Writing for Myself; Writing for Others

I started writing my portal fantasy novel soon after I moved to Boston to start a PhD program. It was my first time living out of state, hundreds of miles from family and friends. I remember the stress of starting my graduate program and navigating a new city much more than any feelings of homesickness, but working again on my portal fantasy, I clearly was quite homesick at the time.

The novel starts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived most of my life, and a lot of crucial backstory takes place in the Upper Peninsula, especially in Marquette (where I was born) and on the Keweenaw Peninsula (where we vacationed during my childhood). There are overlong descriptions of local haunts like Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids and the Jampot, a tiny bakery attached to a Ukrainian Catholic monastery in far-north Michigan.

In small, pointed doses, my Michigan nostalgia does add a layer of lived-in reality to the narrative and characters. But I’ve been stripping out a lot of it during editing, when the detail doesn’t serve the story. I can delete a whole set and move the dialogue to a place the reader already knows. Or I can simply say Maggie took the kids to the park, and I don’t need a blow-by-blow of how they walked around Reeds Lake and then got ice cream at Jersey Junction.

The settings and description should help the readers immerse themselves in the story. When I’m namedropping things or places I know and love but readers may not know, I feel like I’ve become that annoying person at a party who is constantly namedropping films/musicians/philosophers you’ve never heard of but who are apparently a big deal.

This book’s been jumbling around in my brain for twelve years at this point, so some of the fantasy elements are also based on childhood games with my siblings that require much more explanation that I originally provided in the first draft. There are not-so-subtle references to Myst and Riven, two video games that had a huge impact on my young imagination; I’m still trying to decide whether to lean into those more or pare them out.

Of course, I still haven’t given the manuscript to beta readers, which is probably the quickest and best way to figure out whether I’ve done a good job of not only writing for myself but also for others. There are a number of plot and character issues I want to untangle first, though. (Not to mention this is the first book I’ve written where the romantic relationship basically is the point of the book; it’s making me weirdly nervous about feedback.) So far I’m on track for having this draft ready for early readers in the summer, which I’m sure will come soon enough. 2019 can slow the heck down, as far as I’m concerned.

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