I have now officially finished several things during this strange time, for which I feel very grateful for: many packets of loose leaf tea. A chapstick!! And a book.
Seriously! A whole chapstick!
I am actually rather sentimental about chapsticks. The scent and taste of them capture, more than maybe anything else, what it very specifically felt like to live through various times in my life. Whenever I find a chapstick in an old coat pocket or buried in the bottom of a bag I haven’t used in a while, hoo boy, it sends me.
And so the weird orange-mango chapstick I’ve stored in my car and used for the last year or so, which was definitely marketed for preteens, probably best captured what it felt like to create Ben and Lex.
Ben and Lex’s book is the fourth full book I’ve now completed, even though I will now likely start calling it Book 2 (confusing, like everything else about writing). Finishing the first draft of a book is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever experienced in general, but my emotions about this one seem particularly off the charts and strange. I feel like I’ve been walking around in a fugue state all week about it, stuck in my head about so many different things. Sorry, family and friends.
Everyone always tells you that first drafts are supposed to be messy. That all that matters is that you get down the words, you finish the damn thing, and then you can make it pretty later. And now that I’ve gone through such an intense editing process of my last book (which is not over yet), I get that even harder. There were things in my first draft of my last book that make me cringe now. (There are probably things in it now that will make me cringe later, too.) But by the last revision I did with my agent, I cut 10,000 words from it with what was very close to joy. With each revision, you see the manuscript more clinically, more objectively, and you understand more of what works and what doesn’t, which details are central to the story or not. Cut this entire scene, and that one, too? Even though they undoubtedly felt very adorable and important to me when I wrote them? Fuck, sure. Just make this misery end already. BYYYEEEEE WORDS
All of which makes me know, objectively, that all of my teary, overwrought, heart-overflowing feelings about this current first draft of Book 2 are ridiculous.
But. Right now? It is my baby.
A baby that might not even work, like, the entire concept might actually be a horrible idea, and there is maybe no actual plot, and……….what is book.
Which are all thoughts I’ve had, increasingly and with increasing panic, as I’ve worked on my read-through of the draft this week.
(^^ The books I’m going to treat myself with after my read-through!! Screaming!!)
I like to print out my manuscripts for read-throughs, because reading on paper presents every sentence differently in my mind. And it is fun to scribble things out and rewrite things in the margins in pen. Gives me really studying-in-undergrad and/or NYC-editor-in-movies vibes. Even though it is, obviously, a tremendous waste of resources. Sorry, trees.
After my first read-through of this one, there are some things about the first, like, quarter of the book that I’m not sure are working, so I’m going to upload it to my Kindle next and re-read some of it on that, see how things flow in that format. (That’s my actual process advice for this newsletter: try all the formats!! I know many people who use a text-to-speech editor to have their manuscripts read out loud to them, too, which is supposed to actually be one of the more effective tools for self-editing, but also it scares me!!) And then I’ll send it to some friends in a very neuroses-soaked email. I might do that soon, like today, maybe earlier than I should, just because seriously, I have to stop thinking about this thing before my head explodes.
And then, eventually, someone who knows what they’re doing will help me figure out if it could, in fact, be a book shaped thing. Until I get to that point, the clinical, objective part, where I’m like “Cut half the book? OKAYYYYY!”
But before I get to that part, where I can see all the things about my book that work and all the ones that don’t…I want to feel good about my baby. Remember why I do this in the first place. For, like, ten minutes.
So *deep breath where I promise myself to not think self-deprecatory thoughts for ten minutes*
I finished a motherfucking book. Again.
I made up these characters in my head until they felt real. And their emotions and experiences feel so, so real to me.
Every book I write includes small parts of me. For my last book, that was cooking, gender, and big dreams. For this book, it’s hiking, the natural world, and being quiet. Getting to write about all of those things felt so special and personal and I’m so grateful for that.
There are scenes in the completed draft of this book that I always envisioned being there from the beginning. A visit to the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Birds. A trip to Nashville. Encounters with rattlesnakes, coyotes, and bears. A Wonderwall serenade. Portuguese. The toxic bro culture of the outdoors.
Then there are things that I didn’t include until the last minute, or that slotted into place as I was writing, and those are often the most fun of all. Like a dance to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody. And a small tribute to my own family’s love of wearing hats shaped like food at family events.
