Progress Report

Or: A Retrospective on My Writing Journey

Nearly a decade after starting my first “real” story (i.e. the first one I realized I wanted to finish, no matter what), I am still not finished with a complete draft. That might be depressing to some who aspire to finish their newest tale in under a year, but I knew when I started that I was undertaking a large task in attempting it: the story includes an enormous cast of characters, creating their world from the ground up, setting up a history of at least two hundred years, putting political systems in place (and the different monarchs use very different systems of ruling!!), learning about military campaigns…. The list never really ends, and the stories of minor characters have moved beyond my control, so that now when I mention it to friends in-the-know, I lovingly call it “The Epic.”

I didn’t set out to spend ten years trying to write the thing ( I probably would have balked at even starting if I’d known!) At the time, I wrote to keep myself awake through long midnight shifts at my job. The story grew out of an idea for fanfiction that quickly passed the bounds of those characters, and as I begin coming up with their names and feeling out their story, I realized that I had something unique, and for the first time started to consider myself a writer, and not just someone who liked to write.

The amount of imagining and research I’ve done has truly become the backbone of The Epic.

In the present day, there are times at work I can write, so I leave a notebook with old notes to be typed up in my bag. Last week the notebook I grabbed was one of the first I started brainstorming in, with the date of 2009 proudly etched into the cover. And what I discovered in looking through it for useful bits, was how much the story, the characters and the themes had matured over time – like a massive tree supported by an even more massive system of roots.

The prototypes of my main characters are so different from the people constantly living in my head today, but the fundamentals of who they would become are all there: the strength of character and core of duty in the queen, the silent nobility and merciless loyalty of her pirate-turned-guard, the complex relationships between her spies… and more than the details of their characterizations, I’ve come to understand why they were, and how they had come to be, rather than having a long list of preferred traits for each.

Going back in time to moving overseas, and my writing time went down to almost zero. I used the occasion of every new notebook to dive back into the story and the details of the world (I miss having so many stationary shops to browse through!) and then would set the story on the back-burner for the real work I was there to do. At times I deeply regretted not being able to jot down more than the occasional short scene, but when I got back to America, I realized that not all that “back-burner” time had been a waste.

The sick-to-my-stomach feeling of hanging over open space is a lot like the feeling of scenes and dialogue moving too quickly for me to keep up.

Nearly all of my side-characters had developed backstories rich with trials, successes, love stories, deaths, murders, travels and deep friendships. Returning to my former job, I tried to pen down all the stories suddenly flooding my head, worried I’d lose an important piece of each if I couldn’t get them down in time. It was a little like flying blind, grasping at anything and everything to keep me tethered to the original goal of that first story line.

{Side note: as much as I’d prefer to type my first drafts, there’s something that causes the creative juices to flow when I’m writing with a pen. This results in days where I believe I’ve accomplished nothing, because there’s not a file on the computer to show for it. But if you go to my bookshelf, it’s full of notebooks scattered with scenes and research.}

How I like to imagine myself when handwriting my scenes

My life continued to fluctuate between work, training, and preparing to move overseas again, with The Epic once again pushed aside. A second story had made itself known to me sometime in the year of training, and while I jotted down an outline, I knew I didn’t want to get too distracted by a new project. So of course in the next two years, two more firm story ideas rooted themselves in my head, and demanded they be written.

In hindsight, working on the other stories allowed my subconscious to turn over “The Epic,” and ask questions I’d been too busy writing scenes to think about. Questions like: what is this story really about? Not the characters, but the themes. What lessons are there to be learned from their experiences and their stories? What are their motivations to help or hinder each other? And finally: why am I the one writing this story?

That last question might sound strange, but there’s a part of me that believes stories come to us, demanding to be told – or at least that’s the type of writer I am. And even though I believe that, I hadn’t thought to ask why I was writing this story. As a believer, I figured – why not ask God? So I did – and was a little staggered by the answer. Rather than write another novel about what “The Epic” is about, suffice to say the “answer” will continue to evolve and grow as I continue to write, and I’m excited to see what further lessons it has to teach me.

So let me know in the comments: what have you learned from the stories you’ve written, or are currently writing? What surprised you about your characters? How have they (or you) evolved during the process of your story?

Katie, signing off

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