Writing my first novel in 2009 seemed easy and fun. Every other Monday evening for a year I got together with my fellow “Novel Approach” writers and effortlessly produced scene after scene.
In my naivety and arrogance, I envisioned it made into a movie. With no small amount of embarrassment now, I remember confiding in my teacher, Sue Reynolds, that I could contact the filmmaker Paul Haggis (He’d been my neighbour and friend in the ’70s) because I thought he could make my film. She gave me a sweet, indulgent smile but said nothing.
A few years in and the shine has somewhat worn off. Or to be more accurate, many of the illusions have worn off. Writing is still fun and exciting, but a full-length novel or memoir requires draft upon draft, endless editing and rewriting. No doubt I’d been informed of this, but until you’re knee deep, it’s difficult to imagine what that actually means. My biggest challenge is getting the timeline in order. The process feels to me like structural acrobatics.
In the end, that first novel was a hot mess. The temptation was to throw the manuscript in the air and hope that when the pages fell, there’d be some order, some sense to the narrative arc. I didn’t do it, though. After a batch of rewrites, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it, the way one tucks away the aftertaste of a love affair gone sour, hoping one won’t repeat the same mistakes.
Luckily, I had another story on the go in which to invest my creative genius. I tucked in.
I can report that after two years, the result wasn’t exactly a hot mess, but the timeline had me in knots. Knots that took several months to untie and get in a line so that the story made sense. Regal House Publishing evidently thinks the final product makes sense because they’ve acquired it for publication. Let’s see what my assigned editor thinks!
Once again, I vowed to pay better attention as I began my next project. After it was suggested that the first sixty pages were extraneous, I had my story take place over only a week. Compared to the other novels I’ve written, that one was a walk in the park. Those excised sixty pages informed the week in which the story took place, so I thought I had a strategy to carry me into the next project.
Okay, here’s where my arrogance ends. Because my current work in progress is already a hot mess. It’s the timeline again. The other day I realized I have to turn the story inside-out to make it realistic.
I’ll do it. It’s just not fun or easy.
Here’s what I do to ease the strain: write poems, flash essays, and short stories. They’re my little holidays.
And then back to the hot mess I love so dearly.
What’s your biggest challenge as a writer and how do you deal with it? I’d love to hear.
My story is similar. I was so happy to hear about the publishing contract! I think we are all supposed to have a hot mess of a first draft in a drawer. Thanks for sharing your relatable tale. I took Sue’s course also. One day I will find the structure. Maybe in your class!
Thanks so much, Allison. Funny thing is, I can identify what needs to happen in other writers’ pieces. My own, it’s a lot harder.
I’m here to help!
Congrats on getting a publisher. So nice to see the fruit of your labour kick in. I’m an outliner. And when I find it’s not working, I rework the outline. Helps me a lot. Any time I’ve tried pantsing it, my writing and story didn’t work.
Thanks, Linda. Of course! Outlining is definitely the way to go. But since I rarely know where I’m going or how I’m going to get there… I keep telling myself I need to learn to outline and I try all sorts of methods – Scrivener, scene cards, point-by-point outlines, but I always get messed up. Somehow, miraculously, I usually end up with something presentable. I just lose a bit of hair in the process!
Great article. And I’m so happy for you to get published! My challenge has been to even take a stab at writing. But trusting I’ll eventually get to that hot mess 🙂
Well, Sandra, I’ve had the honour of hearing your “stabs” at writing, and you easily seemed to slip into its heart. (In a good way.)
Hi, Deepam. Thank you so much for this post. I am an outliner who always starts a writing project as if I do not need an outline. I think I need to do that just to warm up my mind, get some words onto the page. My MO is to work myself into paralysis because I do not know where/how to start or I do not know what happens next. I am so afraid of my work being judged as inane, although my writing has earned me many accolades and a couple of job offers. No awards yet, but I am working on them. I, too, have Scrivener, index cards, ProWriting Aid, three writing groups, and a host of online workshops and articles, plus books and magazines. Scrivener has a steep learning curve that I tell myself takes too much time away from actual writing. I also participate in two book clubs.
Since beginning to work on my first novel six years ago, I have heard and read a lot of negative reports about the first draft. I think this mindset comes from wanting so desperately to write the next epic story, the next bestseller, the next made-into-a-blockbuster movie that we do not see the value in the kernel we started with. This has been my greatest challenge, and it has frozen me innumerable times. My mind goes wild, my heart races, and I cannot think of how to start, but I can rattle off the story if someone asks. Getting started is daunting, and comparing our work to others is demoralizing. But reading the writing of others is how we learn what works and what does not—for us. It may work really well for someone else. To be effective writers, we must be avid readers. I do not have near enough time to read everything I want.
So…I am training myself to see the first draft as practice at perfecting my craft. Not that any writing can ever be perfect—subjectivity erases perfection, but something I am proud to submit with my name on it. The very first draft is the most exciting because I am brainstorming my idea. It has no form, no structure, no judgment. It is pristine and innocent, full of our hope that we may not yet even recognize. Then, when we finish the first draft—none of mine have gotten there, yet—and we comb the words for a cohesive story, gleaming golden nuggets jump off the page and we have a “Wow!” or “Aha!” or “Really?” moment.
So, I encourage myself and all other writers to stop beating ourselves up and to stop beating our writing up by referring to any of our work in negative terms. The words we write come from our heart, our soul. They are valuable because they contain pieces of us, and we are valuable. Our words are gifts to the world, and they are to be nurtured as precious, no matter how out of step they are in the first draft. Happy Writing!
What a lovely share, Billie! I agree, it’s so important to respect and love what we do. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” So we keep plugging away as best we can, with as much heart and soul as we can muster.
I have a strong feeling that your voice is one the world needs and will surely hear.
Happy writing to you.