In Ardua Tendit

So, the past couple of months.

Short version:  I took a short story called “Debit” to a writers’ workshop in October 2011. The workshop was a fantastic experience, on so many levels.  While there, I received inspiring feedback from generous instructors and co-workshoppers. And I was given a task: turn the short story into a novel.  In 90 days.

Yup.  Day 90 was Thursday, January 12, 2011.

Extended version:

Until last winter, I was a prolific, lifelong story-starter.  I wrote beginnings, then edited and revised, in order to “get it perfect” before I continued to the end. The endings, of course, never materialized.

In part, this was a job-related issue: I love to write, and I’ve written for a living all my adult life. But – this is going to sound ridiculous – I rarely put my love of writing in the same room with writing for a living.  That is to say, I’ve written other people’s ideas down as articles and stories and catchy headlines for over a decade. When I had time, I worked on my own ideas. (See previous paragraph for how that went.)

So last year, I resolved to put my own writing first, to see what came of it.  And I resolved to finish a draft of a story, before I began revising.

What happened? I started finishing stories.  Some of them didn’t suck (especially after a round or ten of revisions).  And I began rebuilding my writing community, which I’d let go to pot over the course of more than a decade as a hired pen (and designer, and programmer), and several moves.

Then, in October, I grabbed a plastic lawn chair and sat down next to James MacDonald at Viable Paradise. We both eyed the copy of “Debit” that he held in his lap.  I was nervous, despite having participated in workshops before, mostly as a poet.   It was day 1 of the conference, I had a meeting with Elizabeth Bear the next day*, and a workshop critique on Friday – I was going to get a ton of feedback on this short story, starting now. What was Jim going to say?

He said, “this isn’t a short story.”  My worst nightmare.

Then he said, “this is a novel.”

My first thoughts were: wah-huh?  Um.  I can’t write a novel.  I’ve barely figured out how to finish a short story.

Instead, I think I mumbled, “wow.” This roughly translates in my secret language to “are you sure you don’t have me confused with someone else?” And then I listened while he outlined a mad plan for the next three months.

Somehow, on the very first day of the workshop, Jim had figured out a sure way to get me to do the impossible: he gave me a deadline, and he dared me to try.

I left that meeting with a map of the way forward.  I may have been in kind of a daze, because Jim had also encouraged me to talk to writers and editors who leave me tongue tied and shy on a good day, and he may have poured me a rather stiff drink.

I’m part Scot. My maternal clan’s motto is “in ardua tendit” (the family interprets this as ‘to attempt difficult things’, and Google translates: ‘tends to the arduous,’ which makes it sound like someone is gardening difficulties). In my case it usually means ‘leaps before looking.”

I’m also a typical freelance writer. Giving me a deadline is like waving a red cape and shouting ‘toro.’

Still.  A whole novel?  I spent the week chewing on the idea, and at the same time, I wrote a short story I wanted to finish.  Once I arrived home, I wrote another short story. I heard back from an editor asking for revisions on another story. I received a veritable blizzard of rejections on other stories I’d submitted. This wasn’t going well.  The short story ideas were calling and, while I spent a good chunk of my days making notes about character and plot for the novel, the end of October approached and I wasn’t focused.

So I took some steps:

  • I decided (thanks to Chuck Wendig’s blog) not to cheat on my novel anymore.
  • I bumped up my daily writing goal to 2500 words a day, then to 3k.
  • I outlined, wrote cross-sections, and backstories.
  • I asked a lot of dumb questions.
  • And I went over my notes from the workshop lectures and critiques. Over and over again.
  • In November and December, I wrote an 80k-word draft (thanks nanowrimo – that was great motivation).
  • In December and early January, I revised, after a few intrepid readers took a look at the first draft, in pieces and as a whole. [You know who you are, thank you so very much. More gratitude coming soon.]

There are a few details I left out.  Like the flailing.  And the emails I sent to friends (“I cannot believe how much this book sucks.” And their response: “It’s supposed to. Quit that and keep writing.” [Thanks, Amy]), and to Jim (“stranded at the mountain pass. have drunk the last of our water and eaten the horses”). The staring-out-of-windows, and the days where I sat down to write at 9:30 and looked up again to discover it was 4:30, I’d written 4,000 words, and I hadn’t eaten a thing.  That last part was pretty trippy, and rather cool.

Once I had a draft, I used Steven Gould’s iPad editing method for much of the revision process. I cut chapters, revised All The Scenes. Exorcised a number of really bad habits. Decided that the next thing I wrote would be in a completely different voice. Flailed some more. I read through the draft out loud, expunging what I stumbled over, until I couldn’t read any more.

Then I printed a hard copy.  It was tough to actually print out a physical copy of the draft.  It was a very important thing to do, especially when so much is done digitally these days, because I hadn’t weighed in my hands the physical fact of how much I’d written until I printed and boxed the thing.  Plus, I found several hideous typos in the first couple pages. Which I fixed. Then,

  • On day 89, I asked Jim how I was going to be able to mail this off, knowing there was more I could do to it, and he responded, “Novels are never finished, they escape.”
  • and then, on the 90th day, my novel escaped in box addressed to Jim, traveling with some cookies and a container of silly-putty.

What happens to the draft now?  I’m not quite sure.  I like the story.  I hope others do.  I know this is the first stage, and there will be more work to come. Best answer right now is: I’ll keep you posted.

The package hasn’t reached its destination yet. In the meantime, I received another message from Jim.

It said, “Start another novel. Today.”

And I have.

(* more to come.)

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13 comments

  1. Fran, that is *awesome!* Now you are a writer who finishes, yes? 🙂

    I love those times when the story takes hold and doesn’t let go for hours.

  2. Excellent job! It was a nice short story; I hope to get to read the long version someday. 😉

    (I wondered why you were writing 90k for someone else…)

  3. What an inspiring post!

    I serendipitously found it while Googling “In Ardua Tendit”, seeking to understand a tag of a Twitter entity I follow.

    After reading your post, I checked Amazon to see if anything happened with your novel. I’m not sure if Updraft is the same one, but it sounds wonderful.

    Thanks for posting this while you were still in the beginning stages of getting your novel published.

    • Hi Dave! Updraft is the novel *after* the one I wrote in this post! Sometimes it helps to learn how to do a thing and then do it! Thank you for reading – F.

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