Monday, February 19, 2007

Diana’s Diary: Lessons Learned

When I first set out to give Diana a blog, it was mostly to shut her up. She had fought me all through my novel, insisting on plot changes I had never envisioned. And then at the end, she still wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t continue the trilogy with her pestering me, so I gave her a diary and told her to have at it.

Did she ever! Five months and more than 215,000 words later, she has won. I’m exhausted.

My first fateful decision, after giving Diana the blog in the first place, was committing to daily postings. Not only did I decide to post every day, but I decided that the posts would have a one-to-one correlation with the days of her journey. A few minutes with a map and a calculator would’ve told me that this was a bad idea, but I was caught up in the challenge and didn’t really think I would finish the project, anyway. It was just a writing experiment.

The fact that it was never intended to resemble a novel is obvious from the way it wanders and contains some internal inconsistencies. There is also no main plot arc, as far as I can tell. Maybe time and distance will make me see one where I didn’t realize one existed, but for now, I feel like I just rambled along.

It’s been a fun ramble, though.

Most nights when I sat down at the computer, I had no idea what was going to happen. I had only a map, my vacation photos, and the previous night’s posting to guide me, and to my surprise, they often proved sufficient inspiration.

The photos were especially helpful. Sometimes they gave me an idea for something to happen, like when I used photos from a train and trolley museum to illustrate the stalled train where Diana met her “afternoon boyfriend” Gilbert. And sometimes they provided Diana with destinations, like my photos of Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle ghost towns. Other times, the photos became the plot device for the day, such as when Diana happened upon the City of Rocks, near Deming.

Photoshopping the pictures often took a lot of time. At the beginning, my skills were nonexistent. I’m still learning, but I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ll probably go back through my earlier pictures and fix them up, now that I know a little more about what I’m doing. But even at the end of the project, most photos required some touching up, and this added as much as an hour to each night’s work. But that was an improvement over the first months, when pictures could easily add two or three hours.

I’ve grown a lot as a writer from this exercise. When I started out, I couldn’t write until my husband was in bed and the house completely quiet. By the final month, sleep deprivation made a virtue of necessity and I found that yes, I could begin writing while Dan was playing his guitar or puttering in the next room. In fact, I had to. I was up many nights until 3:00 am, writing, editing, photoshopping, posting, and doing final edits. I had no choice but to start as early as I could.

Another thing I’ve learned from this exercise is patience. When each post equals a single day, there can be no glossing over a week’s worth of dull travel, or even a week’s worth of not-so-dull travel. If I felt like Diana needed to spend a couple days lost in the woods in the rain, I had to write about each day of it and try to find a way to make it sound interesting. If Diana was sick and delirious, I had to find a way to describe that too, in her own words, and in a way that was convincing. There could be no jumping ahead to the good bits that would be easy to write. I had to learn to write what was hard, instead of only writing what came easily.

There were only two occasions where I didn’t do a “real” post: the day in the narrative when Diana’s friend Ishkin died (I figured Diana would’ve been too upset to write much), and the day when I was too sick to write, which fortunately corresponded with another day when the narrative gave me an out, allowing me to write an abbreviated post and pick up the story again the next day.

This project has taught me to put my work out there and not be shy. I’m often embarrassed to post fiction that I’ve edited for months or even years, and here I was posting stuff that was barely out of a second-pass edit done at a bleary-eyed 2:30 in the morning. Consequently, I didn’t do much to attract blog traffic at first. I wanted people to read it, but I was deeply afraid that it was no good and reflected poorly on me.

With time, I got over a lot of my shyness. You don’t put in 3-5 hours of work each and every night for five months and not start hoping someone out there is enjoying it. Most of the time I had no idea if I had regular readers. I wanted to preserve as much of a non-tech look as I could get away with on the diary blog, so a visible stat counter was out of the question. It was only in the last couple of weeks that I discovered some free invisible counters that told me that I do, in fact, have quite a number of regular readers.

Thanks for being there! This project would've been worth my while anyway, but you've made me happy just by checking in!

