AKA: Why I’m not done with my novel. Or, my acknowledgement that writing is hard and it’s okay to keep learning.
I started writing Shadow of the Portico during Thanksgiving 2014. I’m still writing that book, though I see light down there somewhere, if I squint…
People write novels in a month, they tell me. Great, I say, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to take my time and learn as much as I could about the craft before I put something out there.
Once again proving that we should be careful what we wish for.
Some years ago, I used to write a lot of flash fiction–short stories of less than 1,000 words that were sort of like vignettes, glimpses, word pictures. I was good at it. I won stuff. It was fun. And in my wildest dreams, I never would have sat down and planned a flash fiction. It was a flash, there and gone, and you catch it or vaporizes into a little cloud and you’ve wasted a Pokeball.
Sorry. Yes. I’m one of those Go people.
Anyway, I wrote that way because I didn’t think I could sit and plan a story. I didn’t credit myself with the attention span.
When I decided to write a novel, I still wasn’t sure I had developed that attention span yet, but I had these two intriguing characters who fall in love. Surely I could do something with that.
And I did! I wrote about 90,000 words–a decent sized novel–about these two characters and about some other characters and some time travel and converging timelines and a murder mystery… and realized the plot was a hot freaking mess. And I still had 40,000 more words to go before I made it into something remotely readable. It was still problematic at best.
Ninety thousand words, pretty good words, but I had no idea where they were headed. Well, I did have an idea. They were headed into the trash heap along with the last of my confidence.
Then I started doing that “learning the craft” thing I talked about. I read KM Weiland, who wrote about the importance of story structure. Then I tried out Randy Ingermason’s Snowflake Method so I could sort out in my mind where my multiple storylines were going. My writing partner, Olivia Folmar Ard, shared her elegantly simple and lifesaving outlining spreadsheet. Then I watched Dan Wells’s Seven Part Story Structure to better understand why my story should progress the way it does. Now I’m learning Ring Composition from KB Hoyle, and I’m excited at the level of sophistication that is possible with my novel series.
Did all this writing advice confuse me? Lord, yes, and I have college degrees in this stuff. Did it slow me down? Glacially. Did I do everything they said? Not remotely. Did I learn anything?…
You guys… I learned everything I now know and the depth of what I could know. And the result: my novel is so much better for it. Or, more modestly, it’s a lot more fun to write with the lights on.
Today, a writing group I am in collectively decided that writers should just write, and not get hung up on structure, advice, writing books, or any of that. Not if it stifles their creativity. Just write.
I get that. Most of my book was written as unconnected scenes, like pearls. My friend Katharine Grubb once made that analogy, and I love it. I write in pearls. Lovely pearls, yes, but for so long they sat there without a string. Not a necklace. Not living up to their potential.
Listen. If you have a pearl in your head, write it. By all means. I still write pearls for my subsequent novels. When that magical scene plays out in my head, I don’t want to lose it. I write it! If it’s that good, we’ll make it fit.
But can I write a whole novel that way? People do, they tell me. But here’s what happened to me when I tried that. I found myself in a painfully long revising and editing process. Much painful. Bad weepy. Pearls cast away without even the benefit of swine enjoying them. A process in which months pass into years and I’m still working how to take my readers from Point A to Point Q without losing them. Or myself.
I’m still there, you guys. It’s hard. Even going back and fixing it, knowing all I know now. It’s very hard to rewrite a novel I thought was done.
I’m glad I didn’t just trust my initial storytelling instincts. They may be pretty good, or they may be awful. Honestly, if I don’t learn the craft, how would I know? Oh, the things I could have published.
I want to send a message to the people in my writing group who say Just Write. I love you guys, but if you had given me that advice a year and a half ago, I would have never been able to make my pearls into a book. My darlings would all be dead. All of them.
If you said Just Write and blow off structuring the plot, I would have trashed it and given up. Just have fun, you say? I was miserable, lost, and convinced that I was a terrible writer and a stupid human because I didn’t really know how to tell a story. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, but I knew something was wrong. It hurt. That was so not fun.
If your advice to Just Write was never followed up with But take the time to thoroughly understand structure and know how to tell your story beyond instinct, I’d be spending this summer binge-watching Friends.
Yeah, I know all the things they say about advice. Mine, like everyone else’s, is worth what you pay for it. But if you’re reading this, and you have that manuscript that you know can be better, but you have no idea what’s wrong and you hate it and yourself… maybe, just maybe, you’ve moved past the the Just write it and have fun advice. Click some of those links I put in this post. If they confuse you, find advice that you understand and that speaks to you.
Maybe you’re ready to get cozy with structure. No lie, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s worth it. And once you get it, it liberates your creativity, because maybe you won’t end up like me, sobbing over your manuscript, wondering what you’ve done wrong, or if you should bother going on at all.
There’s a million ways to write, and I don’t want to sound dogmatic. I can only tell you my experience. I hope you’re encouraged (or duly warned) by it. If not, keep seeking. Advice, like writing techniques, is part of a huge smorgasbord. Nobody is forcing you to eat the head cheese or the eel. Take what you like, leave the rest. Just don’t forget to eat, feed, grow. Learn. That’s the fun part.