Sometimes writers have stories that they just can’t get out of their heads. These are stories that they keep coming back to over the years, stories that they keep trying to finish, keep trying to get just right. Although a part of me still feels a little imposter-y calling myself a writer (I know, why is that?), I do have one such story.
The earliest typed notes I have for it – my own white whale – are dated all the way back to April 2008. Given that I’ll have often been thinking on an idea for a little while before I start writing anything down, we’ll call this story’s origin point a round eleven years ago. Yes, eleven years. I’ve had this story going round and round in my head for over a third of my life. In that time, I’ve worked on several other projects, but somehow I’ve always found myself coming back to it in between, always having this drive within me to finish putting it down on paper.
Well, that story is called Tainted Earth, and last month I finally did just that. I finished it. (There’s even a magical picture there up top to prove it.)
I’ve written about it on here before, but for those who don’t know, Tainted Earth is a young adult trilogy set in 22nd century Greenland. It follows the lives of two teenagers, Kaley Elingaard and Jonah Reese, after a bioengineered virus is released into the island’s population. It contains some speculative and more fantastical elements but, to me, is very much a human story about two people gradually learning to rely on and trust each other as the world around them becomes an increasingly frightening place. It looks at what people are prepared to do in order to survive – how our morality can sometimes shift depending on our circumstances – and how far they are willing to go in order to make sure the ones that they care about survive along with them.
So, cheery stuff! Lots of singing and dancing… The irony is that it was – all those eleven years ago – originally intended to be a musical.
I know. I know.
But, as I said, this story is one I’ve been working on for really bloody ages and, if nothing else, it has been a huge lesson for me in the importance of being willing to allow ideas to change and grow over time. (Also, perseverance. My goodness, goodness me has it been a lesson in that.)
So, rewind back those many moons ago and, starting out, I never intended for Tainted Earth to be a book at all, let alone three. When I first had the idea for it, I’d never even written a book and had never really thought seriously of doing so. What I was attempting to write then, however, was musical theatre. I can’t remember exactly how the idea for Tainted Earth first began to emerge, but what I do know is that it was some time after I’d finished my first musical, Faerytale. I recall distinctly that when I was trying to decide what to work on next, I had two concept options in my head;
– The first was about an orphaned teenager who finds herself trapped in between parallel worlds.
– The second was about two kids growing up in a futuristic, barren wasteland where hardly any plants still grew.
I wanted to write them both but, after a bit of flip-flopping back and forth, I decided to begin with the first. This was basically because – trying to be vaguely practical – it would require a smaller cast and I thought it would be easier to actually get staged. That concept eventually became The In-Between.
There turned out to be several reasons why writing The In-Between first ended up being the right choice for me, but even as I worked on developing that very different project, every now and then I still had these ideas popping up in my head from that barren wasteland, demanding some attention. I noted them down as I went, saving them all in a folder for some unspecified time in the future when I would actually be able to do something with them.
After The In-Between was finished, and the concept album was recorded and released, and all the promotional work I’d put into it was starting to die down, I decided it was time to begin focusing on something else again. Obviously, my first thought was to write this ever-waiting, post-apocalyptic epic (it was definitely now an epic in my head), but there was a but. The album for The In-Between had done well, but even so the show hadn’t reached the point of being staged and, again, the practical side of my brain wondered rather loudly whether said epic would, as I had originally thought, be even less likely to make it into production.
It was a dilemma.
Still, that was the story I wanted to write – and sometimes it can be very difficult to write a story other than the one you really want to – so I went back to all those notes I’d stored up and started to take a serious look at progressing them.
I had plots of actual scenes, had even started writing some of the songs… but what I very soon decided was that this story would actually work a lot better in book form than it would as a show. Although I’d never written a book before, it wasn’t an entirely alien concept as I’d read a lot since I was a kid. Books, and their, structure, and their potential, and their wonderfulness, were a very familiar part of my everyday life – and this story just seemed to fit better when I imagined it in that medium. A book would allow me to add the detail that a musical couldn’t, would allow time to really develop the characters and backstory more fully.
For almost as long as I’d had this story idea, I’d known the basic arc of the whole narrative; in that, I knew where it started, knew what happened in the act one finale and knew how it all tied together at the end. In my head, it had pretty much always been one story split into three parts; a prologue, and first and second acts. The moment I wondered about writing it as a book instead, prologue, act one, act two, became book one, book two, book three – and it just seemed to make sense.
According to the earliest draft I have, I began attempting to actually write book one in October 2012. And, what I found was that having had those four years with the idea just going round in my head while I worked on something else was actually a ginormous blessing. In that time, lots of parts of the story had gradually been filling themselves in without me almost even realising it. There were parts of the plot that I found I just knew; lines characters said or things they did at certain points, even outside of what I’d got stored in my notes. On top of this, the part of the story that had been the prologue began to expand massively. Some characters changed, more characters emerged and the setting gradually altered to fill the expanded narrative. It started to become this 3D place, based in an imagined real-world future, as opposed to a purely fantastical one – as the musical concept had been. The story became darker, more gritty, more real alongside it.
I finished book one in spring 2013.
After that, I gave it to proof readers, listened to feedback, did more edits, etc, etc… Eventually, I got to a point where I decided I had done all I could with it on my own and began to look into trying to get it published. I’ve written more about that process in previous blogs, so do have a look back if you’re interested, but the gist of what happened next is that the book got pretty close to being picked up, but then didn’t quite. It received lots of positive feedback from editors and scouts about the writing and story itself, but 2013 was apparently just a Really Bad Time for dystopian YA fiction and the genre had basically been blacklisted by several major houses.
