When I used to sell my artwork at an outdoor fair, I would hear people say everyday, “I wish I could draw,” and my response was always, “Anyone can learn to draw, if they want to.” The wanting to, that’s the key. Leaving off the mere idle wishing and proceeding with doing. Some people have a gift for drawing, and who knows where gifts come from, but you know, even if God or genetic happenstance did not make you a brilliant artist, you can still learn to draw. Same with almost anything.
If drawing were taught in school every day like math, we’d all be able to draw. Period. But it isn’t, so it has this mystique of a gift either God-given or God-withheld. I won’t argue with the existence of “the gift” -- I do believe in Genius. But we’re not talking about being great. We’re talking about. . . doing.
I happen to think that work is as important as talent. We need to work hard. We need to build our lives and our dreams like we’re building houses or bridges or something, and not expect it to be easy and idyllic. I mean, why should we be so special and dainty that muses should just touch us with pleasant feathers of inspiration? We need to be willing to WORK. Writing might not be sweaty work, despite all I said about bushwhacking and exploration, but it’s damn hard work nonetheless, and I kind of feel like if it isn’t hard, you’re not doing it right! You know what they say about skiing: if you’re not falling down, you’re not pushing yourself. Same with writing!
Do you want it to be easy? Ask yourself why you want to be a writer. Is it for the idea of “being a writer”? The queue of people waiting for you to sign their books? Having a castle in Scotland, like J.K. Rowling has? Well, er, I totally want that too. Only not a castle in Scotland: a villa on the Amalfi Coast (except that the new National Geographic suggests Mount Vesuvius is bound to blow again, so I don’t know). And THEN a castle in Scotland. But whatever. I know there are surer ways to get real estate than writing. I write because I love to make stuff up and tell a story. And heck, I love signing books too. I haven’t done that much of it, but what I have done made me feel like a rock star, a humble, grateful rock star. I want people to read my books!
But 99 days out of a hundred, the writing life is not about connecting with people who are reading your books -- it’s just about writing them. Alone. In sweat pants, with coffee. And you better love doing that, because that’s what the job is: a lot of solitary work punctuated by brief flurries of appreciation. . . and criticism.
Saying this, I feel like one of those teachers on the first day of a night class who tells you, “Don’t get into children’s books to make money. You won’t make any money. Quit now.” No! Don’t quit! Make lots of money! Buy a castle and then invite me to it. Please. Writing is awesome. And making money writing, that’s awesome too. I love hearing about successful writers mobbed with fans, writers who can’t fit all their money in their wallets! I have NO sour grapes at all for J.K. Rowling. I love her. To me, she is the real Queen of England. Or Scotland. Or whatever. She rocks.
There’s one thing that irks me, and it’s writers who don’t work hard.
Someone once smugly told me their [unpublished] novel took only weeks to write, as if that was a good thing. I was, er, unimpressed. To be clear, I didn’t read the novel. Maybe I would have been impressed. Maybe it was great and I would have stewed to think this person could write such a brilliant book in a few weeks. But I doubt it. It happens, I guess. Geniuses, blah blah. Good for them. But if you aren’t one, you learn to do what needs to be done.
I heard a story about Robert Frost -- I don’t know if it’s true. The story goes that he was teaching a poetry class, and when it came time for the students to hand in their first poems, he collected them all and stood before the class with the papers in a big stack in his hand, and he said, “Now I want you to raise your hand if what you gave me here is your very best work.”
What do you think happened?
No one raised their hands. No one.
And what do you think happened next?
Robert Frost dropped the entire stack of poems into the trash can.
Now, I get why the students didn’t raise their hands. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us to own up to our gifts; we’re creatures of uncertainty, insecurity. The students were probably paralyzed, thinking that if Robert Frost didn’t like that one poem he’d think them hopeless cases. I probably wouldn’t have raised my hand, and I hope Mr. Frost scooped those poems out of the trash after his point was made.
