Monday, April 20, 2009

Motivation & My Process

It's been almost a week since my last post, so I've got lots to say. Prepare yourself for another long post, folks!

First: Need a kick in the butt to get some writing done? Wondering if your novel (and you) are good enough? Check out this blog post from Toni McGee Causey, which asks, "How do you know when to quit?" which I came across by way of Janet Reid's blog. It's a great reminder that luck is really opportunity and preparation meeting.

Secondly (but definitely relating to the first), as I've been plugging away at rewriting Through Charlotte's Eyes, I've been thinking a lot about the process of writing my first historical fiction novel. But first, you should know this about me: my organizational skills are lacking. I wouldn't necessarily call myself scatter-brained, because I know where everything is and consider everything to have it's place... but no one else knows where anything is because the way I "organize" looks pretty messy.

I tell you this because the way I organize also affects the way I research and, in turn, write.

When I started working on Through Charlotte's Eyes, I was a graduate student at The University of Chicago. This YA historical fiction novel was to be my thesis - that I was going to write in less than nine months. Intimidating? Of course. But I managed to research and write two drafts of the novel in this time span, which, to this day, still amazes me.

Let's back up (see? I can't even stay chronological!)

I came up with the idea for the novel back in 2006, after reading Anna Karenina. Spurred by a single footnote, I dabbled in research about Charlotte but didn't really start digging. In 2007, I started grad school, wrote a proposal for my thesis, and luckily found a thesis advisor that was willing to take on my novel project (which somehow evolved from a strictly historical fiction about Corday to a historical fiction/urban fantasy about one of Corday's ancestors, despite (or perhaps because of?) my lofty goals.

This is where it gets tricky. I set my novel in two historical time periods: the French Revolution and Paris in 2005. Yes, I consider 2005 historical, because certain 2005 events are key to understanding what's going on in my story. And 2005 isn't the present, so it must be the past, and therefore, ladies and gentlemen, it's historical.

I found book upon book, article upon article, about both these time periods... well, books about 2005 are lacking. By the Winter of 2007, I jumped head-first into the research. My biggest obstacle? I had seven more months to finish my research AND write a novel. Eek! Yeah, there was a bit of freaking out, wondering what I was doing, etc. I had a couple chapters, a rough outline, but I needed details galore. I wondered: how am I ever going to do this?

So, I started researching - yet, that doesn't mean I didn't stop writing. I needed to do both at the same time, otherwise there was no way I was going to get enough words on paper to constitute "a novel." I know a lot of writers say that they prefer to research everything completely and then start writing, but that process has it's drawbacks; for me, I would have put off writing, telling myself I needed more info before I could do anything else.

By researching AND writing at the same time, I was getting my ideas out on paper, playing with them, and, best of all, figuring of what I needed to know more about. My writing, therefore, informed the way I conducted my research.

Luckily, this process proved to be successful. I completed a second draft of my novel, successfully completed my thesis in the May of 2008, and received an 'A.' But "completed" is a funny term; I completed my thesis, but I did not complete my novel. I still saw things that I was missing, holes in my research, minute details that I still needed to really enrich the story. That's why I'm still working on my novel almost a year since I turned in my thesis.

I keep revising, keep researching, until the story is how I want it be. Whether this process proves to be successful, only time and more writing (and more research) will tell.

So much for telling the "story" of my writerly beginnings in a chronological way on this blog. Stories don't have to be told chronologically, in order to be interesting. In fact, I think some stories are best told by skipping around... but maybe that's just me.

Either way, thinking about where I started out (with just a speck of an idea) to where I am now (working on the third draft of my novel) not only amazes me, but keeps me moving forward. I can do this.

So, my answer to the question: how do you know when to quit? NEVER. If you're passionate about something, willing to work hard, and willing to be patient - then you should never give up. But read that other blog post if you don't believe me.

Writers - how do you go about the research and writing process, whether you write historical fiction or not? Do you prefer to finish all your research and then write? How do you decide you've done enough research? And, perhaps most importantly, what keeps you writing?


Cindy said...

I don't write historical fiction, but I still have to do research. I try to gather as much information as possible before I begin but know without a doubt that I am going to have to continue the research as the story progresses. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to need to know until you get there.

I enjoy writing so much that sometimes that in itself is enough motivation to keep writing. On the tougher days, though, I think of people I can reach with my writing. I think of all the books I've enjoyed over the years and motivate myself with the fact that maybe, one day, I'll be able to reach someone in the same way.

Liz S said...

So true, Cindy! I wholeheartedly agree that we don't always know what we need to look for until we're actually staring at the Word document, our fingers hovering above the keyboard. I've been encountering that a lot lately as I've been revising. Research is definitely key to filling in all those ever-important details that really make a story come alive.

Thanks for sharing what keeps you writing; I'll have another post about that very question later today!