Take a look in your forgotten story drawer. Just open it up, and rifle through the text. Deeper. Older. There you go. Back there. Way in the back, that story that’s maybe barely in there any more, the one on a scrap of paper that has almost managed to escape the back of the drawer, wedging itself between the boards, pushed over and out by all the more recent, quite possibly more worthy, ideas.
It’s a story you started maybe a few years ago, maybe a lot of years ago. The one you started when you were a different person, it was that long ago. You don’t even remember how to feel like the person you were then.
But the story is still in your drawer, because we’re always still the person we were then, aren’t we? To some degree, at least. That’s the story I’m talking about today.
My work in progress is a story I started before I was published. Before I wrote fan fiction. Before I had children. Before my second marriage. Before the current millennium.
In its first incarnation, this thing was scribbled in a notebook some time between the time I filed for divorce from my first husband, and the time the papers were signed a few months later. It was scribbled in a notebook because at the time, I had only a desktop computer, and I didn’t like to use that for writing. Writing was still so private a thing, back before I learned to monetize it. It felt too personal, somehow, for a keyboard. I was still shy with my own process. I had no idea what I was doing.
The story was ridiculous, a cobbled-together mashup of ideas from somebody who knew nothing about craft, who had decided it was finally time to do this novel-writing thing everybody’d always told her she should do. Parts of it were so bad that when I found those notebook pages several years ago—torn out, stuffed into a manila file labeled, “writing,” along with a bunch of other snippets of junk I’d jotted down over the years—I didn’t even bother transcribing it all into a Word document. Not all of it made the cut, because I’d learned some stuff by then. But most of it I typed in, under the working title “Something Blue,” and then I went back to writing some more Hermione/Snape fic.
The problem with “Something Blue,” and the reason I didn’t start working on it when I started writing stuff that wasn’t fan fic, was that it didn’t have a story. I used to think I needed one, is the thing, I used to think that was where you started. Until I wrote a few novels, I didn’t realize it was okay to start with characters. I didn’t realize that I had to start with characters, or that even the few times I thought I was starting with a story, or a scene, I was actually starting with characters. I wasn’t shy with my own process anymore, but I didn’t know it very well yet. I had no idea what I was doing.
Around the time I’d published my first handful of novels, I switched from PC to Mac in order to make use of Scrivener. In the process of moving everything from my old writing software (PageFour) to Scriv, I encountered my plot bunny corral again, and this story was still there. I made a Scrivener project and pasted “Something Blue” into its own page, and I read the disjointed bundle of stray scenes and character sketches and was surprised that it didn’t totally suck. I still knew those characters. I still wanted to know more about them. I still liked my words. But it wasn’t a romance—it wasn’t ever intended to be, I’d started it with vague literary fiction notions, or with no particular genre in mind, really—so I closed the file and forgot about it again, because I’d become a romance writer. What’s more, on this re-read, I realized that if there were a romance in it, it would be between the two female protagonists. And I certainly wasn’t a lesbian romance writer. The long and short of it was that I couldn’t use any of the characters in the series I was writing at the time, none of the partial scenes or snatches of dialog fit, so I moved along.
I wrote more books. I finished that series and wrote another one. Then another, and sort of another, and various standalone things in between. I went to workshops and read craft books and talked and talked and talked to other writers, and presented workshops, and won awards, and critiqued and edited other peoples’ books and then wrote some more. Started editing for money.
I know my process. I own my process. I can no longer claim to have no idea what I’m doing, if what I’m trying to do is write a romance novel.
So I have some credibility when I say this next thing. When I pulled “Something Blue” out of the drawer this most recent time—arranged the characters on my desk, ignoring their eye-rolling and long-suffering sighs at all the neglect, and started considering their words again as I seem destined to do every few years—I realized that parts of it were really not that bad. I realized that, in fact, parts of it are better than anything I’ve written in years. Possibly better than anything I’ve ever had published. And I’m pretty sure it’s because when I wrote it, I had no idea what I was doing.
I wasn’t writing for an audience. I didn’t know anything about gatekeepers or tropes or editing. I didn’t even know what the story was. I just had these characters in my head and needed to get them out of there so I could move on to thinking about other things. These weird, melancholy characters who wouldn’t do much of anything, who thought about stuff way too much, who seemed to be living their lives at oblique angles to anything like the issues they ought to be facing head-on. These character who have resisted, for years, allowing me to engage them in narrative of any kind. At least any kind that would lead to a resolution, to a romance writer’s preferred ending.
But I have tools now. I’ve learned all these things. I’ve built up all this stamina. And I’m not getting any younger. So this time, I’m keeping them out of the drawer, and I’m writing them. With no clue how it will turn out, or even whether I’ll recognize the end of their story once I arrive there. I’m trusting in these characters, these odd, broken characters, to know for themselves. My recalcitrant lesbians (only one of them is a lesbian, I don’t know what the other one is nor do I need to know, because she doesn’t care about labels). They’re stuck, in their lives. And currently literally stuck, in a house, trapped there by a storm, having to craft a new kind of conversation that neither of them has ever successfully managed before.
They’re not going anywhere, on a lot of levels. That’s their problem, and I’m making it mine.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.