Story Triage

One of my husband’s favourite authors is Dan Abnett. Recently, he was reading a book by him (The Magos – part of the Warhammer series) and was surprised/amazed/amused to hear him describe a little bit of his writing process in the introduction.

Dan writes a lot of books – his Goodreads page lists him as having 1,403 distinct works – and, by the sound of it, he has ideas for at least ten new writing projects for every single one he completes. How does he carry all of that around in his head? Well, imagine his brain as a waiting room…

“At any point in the last decade,” he said, “I could have told you, in order, what books I’d be writing this year, next year, and sometimes the year after that.” He explains that most of his novels “plan their visits” months or years in advance. “They line up, take a number, and then go and sit in the waiting room, glaring at me, surrounded by their carrier bags of reference books, clutching their lists of problems and demands.”

On the other hand, some of his books “turn up without warning.”

Sounds intense, right? I’m sure most writers don’t ascribe to the same system, and almost no one else to that degree or volume. But when my husband read me the introduction, awe in his voice, I looked back and him and was like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Which is to say, I’m not normal either and I’m thankful for it. 

Again, this is nowhere near on the same scale as our Dan who is putting everyone to shame, but I too have often thought of my stories as holding their place in a queue. I have a spreadsheet detailing all of my works in progress, and there are a lot of them.

I love lists and plans and usually have a good idea of what I’m going to work on next, and what comes after that, and after that, ad infinitum. The waiting list does shift a little over time. Sometimes a story will get to the top and I’ll look at it, it’ll look back at me, and we’ll realize it no longer needs to be written. Sometimes this is because the story was topical when it first joined the queue, but someone else has done a similar piece since then and written it far better than I ever could. Sometimes what I had planned is simply no longer relevant. Sometimes it’s because I was the right writer for the job when the story came along, but I’ve grown and changed since then and we no longer suit each other.

Some other times, as Dan rightly says, there are the stories who burst in and shove everything else out of the way, trudging right to the front of the queue to demand your immediate and complete attention.

You can’t ignore it when this happens, folks, and you shouldn’t try. In my relatively limited experience, these stories are usually the best ones. Once they’re in front of you, they come easily and don’t fight because they need you to write them. Right now. For whatever reason, the world needs them, and everything cosmic comes together in their creation.

Which probably sounds insane, because it is. There’s no getting around that. But I love it and genuinely wouldn’t have it any other way. Organized chaos is kind of my happy place.

The novel I finished writing this year is a classic example. It’s not the first novel I’ve written, but it is the first one that is complete. For almost ten years I struggled to write my debut and several times I got to the end of a draft and scrapped it, beginning again from scratch. It, for whatever reason, wasn’t working. I haven’t given up on that project, or the one that came after it – I fully intend to come back to both of them – but the novel I’ve just finished was an entirely different experience.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always easy, but it did always feel right – it had that ever elusive ‘X’ Factor. I knew when it came to me (in a dream, weirdly), that it needed all of my attention and that my other stories could benefit from being on the back burner while I dealt with this new thing. What’s more, I knew that if I followed my gut I would be a better writer by the time I was done with it and might actually be better able to write the others when I got back to them.

It wasn’t until halfway through treating my new patient that the nurse/muse came in and whispered in my ear that she was carrying twins. That’s right, my brand new book was to have sequels. It was going to be a trilogy!

Instinctively, I felt my other two novels and everything else in the waiting groan and roll their eyes as I collected myself, mopped my brow, and got to work outlining books two and three in the new series.

Sometimes, that’s just how it goes. At least for me and Dan Abnett, anyway.

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