idea where to go, I have to rethink the plot and my plans for an ending. Moving forward involves lots of pain, suffering, and mental anguish. It’s awful. Seriously.

Some writers have drawers full of these false starts. Perhaps, had I attempted to write novels rather than journaling for all those years, I would too. But at this stage in my life, setting a manuscript aside feels like time wasted. Come hail or high water, I will push through.

The first round of edits for After Christmas Eve arrived before I’d figured out where to go with Trauma Car. I set what I’d written aside and focused on the editor’s suggestions for the second book in the holiday series. By the time I finished revisions, an idea for a sequel had hatched into another holiday story I couldn’t wait to write.

Sending a story through our writers group more than once isn’t all that unusual. But, for lots of different reasons, submissions tend to get the most thorough critiques the first time through the process. Until Thanksgiving and After Christmas Eve both went through twice, from start to finish. Some parts — especially early chapters of the first one — got critiqued as many as five times.

Most of us submit something we’re still working on, often struggling to finish the next section by the biweekly submission deadline. Based on what I’ve seen, every writer reaches that point in a first draft where the story takes off in a new and unexpected direction, requiring major revisions to some or all of the earlier chapters. The changes are significant enough to warrant starting from the beginning again with the group.

Finishing the third novel in the holiday series — my most ambitious project yet — is my first priority. Happy Independence Day takes place around the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. To get the best feedback, I decided to finish the first draft before sending any of it through for critique. I’ve written the first twenty chapters and believe I just broke through the aforementioned wall of pain and suffering.

Back in July, I started Adventures in Trauma Car through the group for critique. They’ve seen about half of what I’ve written. In some cases, I’m making revisions the day after I hear their comments. For bigger changes, I’m adding notes to the draft of things I need to address. I’m anxious to hear their suggestions after they see the last section I’ve written.

Each of the writers in my group has pet peeves they tend to harp on with every submission — myself included. As I work on Happy Independence Day, I hear their voices in my head pointing out things for me to fix as I write. I’d be willing to bet they hear my voice with every “it” and adverb they use. I’m fixing things they would have pointed out without them having to tell me, forcing them to look elsewhere to rip me a new one when they get to see a draft.

In a perfect world, I’ll finish Happy Independence Day the same week I submit the last chunk of Adventures in Trauma Car. While the holiday book goes through the group, I’ll finish writing the coming of age story. Looks like I’m on track to double annual production to two novels in 2014. I’ll keep you posted.

4 responses to “Two at Once”

  1. I can’t manage writing more than one thing at a time. I confuse myself enough working on one project; if I tried to do two at once, I can almost guarantee it would end up as a waste, with characters mistakenly crossing over or references to events in one manuscript that happened in the other.

    • John, I know exactly what you mean–hence my surprise to find myself working on two at once. In this case, they’re so different I don’t have to worry about the kind of crossovers you fear. If they were more alike–say both in the holiday series with some of the same characters–I’d never manage!

  2. I do this exact thing — every long project I work on has a point where I just hit a wall and have to stop and completely rethink it. I think it happens to me because I can only really get to know characters by writing about them … but as I gain a better understanding of who they are, the plot I originally envisioned will often stop working. So I have to back off and rethink things on the basis of who the characters are now, rather than who they were when they were just names and vague ideas on paper.

    Someday I’d like to get a good enough grip on my writing process to know where I’m going from the beginning! But who knows, maybe this is just how my creative process works.

    • My theory is that just about everyone hits that wall. A guy in my writers group put together a 60-page outline for his next novel. He was so proud of himself! But by the time he’d written chapter three, his outline was more or less useless. The characters come to life and then tell us we don’t have their story right! Thanks for stopping by.