After reading the full novel, you’re probably getting an idea of how hard An Unauthorised Fan Treatise was to write. There are multiple timelines and several layers of perception – what’s really going on; what Gottie thinks is going on; and what she’s telling the reader is going on as an unreliable narrator.
I wanted to share some of the techniques of how I made it all fit together. The pictures in this post are all taken from Instagram stories, where I documented the process at the time. My Instagram is laurenelizjames.
I started writing the novel in July 2018 . I’d known for a couple of years that I wanted to write a novel about fandom, so I’d been doing lots of research into fandom history (like this project). I knew there would be two timelines, one in modern “Tumblr era” fandom, and one in noughties “LiveJournal era” fandom. I wanted to highlight and emphasise the generation differences and similarities between the eras. I just didn’t know how they would interact yet.
I decided to start writing it properly when my dad was in hospital for a triple heart bypass (he’s better than fine now!). I thought it would be a good way to distract myself.
It worked – I immediately was writing around 6 – 10 thousand words a day. The essay format meant I flew through it. I didn’t really have a sense of what it would be yet – I thought I could finish in 25,000 words. It ended up being 67,000 words.
The first draft was VERY basic. There wasn’t any layers of perception yet, and the timeline was simplistic and chronological. But I had an idea of the structure – and it was proof-of-concept more than anything, at that stage.
The next step was to make something good out of it. I wanted it to stand up against other murder mysteries, as a solid piece of detective fiction, with clues, red herrings and false leads. I didn’t want to simply coast along on having an innovative structure. So I went back to the drawing board and began replotting. I waited a couple of months, until November 2018.
At first, my brain was just a mess – I’d given the draft to some author friends to read, who all told me the ‘guesses’ they’d had for what was going on as they progressed through it. Some of those things were ideas I’d intended the reader to be misled about, but some were just random stuff I hadn’t considered. I had to decide whether it went with the tone of the story to leave that assumption in place. If it didn’t work, I had to include enough information to bring the reader back in line with the expectations I wanted them to have.
This led to a very complicated Word document of all the things I knew I needed to fix – including suggestions from my agent, who is very good at spotting plot problems I don’t pick up on. Because she was coming at it from a non-fandom perspective, she pointed out stuff that didn’t work for a reader who wasn’t in the world of internet sleuthing.
I ended up writing plot points on bits of paper, and rearranging them to see what might work. Every change had implications across multiple timelines, and would shift what readers knew was going on. I had a few potential ideas for things I could add, but I didn’t know which to choose.
The thing that I found hardest was trying to find a way to articulate the different layers of perception in what the reader thinks, what Gottie thinks, etc. It was almost like there were parallel alternate universes, and I had to know what was going on in each of them. In the spreadsheet above, I had columns for ‘what’s actually happening’, ‘what the reader thinks is happening’, ‘what gottie wants people to think is happening’, etc.
I had a few different versions of this spreadsheet where I played through the implications of making certain changes or additions to the plot. If X happens in Chapter 6, what will that do to Chapter 12? If I do Y in Chapter 2 instead, will this crucial thing still happen in Chapter 20, or will it be pushed to Chapter 29, which is too late in the story?
That failed. So I went back to working on The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker (September 2020! Preorder now!) and promoting The Quiet at the End of the World. In the process of editing Harriet, I came up with a technique that really helped me work through plot reveals. That novel also has a lot of twists and turns, and I started marking up points in the document where reveals occurred, as markers during editing to help me keep track of the reader’s understanding.
Immediately, I knew how to fix it. After agonising over different methods, I saw what Gottie had to do to make the plot work. One of the hard things about the essay format was that a lot of potential plot ideas just didn’t work. There was simply no way I could convey certain types of action to the reader within the premise of Gottie posting blog entries and comments online. I couldn’t make the format work in my favour, rather than holding me back. And I didn’t want to write something weaker than I could have written in prose, because that defeats the whole point of the novel.
It took that time to find an idea that fitted all of the restrictions I’ve placed on it. This, for me, is simultaneously the best and worst part of writing. By building a novel, you’re constantly boxing yourself in and cutting off the infinite possibilities of writing. It’s like you’re creating conditions in a maths equation – there are only a limited number of solutions, and the more detail you add, the more real your world becomes, but the harder it is to find a solution to fix. Sometimes, you have to have a whole new axis to the graph to even find something that works (this metaphor is getting out of control). It’s a huge, exhilarating thrill when you do solve it.
After that, it was all easy. I edited it in about a month, once I’d come up with a solution. From November 2018, I’d been maintaining a list on an app called Workflowy of all the fun internet things I saw people do. Good GQ profile pieces, Reddit Conspiracy theory threads, Twitter detective work (‘It’s……. Rebekah Vardy.’) I stormed through the edits by just picking out bullet point items and copying the format of that type of internet communication, trying to make it fit into the context of what plot I needed to add to the existing essay I wrote in July 2018.
I started posting it in October. From beginning to publication, it was just over two years, which is an unbelievably short turn-around for a novel. It still feels completely fresh and new to me – The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, for example, I’ve been working on since 2016!
The plotting doesn’t end there – once I started posting it, I began to see feedback from readers. I built on all your comments, right from the beginning, about what you thought was going to happen, and what plot points you’d picked up on. I made some minor changes, and then some big changes at the end – mainly additions to the existing novel addressing things you were interested in, and building them out. Right up until the end, I was adding things to the last few chapters before they were posted.
It’s a work in progress in a lot of ways, and if I decide to go ahead with publishing it physically, I’m sure it would change even more, to become a stronger story. It’s improved my writing craft so much, because it was such a challenge, and I’m sure there are still things I’m not a good enough writer to do really well. As I get better at writing, I want to come back to this and keep stretching and pushing the limits of the constricted format.
Hopefully this was useful, to see what goes on behind the scenes in writing a book! If you have any questions, I’ll answer them in the comments.