In the last year or two years, I feel that I’ve turned a corner or flipped some kind of switch, because suddenly I feel like I really know how to write a book. Not just write, but write a whole story from beginning to end, and then re-write, and edit, and polish, and end up with a book.
Let me give you some background on my life as a writer: I wanted to be a writer since I was about five, and began to understand that the stories in books had come out of the mind of a person, that The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia (which my dad had read to me by then) started with a person putting words on paper, and that this was an actual job, something that adults could do with their lives. As a kid I made little books all of the time—granted, most of them were the same Robin Hood story over and over again, but I did eventually branch out, and by the time I was eleven I was plotting to write an epic, multi-generation fantasy series, and I wrote outlines and did world building and made up part of a language and cornered adults and told them all about it in painful detail. In retrospect, the patience of adults astounds me, because when I see young versions of myself in other people I definitely duck and run.
I didn’t manage to do much actual writing on this ridiculous epic because I never figured out the plots, but in my early teens I started writing fairy tale retellings and peppering the internet with them—most of them were one to three page stories that were mostly atmospheric pictures, not real stories with plots. I tried one long Cinderella retelling, which is probably still up on FictionPress, but it fell apart not very far in because of the complete lack of, y’know, plot. But I did get good reviews on the things I put online, and I had a lot of confidence. Then in my late teens I started to think about the realities of getting published, and stopped posting things online and started trying to really improve my writing.
This was a good idea, but it backfired because I tried to improve by being a perfectionist. I tried to plot things out in detail, I tried to re-edit incomplete stories so that the beginning would be perfect before I went on, and I managed to suck all of the joy out of writing. After much effort I did manage to write the first draft of an actual full-length novel, beginning to end…but it was a terrible novel. I tried doing a second draft, but it…wasn’t very much better. It was overblown, it was cliched, it was full of stereotypes and the two ‘main characters’ were tedious and irritating and underdeveloped. One of the people who read it for me said that it ‘didn’t have enough heart’ (although irritatingly she didn’t give me this feedback to my face, she said it in passing to someone else. This was the kind of information that I was looking for when I asked for critiques! it would have been nice to know! hmmph).
In college I didn’t have as much time for writing, and the little that I did was still lacking depth, I guess you could say, and nothing happened with it, and by the end of college I had managed to produce half of a novel by doing NaNoWriMo, but after that I hit a point where I lost all confidence in my writing and was very busy being depressed and miserable. After college I made a few tentative efforts at finishing the novel, and did edit the beginning and shape it up a bit, but I couldn’t make it go anywhere, and I wasn’t writing anything new, and I was starting to wonder if I had lost the ability to be a writer, or if I had ever had any real ability to begin with.
I was really upset and miserable about the fact that I hadn’t managed to sell a short story in all of this time—not one. Granted, I didn’t submit to many different places, as I should have, but I was deeply discouraged.
Then, in a fit of spontaneity, I decided to do NaNoWriMo again, and to write something fun. Something silly. Something completely ridiculous. And I sat down with three of my friends, all of us high on sugar and caffeine, and we outlined a plot that was interrupted with giggling fits. The plot centered on a joke about Super Mario Bros.
And then I wrote it. The month in my memory is a delirium of giggling over my keyboard and ridiculous victory dances at word count milestones, and suddenly I had 60,000 words of a complete story.
I hadn’t written it in an attempt to be The Best Writer Ever, and I hadn’t written it with any idea of getting it published. I wrote it to have fun. After the fact I decided that I liked it so much that I wanted to make it publishable, and I went in to clean up the plot and rearrange things and take out the most ridiculously obvious fandom references and in-jokes, and then re-wrote it again, and again. Then I took a break and finished writing the second half of the novel I’d started so long ago, and was startled to find out that I had an ending for it now, and with a little effort I could make all the words I’d been looking for come out, and suddenly I had a longer, more serious novel that was full of emotions and that said a lot of things I hadn’t realized I wanted to say.
And then I went back and re-wrote my ridiculous, silly novel one more time, and now I have a completed, clean manuscript. I have another first draft waiting to be rewritten. And I have a five pages of brainstorming waiting to be turned into a loose outline for the next book that I’m going to write.
It all feels surreal and rather like magic, that suddenly I know how to get a book going (talk about the idea, because the more I talk through an idea the more detail and complexity it picks up, until it is a giant snowball of story), that I know how to write a first draft (sit down and write it, every day, and just keep going even when it gets sticky), that I know how to edit and re-write (sit down and read it, and re-write, and re-read, and re-write, and ask friends to read and point out problems, and ask them to read it again and point out smaller problems, like putting the book through layers of mesh that get finer and finer). And I know I can do this, that I have this book finished, and another one to finish, and that there’s another book to write after that one, and another book after that, and then another.
And maybe the key is that I want to go on writing these books even if I never sell one of them. I want them published, of course, because I want to share stories, but even if that doesn’t happen I want to go on producing finished, polished books, even if no one reads them outside of my circle of friends. Maybe the key is that I remind myself that if I’m not prepared to sit down and do the hard work of writing that I don’t deserve to be published in any case.
Whatever it is, I feel like I’m more in touch with the eleven year old that I once was, bursting with confidence in my ability to be a great writer, and (thankfully) more distant from the frustrating, self-punishing young adult who tried miserably to be perfect and couldn’t figure out why her writing felt so flat.
I think that tomorrow I’m going to start going through Changeling to do the first re-write (after which I will give copies to friends to ask for detailed feedback—I’ve gotten several responses with general feedback, mostly letting me know that the plot holds together and pointing out the biggest areas of weakness, so after the first re-write I’ll ask people for more line-by-line critiquing), and soon I’m going to take my brainstorming for Ember and lay it out as an outline and start thinking about how to solve some of the plot difficulties, so that I can hopefully start writing the first draft during the next NaNoWriMo.
And I can think about these things without feeling like an imposter playing pretend as a writer and without feeling overwhelmed, and instead just feel that ‘Yes, of course, this is my right and proper job, this is the work that I should be doing’ and that is kind of amazing.
I feel so sure that this is the work that I’m meant to do. It makes me feel unshakable.
(this does not mean that I don’t get frustrated and annoyed and lose confidence in my work, and that I don’t have trouble forcing myself to sit down and write—that still happens. But it’s hardest to sit down and write after skipping a day, and the more often I sit down and write, the better everything is with me)