I won’t lie; this did rather suck. It was tough to get that close and then fall at the last hurdle. However, the positive comments did encourage me that perhaps I wasn’t completely-one-hundred-percent-awful at book writing, so maybe it was okay to keep giving it a shot. Despite the turn downs, part of me wanted to write the second and third novels in the Tainted Earth series right away anyway, but practicality struck once again and I began working on another book instead – something completely different, about a troubled mathematical genius and some missing computer hackers…
This became Echoes.
After various twists and turns in the development of that book too, I decided to self-publish it. (Again, a lot of this is covered in previous blogs, should it be of interest or you just find yourself extremely bored one day.) After Echoes came out, and I’d spent many many many hours (days, weeks, months…) of my life attempting to publicise it, and I’d toyed with some ideas for a possible sequel even though I’d originally intended it as a standalone, what I found was that my brain still kept coming back to Tainted Earth. Logical or not, I still wanted to finish it.
So, though it made little practical sense – if I still wanted to be traditionally published one day, writing something else new was clearly the smarter approach – I finally began trying to complete the trilogy in earnest. I’ve always been a meticulous planner, always done the “sensible” thing, but what can I say? I’d had the rest of that story on my head for so long, I just needed to be able to get it out, to share it, even if my ever-supportive mother was the only one who ever read it.
I started by spending a few months getting reacquainted with the Tainted Earth world again as I’d been away from it for quite a while. I went through all the characters’ backstories, drew maps, wrote out timelines and made a mildly ridiculous ring binder full of notes and picture boards on just about every aspect of the series (the meticulous planner still had to come out somewhere I suppose). I then rewrote book one, pretty much entirely. I’d started out wanting to address any editorial feedback I’d previously had from publishers and agents on it, but what I also found was that reading it again having had that time away gave me a very different perspective on it. It meant I could come at it fresh, almost like a new reader. And, some things that needed changing started to become very obvious. It meant a lot of work but, in a way, it was exciting because I knew I could make it better now.
The biggest change for me was that I’d often struggled previously with the voice of the main character, Kaley. I knew, conceptually, what she was like, but often found a disconnect between knowing that and being able to articulate it on the page. During that time, though, as I went through the original story again, and began planning books two and three in detail, suddenly her voice just seemed to click. I started to hear her reactions to things far more easily, hear little comments she would make, little thoughts she would have. I rewrote, or at least tweaked, pretty much everything in the book from her perspective and the story really began to come alive for me in a way it hadn’t quite before. When I’d finished book one again, I wrote first drafts of books two and three back to back, then proceeded to begin the long (oh my gosh, so very long) process of rewriting and editing them. Then I proof read book one again, having written the other two, and because trilogy books are all interconnected there was a lot of back and forth, and then there was some getting feedback from other readers and… well, you get the idea.
All of this eventually led up to a few weeks ago, when I finally finished.
Now, when I say finished, what I mean is that I’d got all three books to a point where I was happy for them to be read by another human being. For me, this generally means I’ve:
– First drafted
– Second drafted, almost entirely rewriting the first draft
– Proof read the second draft
– Third drafted based on those proof read notes
As things stand now – these eleven years after first having had the idea – book one is on draft nine, book two on draft five and book three on draft four (which means I’ve started to make the odd edit to it based on feedback from said other humans).
I’m not going to lie, finishing Tainted Earth has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional/creative life. I’ve worked on it for far longer than I’ve ever worked on anything else, I’ve had more heartbreaks along the way with it than I have with anything else and there were several points where I thought I’d never actually reach the end (draft two of book two, I am looking at you!). But, at the same time, finishing it has also been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. To be able to look at those three stacks of paper and think there is my story, the one I’ve always had nagging at me to finish it, and it’s done, I’m happy with it…
There are not a lot things that feel as cool as that.
I wanted to tell this story, I really did, and even if it never gets published I’m still so glad that now I have. I’m glad for me that I have. Which, in a way, is what writing’s all about. It’s not about a perceived end goal, it’s about creating something that you love. If other people turn out to love it too someday, that is just a bonus, but I’d never have got through draft two of book two (*shudder*) if that was all I had pushing me.
In summary: Coming back to my first point about this whole thing being a huge lesson for me in the importance of being willing to allow ideas to change and grow over time, here’s the rub. Whether Tainted Earth is good or not, what I do know is that it is a far better story now for having had all that time spent on it – and all that time away from it, gaining a fresh perspective – than it would have been if my first attempts at it had been the final ones. So even though the process to get here has been pretty difficult at times, I can genuinely say I’m glad for that process too. I’m glad Tainted Earth didn’t become a show and I’m glad it wasn’t published the first time around, because I love the story I have now and if those things had happened then it would never have fully been what it could.
Writing takes time. Creating stories take time. A lot of great ideas aren’t light bulb moments, but flickering candle moments that gradually grow and get brighter if you work at them. That’s been my experience, at least.
I don’t know what will happen with Tainted Earth now. I would love to one day be able to share it with you all but, for now, it’s out of my head and down on paper – and for anyone who’s ever written something, I’m sure you’ll know that that’s a wonderful thing in itself.
So, whatever story/song/wayward dream you’re working on, don’t worry so much if it grows or changes along the way. Just keep at it 😉 As my dad often likes to remind me, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Thanks for reading.