On keeping a writing diary

I recently came across this interview with Sarah Waters in The Guardian, about her experience writing The Paying Guests.

One of the best decisions I ever made as an author was to keep a writing diary, a record of each day’s advances, along with plans, thoughts and queries about my current novel-in-progress. Surveying this at the end of a project provides a fascinating vision of the evolution of a book – though I invariably find that it’s a catalogue of complaints (“horrible day”, “appalling day”, “realised that most of what I wrote last week was rubbish”), relieved only rarely by moments of insight and sweaty euphoria: “Think I’m getting there at last, thank Christ!”

These journals are always substantial, but at more than 170,000 words my Paying Guests diary is only slightly shorter than the book itself

Although I can hardly put myself in the same company as Sarah Waters (whose amazing Fingersmith blew me away), I found a lot to relate to here. For everything I work on I start a “Notes” file, and this doc becomes my confidant during the course of the project.

It’s usually a lot of griping or the place where I unload my emotions. I don’t keep a journal, so the book diary becomes a record of all my thoughts along with what’s going on in the day-to-day.

For my Shadow Clock draft, I kept track of word count each day (because I wrote the book in one big Word file), how I was feeling (usually awful—reading back on Notes, I come off as a raging depressive). The Notes file is also my “what if” place—if I can’t bear to work in the official file, I sketch scenes in Notes.

And then like a movie cast and crew who disband at the final wrap, once the book is done, the diary is done. It’s interesting to me, the Notes file is often about the same length as the manuscript, as if they’re twins, somehow growing in parallel.

I’ve sometimes thought maybe I should just keep one big Notes file about the whole of writing life. But I like looking in on each idea to see where it’s stopped in time. So now while I’m waiting to see what my editor thinks of what I’ve turned in, I check in on another Notes file—it’s like visiting another person in another world: full of excitement about an idea that’s just been waiting in suspended animation.

What happened to werewolves?

Werewolf image from Dark Shadows

Wikimedia still from Dark Shadows

I tell people sometimes that I did major revisions on Dreamwood. Like, rewriting it many times. But the reality is so much worse.

When I started, Dreamwood was a story about werewolves. In fact, werewolves resurrected from their teeth. (It was not a Daughter of Smoke and Bone-type resurrection by teeth, because, um, sadly this predates it by a million years. Instead it was me trying to figure out how to take the idea of the contagion of the werewolf’s bite and see what I could do by stretching it out in time, through the power of magic werewolf DNA as it were.)

Anyway, I wrote and rewrote a story where Lucy Darrington, my plucky heroine, tries to figure out who’s responsible for these wolf attacks in this remote logging settlement. Her father was away doing research on some doomed trip to South America.

Dreamwood, a rare and dangerous tree had been in the story from the beginning. But it didn’t occupy the place it does now.

One of the changes the story went through was reimagining the entire thing with different stakes, and now without any werewolves.

I was very fond of them. I’d cooked up some awesome descriptions of what they looked like, how they transformed. And I really loved their personalities and air of menace they lent to everything. In fact, I loved them so much I wrote two completely different drafts with two completely different sets of villains turning into werewolves. Determined to keep my werewolves!

The problem was that they didn’t fit into the story at all. They were not Lucy’s problem to solve. They were instead something like a volunteer project she took on. (These darn werewolves!) And solving the problem of them didn’t solve any problem she had.

This was a fundamental misunderstanding on my part about how stories work.

It was very hard to give them up. They were cool. But I believed my editor when she told me they weren’t working. (And maybe she was also thinking that by the time this book came out there’d be werewolf fatigue among readers).

So I went back, and I thought. First, I had to come to grips with the idea. And then I had to do lots of thinking. It felt unproductive. It took months. Werewolves were so frightening, I had confused them with a threat to Lucy. So I had to understand what really mattered to her. What would threaten her. What would push her to the brink.

And the answer turned out to be … a tree.