In sum, this has been a wonderful adventure—as much for me as it was for Diana. I’ve enjoyed having this alternate world to slip away to each night, full of interesting new people and places, where even I'm never quite sure what will happen next. But by the end of the journey, I think Diana and I were both suffering from a sense of “Aren’t we there yet?”

I’m going to be cleaning up the blog format a bit, making it easier to find the entries that I most enjoyed writing. Readers who picked up the story late in the game probably missed Diana’s urban adventures, the ghost town, her visit to her childhood home, and the plot she helped foil. Since Blogger doesn’t offer the formats that I want, I’ll have to create my own. Be sure to keep checking back, or put me on bloglines so you’ll know when the updates have been made!

I’ll continue to write about Diana’s adventures. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Derby Day is coming up, for example, and she’ll have a lot to say about it. But I won’t be posting nightly, thank goodness. I’ve got a lot of other creative projects I want to work on, some related to this one, some not. I’ll also try to do more with this writing blog, since writing is taking up more of my time and energy than it used to.

So that's it. Lessons learned. All of them good ones.

Go get some rest now, Diana. Aren’t you as tired as I am?


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on finishing the entries! You've worked hard on them, and I'm going to read more. Are you still thinking about putting the story into print? I think that if you did, you should consider trimming it down for expense reasons: the more pages, the more it might cost to publish it, and the more it will likely cost for readers to buy it (assuming you use a service that forces a retail-price baseline on you). I've found the book-price thing is a definite impediment with self-publishing. Not that I'm saying art should be sacrificed to monetary reasons, but if you step away from the story for some time then go back in and reread, you'll probably see stuff you wanna revise anyway.

But your inclusion of the photos makes the work more multimedia; I think that's a really good idea. It gives your fantasy-in-part story more realism. I'm not sure about copyright/privacy issues on the photo content if you published a more permanent print edition. But I think you could replace some of the photos with realistic drawings if necessary without any artistic damage to the whole.

"You don’t put in 3-5 hours of work each and every night for five months and not start hoping someone out there is enjoying it."

--This is largely why I'm forever going on about my frustrations: up that amount to 1O+ hours a day for eight novels, screenplays, essays, short stories, and is it any wonder I'm losing my mind? Of course I don't have a day job, but I was still keeping those writing hours most days even while freelance editing--a recipe for physical (and mental) burnout. It's just so hard for me to keep at a novel while dealing with real life. Novelwriting is all-consuming and therefore truly exhausting, especially when no publication rewards ensue. I've enjoyed focusing on short stories lately (I'm still working on another novel but much more slowly than usual). On your other blog you said you had ideas for those; maybe you should give them a try next.

Keep at it and get some rest,


Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Thaks, Fran!

Yes, if I decided to try to put this in print, I would definitely have to trim it. But the very nature of blogging is to get a bit rambly, so I think it would be quite doable.

As to the pics, nearly all of them were my own, and the few that weren't, I tried to either get from a non-copyrighted source or else merge bits and pieces with my own stuff.

I think I like the accessibility and democratic nature of the blog format, though. I didn't set out to write a masterpiece, so I have no particular need for acknowledgement. Not on this particular work, at least. It was too much fun, kind of like taking all those vacation photos I photoshopped. I would've done it anyway, regarless who noticed. :-)

Anonymous said...

You are ahead of me at expelling your insistent viewpoint-character from your Great American Novel. I practically am my insistent viewpoint-character.

Like you, I've decided most of the fun stuff happens without my own avatar, because all the other characters got so annoyed with him, they stopped telling him what was going on. But he still has to comment about it.

Occasionally I've had other viewpoint-characters, but they're not as easy to write. I've got a Great American Novel to keep up with.

Alice Audrey said...

Diana's Diary really is an impressive "experiment". i don't know about story arc, but it certainly had a good frame work with the over all trip. As you said, all you needed was a map and knowing what came before.

I love the part where she almost runs off with the circus. It's a nice bit of relief after having to flee from Texas.

But as you know, my favorite character is Vince. I like the way he relates to the world, and want to see him accidentally move his little slice of the world in a positive direction.

I love Coyote too, but naturally he doesn't figure much in the diaries.

My only complaint is that you left so much hanging at the very end. But then, as you said, it's not a book.

Alice Audrey said...

I thought I already commented on this.