I usually start every morning with two things: a cup of coffee and my laptop. I get up around 6:30, make hubby's lunch, feed the cats, brew the coffee, and turn on the computer. Then I settle down for my favorite activity — reading blogs. Blog surfing is, to me, like emerging every morning into writer school. It's like we're all sitting at a big round table in some immense coffee shop, drinking our cuppas and chatting about our industry. I love it.
I especially love it when I come across a new-to-me blog that has a post which gives me an aha moment. This morning, that blog was Elizabeth Bear's (thanks to Alison Kent for the link!). This post contains so much great information that I had to read it twice.
Writing is a series of compromises. One of the reasons it gets harder as you get better at it is that you become aware of the compromises you're negotiating and the choices you're making, and they become conscious choices (1). When you're learning to write a novel, you are learning to write a novel. Any novel. To find some kind of a path from beginning to end of the book. It's like a war–you go wherever you can find a path. Any port in a storm.
This, after all, isn't easy.
Later on, if you do finish a book (and its a big if) and you revise it, and you learn from it, and you write another one and another one, you start developing skills. You realize that you have choices–in what you show, in what you don't show, in what you imply and state outright, in which way the plot tends, in what technique you use in any given difficult scene. In the POV the book is told in, what papersky usefully calls the mode (which is the conjunction of scope and POV and so forth that are the underpinning of the narrative–the structure the rest of the book hangs off.)
You realize why you get a different book if you tell it in first person instead of in third. You begin to understand that there are strengths and weaknesses in any choice you make. In the process of becoming an educated writer, you become an educated reader.
You lose the ability to read as a reader. First, you read as an inexperienced writer, and you find yourself comparing everything you read to how-you-would-have-done-it. Some of us, at this stage, become incapable of reading anything. Some of us become incapable of writing anything. Some of us become incapable of doing one or the other with pleasure. Every choice this asshole made is wrong! This isn't the book I would have written at all!
Sadly, some people get stuck in this stage.
There is much, much more and I urge you to go read it. Indeed, I remember that stage of the journey, the one where I would read the first 100 pages of a book and get so frustrated with the story that I'd put it down and go back to my own tome, convinced mine was better and bolder and more interesting. Oh geez, if only I'd had a clue! But, it's part of the rite of passage as a writer. We start out thinking we can do better than X, tap out a disjointed narrative that we're convinced is the best evah, then wonder why we can't sell it. This is the part, I think, that separates the diehards from the hobbyists.
If you want to write for real, you'll drag your bleeding carcass through that stage, maybe whining and crying and moaning about the unfairness of it all, but you WILL get through it. And when you get to the other side, you'll realize there's still a long and winding road to be traversed, but you'll feel like you've just learned the secret handshake and all you have to do is stick to the path. (The path is never obstacle free, and you can still run off the road and into the underbrush, but that's another story.)
Or, maybe more appropriately, it's not a road you have to traverse, but a mountain you have to climb. A big, K2 mother with ice and jagged rocks and wind shears all vying to knock your puny ass off the mountain. And let's not forget the other climbers, working hard to pass you up or knock you down a few feet or just leave you in the dust. Sometimes, it's all you can do to hang on to the mountain, let alone inch yourself upward. But if you want it badly enough, you'll make the climb, even if you slide back from time to time, or get stuck in one place weathering a storm.
Some writers try to shortcut the mountain. Some try to take a helicopter to the top, or parachute in from above. They miss the importance of the climb, the significance of making their own way. I also think, unfortunately for them but not for the rest of us, that they tend to disappear pretty fast even if they do successfully land on the mountaintop. I can't begin to count the number of writers I've known who sold the first book they ever wrote never to be heard from again. It happens far more frequently than some of us may realize.
So what's my point? Aside from just loving her post (you really have to read the whole thing to learn about the “art of implication” she talks about), what I want to convey is the importance of being patient. And thorough.
Keep your eye on the peak and keep climbing. Learn the lessons that each manuscript has to teach you, never believe that what you write is perfect, always search for the best elements in your work. Be willing to rip it apart and rewrite the whole blasted thing from scratch. But don't rewrite the same manuscript 10 times. Move on to another one, no matter how hard that might be. (I know someone who has written one novel. Six years ago. And she's on the 7th complete rewrite. I can't tell her to give up the ghost, but I wish she'd feel compelled to move on, wish she'd get an idea so great that she has to pursue it and that the old book would take a comfy back seat.)
These are the things I try to remember in my own writer's journey. Patience, perseverance, and persistance. The three Ps. Lather, rinse, repeat. Or, if you prefer it said prettier, in the words of Thomas Edison, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” How much stuff do you think he threw away, or failed at inventing, before he moved on and kept climbing?
Right now I am stuck on short stories. I found recently that I have progressed a lot since I started that “explain how to write” blog.
Maybe I will get to the novel form someday. 😉
Talk about being mortified! Visited a friend/neighbor today. Another neighbor gave her his 400 page manuscript to read. She read 50 pages, “couldn’t get into it”, hinted that I should read it instead and even asked if I knew anyone she could pay to read it, because the author and his wife expect her to provide a review…lol! This person was tapped to read the draft because it’s set at UVA, which both the author and she attended. How embarassing for everyone involved. Well, I guess we could all be in Lebanon.
Short stories are good practice, Cyn. They are their own art form. When you’re ready to write a novel, you will. The key to any fiction writing, I believe, is what I said: patience, perseverance, and persistence. It helps to be humble about your work, and to be willing to make changes. It also helps to not think everything you write is brilliant. It’s hard to get past the ego-sting, but we progress so much when we can do that.
OMG, Patricia! So far, I’ve managed to avoid that, mostly because I deflect them at the pass. Ha! And because I’m a nobody in the scheme of things. Tess Gerritsen talked about that very thing over at Murder She Writes back in February. (Click on the link for the post.) A friend of hers who’d written a first novel knew not to ask her to read it, but wanted to pick her brain about publishing.
Your poor friend. I sympathize, I really do. I’ve read enough badly written contest entries (and some well-written ones that go nowhere and are therefore boring) to know what she’s facing. Writing is one of the only professions where people seem to think a) anyone can do it, and b) there’s no need for apprenticeship or practice. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery or play a piano solo at Carnegie Hall after only a few months of practice, but that’s what people seem to want when they write a book. Sell it, be Dan Brown. Even Dan wrote a few books before DVC (and I’d argue he still needed more practice at sentence structure, but that’s just me). 🙂 Man, if she wants to pay someone to read it, it must be bad. How awkward.