Liker of coffee and words. Occasionally cranky. tumblr elderly. I apologize in advance for my tags.
I was not patient enough to figure out what “the rest” of a story even was. I thought I should know it all immediately. Another huge mistake.
You have to be more patient with yourself and your stories than you ever thought. More than I ever imagined. When people talk about spending six years writing a novel (which I just did) you write it over and over. Many versions. Many different drafts with different plots. I wrote three different POVs before I found the correct one.
Here is my writing history.
When I was 28 I was still trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do. I’d finished college when I was 26, but my mother was dying the entire time and it was kind of a mess. (I stayed at home for years and helped take care of her and my little brother before going off to college when we thought she was in remission. She wasn’t.) But at 28 I was working full time and getting my head together. Saying I wanted to write seemed ridiculous and I felt like I should go to law school or nursing school or do something practical. But all I really wanted to do was read books and write. I felt (and still feel) saying you want to be a successful writer is like saying you’re going to be a star on Broadway, or become a movie star. It’s a good dream and if it’s what you want, you should go for it as hard as you can. But go forward with your eyes open and accepting that the odds are not in your favor and luck is a huge part of success. Knowing that has just pushed me to work harder. If I fail—it won’t be because I didn’t try my damndest.
I worked for a university when I was 28 and they gave me tuition as part of my benefit package. I signed up for a writing workshop. The only one with spots open was a novel writing class. I thought short stories would be easier to write. (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I was so dumb.) I registered with zero intention of writing a whole novel, but I did have to submit part of one to be accepted into the class. I wrote thirty pages of something and figured I’d see what the class was like and if I learned anything.
I learned that I am a novelist and not a short story writer. (I kept writing short stories, but I’m not terribly good at them.) I wrote the first draft a very complicated and ambitious novel in six months. It was a mess and I had no idea what to do with it. I poked at it and line edited and had a lot of vague ideas. But it didn’t have a traditional structure and was way beyond my craft skills.The prose style was also lyrical to the point of strangulation.
I took four more workshops for free at the university and then decided to apply to MFA programs. (Unless you are independently wealthy, get funding, or are going in with years of regular writing under your belt and the draft of a novel or bunch of short stories already written? I do not recommend the MFA. But that, once again, is a separate post. And YMMV.) I did the MFA. The only reason I can eat and pay rent and have medical insurance these days is because I am married. I am lucky as hell. My husband supports me while I write (in part because I have some chronic health problems, but also because it was impossible for me to get a job after I graduated in the shitty job market of 2008, which is when I wrote the first draft of this novel in three months.)
I treat writing like a regular job. I work 6-8 hours a day, most days while working on a manuscript. Most of that is spent actually writing. I am incredibly privileged to be able to do this. Most people do not have this luxury. But I wrote my first novel while working full time. I worked on it at lunch time and in the evenings and on weekends. It doesn’t matter if you write 100 words a day or 1,000. Just write as often as your schedule permits. Sometimes you have to give up other things to make time for writing.
The best way to learn to write is to do it. Every day if you can. Make it a habit. Make it something you sit down and do without thinking about it. Schedule it. Do not wait to write until you feel like it.
Finish things. Don’t edit. Don’t even line edit an unfinished story (unless you’re turning it into a class or workshop group.)
If you can’t keep yourself from editing obsessively in a word processor—write on a typewriter or by hand until you stop doing that. You will stop because once you write a complete story (or 20 of them) you can see that that that first chapter you spent six months on—needs to be thrown away or rewritten from scratch. So there was no point in doing anything more than writing it once. Write to whatever you think the end is. (Often that changes too. A lot.)
I wrote three, maybe four separate and complete (80K-90K word) drafts of this novel before I realized that the novel should begin at what had been the halfway point in all the other versions. I started it again from scratch. If I had just endlessly written the first two chapters of the first draft I never would have gotten here. And here is good. Here is where we’re on the verge of starting to shop the manuscript to actual publishers/editors. (Selling it is still a giant IF. There is a very good chance the editors will all look at it and say, “I can’t sell this. No thanks.” Then I will cry a lot. And start writing something new.)
Neil Gaiman just published a beautifully laid out (by Chip Kidd) version of his “Make Good Art” speech. He says, “Make mistakes!” And yes. Make mistakes. Give yourself permission to make all the mistakes you need to. Give yourself permission to write badly and make mistakes. You cannot learn if you do not make mistakes and recognize them as mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are the best things you do or help you find what you couldn’t have found otherwise. Serendipity can be a very real part of writing.
Finish what you start. Just be bloody minded about it. It will sometimes be frustrating and painful. Keep going. Not every story will live, but you will learn something from completing it.
If you were learning to play an instrument you wouldn’t play the first ten measures of a piece over and over and never play to the end. Especially if you ever meant to perform the piece before an audience. I think you can’t learn to play the first ten measures well if you don’t know what the rest of the piece sounds like. Writing is the same.
Everyone sucks at first. You have to practice to improve. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read widely. Read about writing. Take a workshop. Find a local group of writers who exchange work. Learn to take and give constructive criticism. There is an art to it, or at least a certain skill. Be kind to others about their work, and be kind to yourself.
Hemingway’s first wife lost all his early stories in a train station in Paris, but I bet a lot of them were disasters. Jane Austen’s juvenalia is charming, yet hilariously terrible and melodramatic. (Most of us will never be Hemingway or Austen—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try like hell.)
When you first learn to draw, dance, or play an instrument—your efforts are uneven and unsteady. But you practice and you learn—every day, or at least on a regular basis. Writing is not any different.
Deadlines also help. Self-impose or because you have to hand over the work to someone else. Make someone else hold you accountable, if you can. Finish things.
No agent or editor will read your unfinished story, your unedited story, or your first draft.
The unromantic truth about writing is that you put your butt in the chair. Every day. And you write. You write the same story twenty times. If it doesn’t work. You write something else. Then you keep going until you write something decent. If it takes ten years, it takes ten years. It’s hard for a lot of people to hang on that long.
What keeps me going? I am stubborn as hell. I have a very miniscule amount of talent and I received a lot of support an encouragement over the years, but very little in the way of success. (If you define success as publication—which is highly debatable. I’ve published twice in lit mags. I have an agent. I have a completed and heavily revised manuscript almost ready to be shopped. I am so terrified of failing right now, you have no idea.)
Unless you are stupidly lucky or a genius, you’re going to hear “No” a lot as a writer. It’ll hurt, but you have to let it roll off your back. Or better—use it to harden your determination. When someone says, “No” to your work. They are saying they do not want that particular story. They are not saying, “Do not write.” If someone ever tells you not to write—walk right up their chest. Do not look back.
But if you want to write, really want it so much you’d give your eyeteeth. Do not let anything stop you. This is something you will do for the rest of your life, whether you ever publish or not. It is not glamorous or easy. If one project is rejected—you start another one. Your career does not live or die on the success of a single project.
What keeps me going—is also love. There is nothing I love more than a well told story, especially a good book.