Writing fiction is a scary, solitary experience for me. Eventually, I get stuff to Andrew and we start working together to hammer out the final draft, but I write my first draft with the door closed, as Stephen King advises, and it can be a lonely time, with Self Doubt and the Inner Critic dropping in uninvited and unannounced from time to time to mess with me before the real fun starts.
As I struggle through the first (really the zero, but that's just semantics) draft of this novella, I have to keep reminding myself that the first drafts of Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot weren't as easy as Happiest Days , and the first column I wrote for Geek in Review wasn't as effortless as some of the last ones. In other words, I'm learning a new skill, and since I'm mostly on my own as I explore this new territory, it's easy to get lost and confused.
Luckily for me (and all other writers) there are experienced authors who are willing to share with us how they got where they are, so that we may try to follow in their footsteps.
Elizabeth Bear is one of the most fearless, honest, and generous of these authors. Cherie Priest (who makes me wish my name could be turned into a cool anagram) and John Scalzi are right there with her, and if you're a serious writer, you need to be reading their blogs every time they update. I've lost count of the number of times I've read something of theirs and said, "Thank jeebus. I thought I was the only one." It's tremendously reassuring to know that some obstacle I'm struggling with isn't unique to me, or a result of my inexperience or illustrative of a lack of ability, as much as it is just a part of the writing process, something other writers who are much more successful than me have also experienced (and, probably annoying to them but incredibly reassuring to me, still experience.)
Way back in February, Cherie wrote:
I give the hell up. On its present track, Awake Into Darkness simply isn’t working. It’s a tough thing to admit, especially when I’m almost 30,000 words deep in the draft; but if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I’ve known from the start that it was b0rked — because I was doing a shitty job of recycling old material. I knew from the get-go that I ought to just trash the whole thing and rewrite it, and I didn’t, and that’s nobody’s fault but mine.
At least I’ve come to grips with it in time to do something about it. Following much head-desking and a whole lot of emailing, badgering, and drunken grumbling (at self, husband, editor, etc.) about this story, I think I’ve finally got an idea of how it can work — and yes, it definitely involves starting over from scratch.
I can't imagine starting over after 30K words. Hell, I have a hard time even getting to 30K words, which is something I look forward to not being completely intimidated by in the future. Cherie says that she wrote most of the stuff that didn't work when she was still a rookie (like I am right now). When I've struggled with a story I thought was worth writing, I always thought it meant that I sucked, and just wasn't cut out to write fiction. After reading this, though, I was relieved to have permission to let something go if it just doesn't work. It's also a good time to remind myself: Don't be afraid to suck, and learn from the mistakes you make.
Elizabeth Bear recently said:
... one of the reasons I need breaks between writing things is that telling stories is an exhaustive mental effort. They use up all my thinky, and then I am left without too much else to fill up my time. [...]
And it cracks me up, because when I am actually working on a story and it's ready to be written (as opposed to being hacked out of the living rock to beat a deadline), I am crabby and reclusive and very defensive of my precious time, and very very aware that there's not nearly enough of it. The winged chariot is right at my heels, and there is never enough time in the day and strength in my poor mortal frame to get as much done as I want to.
From time to time, I get creatively exhausted and no matter how hard I try, I can't put two words togeher. Usually, it happens after I get across a particularly important deadline, like my brain just shuts down and refuses to do anything until I take time off and recover HP. Problem is, I always feel guilty, like I'm being a deadbeat while Anne does real work during these times. Other times, I feel like a ferret on meth, struggling to help my fingers keep up with my brain as it unleashes idea after idea at me. It's reassuring to know that someone as successful and as consistently awesome as Elizabeth Bear experiences similar extremes.
In his introduction to The Secret History of The Lost Colony, John said:
The lesson here for writing is that even your “failures” — the stuff that doesn’t work for your book, for whatever reason — can still have value to you as you’re wrestling with your work. This is one reason way, whenever I chop out a significant chunk of text from a book I’m writing, I don’t simply delete it: I cut it and paste it into an “excisions” document that I keep handy. That way I can go back to that material for reference, or to drop a line or an idea into the final version, perhaps in a completely different context, but where it will do some real good. This is what I do, and it’s worked for me so far.
I got a whole book out of one of those folders. I'm intensely grateful to be living in a digital age when it's simple and efficient to hold onto tons of stuff that I'd otherwise throw away, if it was printed out.
As long as we're talking about writing, I wanted to point all my fellow rookie writers to 5 Writing Lessons I Wish I'd Learned the Easy Way. I also wanted to point all my fellow bloggers/writers to a fantastic post I wish I'd written about the difference between writing a book, and writing a blog.
I'm not under the delusion that I'm anywhere close to the same league as the authors I've mentioned in this post, but that's the point. They're all successful and talented and awesome, and instead of hoarding their knowledge and guarding their experience, they share it with us, so that we can dream of one day being like them.