Sandboxes and Ticking Clocks
I am thirteen and I decide to write a novel. I title it Auryan Knight. It’s going to be amazing. Magic! Multiple girl characters! Talking Animals! Other Worlds!
I am seventeen and I’m still in Chapter Four. Chapter Four: where all novels go to die. Instead, I write a thirteen page mini-story that takes place in the last quarter of the book I think I’m writing and turn it in as homework for my English class.
I am nineteen when I finish a draft. It is barely over 50 thousand words and follows my seven main characters through six continents in a world not their own.
I work on it again in a novel-writing seminar my senior year of college. I’m a better writer, I tell myself. But there is way too much information for a single novel. Maybe it’s three? I try to parse it out over the semester with little luck.
The following summer I am graduated: a free-spirited, jobless creature and I work for hours on the plotline of this thing.
It’s six books.
I immediately think “I can’t write six books” followed by an impassioned “I have to write six books.”
I put this story away. I write my first legitimately acceptable novel, which I self-publish the following summer. I spend the next three years in grad school for Theatre Design and Technology.
Four years later, living in my friend’s apartment while I am homeless for a month and he is at a summer job, I open up my project bible that I started somewhere between 13 and 17, full of pages of notes and sketches and clothing references and cultural mis-mash.
And I write.
The next year, cobbled together in sprints of two weeks off between gigs, I write 110 thousand words that become Book One, The People’s Promise, of what is now known as The Auryan Cycle. Unlike at 13, 17, 19 or 21, I know more about life, about feminism, about intersectionality and politics and friendship because I have lived them.
I spend the following year on edits – in evenings after I leave the classrooms I now teach in and before rehearsals and between paint calls for the shows I design, and on holiday breaks. Over Thanksgiving week, which I take solo instead of going to visit my family, I sit for three hours in a Mexican restaurant with a notebook trying to solve the issues of this manuscript. The problem isn’t difficult to solve. By highlighting a character (who didn’t even exist in the original concept of this novel), I invest a lot more power into this story.
But it means rewriting.
I do it. I scrap the last third of Book One and rewrite. I am at 108 thousand words.
“This is it,” I think. “I’ve done it.”
A year later and I’ve cut the wordcount down to 88k, killed off a character and still no bites when I’ve pitched or queried.
I am not willing to look back at 13 year old me and tell her that she was wrong. That this novel – this six-book cycle – is not a story worth telling. She didn’t fully know what story she was telling, but here at 28, I do. There is a long road yet to climb, but after over fifteen years of investment, the end seems both plausible and probable to me.
Modern culture seems hell-bent on creating a generation inclined towards instant gratification – internet culture, text messaging, Amazon Prime: you think it, you can have it in your hands in a matter of minutes or days.
Unfortunately, that’s not how writing works.
Sure, we’ve all got our ticking clocks telling us “Christopher Paolini published Eragon at like age 20” or “S.E. Hinton wrote the Outsiders when she was 18!”
Slow down there, tiger. The writing tide isn’t the kind that drains the river bank behind it. It ebbs and flows, and as a very wise character in The People’s Promise says “Everything changes, like the tide. You can’t sit waiting for it to come back to you.”
Writing – the kind that when you reread a string of words you’ve penned can still bring tears to your eyes or fire to your throat – that kind of writing doesn’t just happen to you. You can’t order it on E-bay or stream it on Spotify. That kind of writing takes two things: time, and the willingness to shovel yourself a sandbox.
You might be thinking that a sandbox sounds really juvenile, even for a YA writer. But here’s the thing – I’ve spent 15 years putting sand in the box for The Auryan Cycle. Jotted down notes about cool clothing in a theatre history course or a Pinterest full of portrait photos that are already characters in my mind. Hours of backstory and epilogues that will never make their way into print because they’re not the story at hand. Unlearning my own racial biases as I create a diverse world. Two degrees in theatre that are more valuable to my pen than my English degree. Over a thousand YA novels I’ve read that feed the part of me that understands how words should feel. A document file of the hundreds of poems I’ve written trying to find the heart of a thing in ten words or less. Too many plays and movies to number.
All of these things are grains of sand in this box. And this is the place I will build my masterpiece. Yes, a sandcastle is still made of sand – malleable, prone to the elements and time, not made to last. But as writers, we create something where once there was nothing. A willingness to spend the time to put more sand in the box, to let the rain smash your first castle back to grains and start over (but hey, maybe you’ve got a moat now!) means something. It means you’re not in love with the idea of being a writer, but rather you’re already in the trenches of what it means to actually write.
It might take 15 more years for a single book of mine to make it into a major publishing house. It might never happen. But ultimately, that’s not the important part about the words we write. The important part is that the stories we tell crave the telling. And we crave giving them the telling they deserve. This is why we strive for stronger prose, clearer plots and more concrete characters. Sure, getting paid for all that sounds good to all of us, but when 13-year-old me sat down with a spiral bound notebook and wrote the words “Auryan Knight” and numbered every sheet of paper so I could make a chapter index later, did she want a multi-million dollar book deal and three or six movies and her book to be taught in school alongside some of the greats like Tolkien and Lewis?
She wanted to tell the story of a girl in an impossible situation, with the best and worst of friends, fighting for something that mattered by becoming people they didn’t know they could be.
That story is still my story.
And, as I scuff my feet smooth across the sand, preparing to dig in to build Book Two, I find I still want to tell it.
Sarah White is a roamer by nature, having lived in multiple states and locations in the past five years. She likes to joke that she got her BA in Acting to study character and her MFA in Theatrical Scenic Design to study setting. When not at rehearsals or furiously writing any one of 20 novels in her head, she is training her dog Gurgi to be come the best theatre dog in the universe. She currently teaches technical theatre at Earlham College. Her first novel, Chasing Merlin, was self-published in 2012. Follow her on instagram, tumblr and twitter: @sakuramelting