There were things I knew I wanted to happen—a scene with characters from the last book, an important scene with the protagonist’s sister—that I wasn’t quite sure how to actually play out until I sat down and just started writing them. Pantsing, as they say. And now both of those scenes are two of my very favorite scenes. It feels very special to learn who your characters are only as they’re tumbling out of your fingers. Alina was a character that I feel like I didn’t truly know until I actually wrote about her, yelling at her dumb older brother while they ate ice cream at the Eastwind Drive-In in Cascade Locks. And now I love her.
I only realized what the very last scene in the epilogue should be last week, and it felt so perfect in my head when I thought of it that I wanted to weep. This is what’s so magical about writing books: they come to you in bits and pieces, even when you’re almost done with them, like your brain and/or the universe is just waiting for you, giving you time to see what very obviously should happen next until you’re ready for it.
I always worry about very similar scenes or themes showing up in my different books, like my imagination about what actually happens in people’s lives is in fact very limited (oh, you can write a book that doesn’t involve family conflict, or where the main characters aren’t required to fall in love a little bit via dancing [see: Whitney Houston], aren’t you special). But likely my imagination is limited; maybe every author is just writing the same book over and over, you know? But still, from a writing standpoint, there are things I did differently in this book than my last few. It’s told only from one character’s point of view, whereas I’ve only ever written dual point of view for romance before. I wrote one important section entirely through letters. I still don’t know if it works, but writing them made me cry.
One of my biggest worries is that this book is too heavy, and I still want my books to be fun, so I tried to add more things that were funny to me during this read-through. Which resulted in this new line that I positively cannot stop giggling about.
Alexei didn’t want to be Verbal Vomit Tomato Mouse.
Anyway, the point was, Tumbleweed was a stupid name.
I know this is out of context and makes absolutely no sense to anyone, but if Verbal Vomit Tomato Mouse makes it into a real live book someday, I’m just saying, it will make me happy.
I think I wrote about important things in this book. The trauma in this book, which has to do with sexuality and religion, has been talked about, at length, by so many other people, but this trauma (caused by people, not faith) is still very real for a lot of people. One of my biggest neuroses is that a lot about this book is cliche, but during this ten minute period of confidence I gave myself, I’m admitting that I think it’s important that we still acknowledge this hurt. Because I see it, in my students, and that’s why I wrote this book. Even if queers can get married and the law protects our jobs now, a lot of people out there are still living in a world that doesn’t feel very free at all. And the people who want to hold onto that world, the one where we are wrong and full of sin, will continue to hold onto it, more ferociously than ever, with every year that they’re on the losing end. Our victories add fuel to their righteousness.
My protagonist doesn’t get a happy ending with his religious family, but he gets a happy ending for himself and his own faith and belief in love, and I think that’s the important thing.
I think some lines in this book that somehow came out of my brain are very pretty.
I think a lot of the sex is very hot and tender.
This is a very soft book, in my mind, where two very soft people fall in love, and that’s all I want to read about, so it makes me feel good that maybe one day I can give that to other people who want the same thing.
This is also a romance book that takes place almost entirely on a hiking trail, which I haven’t really read much of before, so my hope is that this book might also be a little interesting or new or different in that aspect.
And when I say I haven’t really read much, I mean that I’ve read exactly one (fiction) book that took place on a hiking trail before, and it was a YA one about the Appalachian Trail, and it might have been a good book except for the fact that I simply could not get over the fact (and this is now the only thing I remember about it) that one of the characters wore JEANS! On the Appalachian Trail! I don’t want to wear jeans in my house!
Is it possible I wrote an entire book to correct this obvious tragedy? MAYBE. But I promise you. Even after edits. None of my thru-hiker characters will ever wear jeans. Breathable shorts and shirts ONLY, up in here.
And one oversized sweatshirt. Which also, to be honest, doesn’t make much sense because it would take up too much room in Ben’s pack but seriously, Alexei wants to snuggle him SO BAD every time he wears it.
Oh! And I also, again just last week, thought of a title I don’t hate. A true miracle.
So there it is. My baby. I love her. Maybe she is (objectively, later I will understand, I’m sure) a mess. But she’s my mess.
Phew. That ten minutes felt good. Give yourself ten minutes today to love something you did, too.