What was his point? To me, it’s this: do your best work and claim it as such. Only pass your very best work along to be read by others. Have the respect for your readers to work really, really hard, and when you are convinced you’ve done your best, when you LOVE what you’ve written, when it fills you up with excitement and pride and joy, OWN IT.
Don’t fall into thinking that just because you want something a whole lot -- like getting published -- you deserve it. You have to earn it. And don’t think that just because you wrote something it deserves to be read. It might not be good enough -- yet. When I first started going to conferences and showing my portfolio, I really really wanted to illustrate picture books, and I sort of thought I deserved the chance, just because I wanted it so much, and I was working really really hard. Now I can see, in retrospect, that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t been working hard enough, long enough -- in my case, my work wasn’t there yet. It’s hard to know when it is. You might not know. But listen when people tell you to keep on working, and do the best you can.
Don’t just be an “artist.” Be a “craftsperson” too. What do I mean by that? Others might disagree, but after having been through a school of “Arts and Crafts” this is what I mean by it: “Art” is an impossible term to quibble about. If someone says their creation is art, it is. I believe that. If someone dips themselves in paint then rolls across a canvas, well, it’s art if they say it is. If they hang a bent wire on the wall and call it art. . . it’s art. And whether that art is “good” or not, well, just the thought of that debate makes me tired. I don’t even care. It’s subjective. But with CRAFT -- and this is so awesome -- there are standards. It’s not purely subjective. Someone can be a good or a bad silversmith. A good or a bad glass blower. A good or a bad wood carver. Their level of skill can be judged. It’s craft.
Writing can be good or bad. I think writers should be both artists and craftspeople. As artists: striving for something ineffable, something that lingers, that imprints itself in your mind like a fossil. As craftspeople: doing the best possible job with your tools. Being technicians.
As a writer, I am going to go to crazy lengths trying to write the absolute best book I can possibly write before I cross my fingers and hope people buy it and read it. It’s a matter of respect. I want to be the student in Robert Frost’s class who proudly raises her hand.
So what do I mean, in practice, by being willing to work hard?
For one, don’t think your first draft is perfect. It’s natural to be very proud when you finish something, to see it as the perfect flawless flowering of your talent -- but Sophie’s Choice aside, first drafts always need work. They might even need drastic amounts of work. You may in fact need to cut 25,000 words out, make the secondary character the narrator, lose the first six chapters and start with chapter 7, or any variety of extremely painful, drastic things. You will not be able to see this when you have just finished it.
You need to put it in a drawer for a few weeks or a month, even longer if you can stand it. Give yourself long enough that you can gain some distance from it and read it with fresh eyes. This is really, really important. Then when you come back to it, hopefully you can read it with joy and pride, loving it, but also be able to see how it can be made better. Be clear-eyed and honest, and be brave. Open your mind to new ideas and new ways to make your story better. It’s never too late to make a bold change. Be willing to rewrite a scene a dozen times or more -- as many as it takes. Go above and beyond the call of duty. You’re striving for your best -- never be content with a scene or even a single line until you love it.
Remember: something is not good or valid just because you did it. I know there are people who will argue with me on this and assert that all creative product is “valid.” Maybe it is in kindergarten, but not when you’re a grownup striving to get published. It doesn’t matter how important the story is to you, how much you want it to be published. All that matters is how good it is. How interesting, and how well told. How much it makes the reader care about it.
When you put writing into the world to be read, YOU are no longer part of the equation. The story or book is its own entity, singing for its own supper. If the opening is not gripping enough, you will not be standing there to urge the editor, “Just keep reading. In chapter three things really get rolling.” No. It’s your job to give that story the ability to grab the reader and not let them go.
This job is not for the lazy, or the half-assed. Well, sure, lots of lazy, half-assed books get published and even become bestsellers, so that proves me wrong. I guess this whole screed of mine is a plea to NOT contribute to that. Please, write good books. Give the world GOOD BOOKS. Only add books to the shelves of the world that you truly believe in and love, that you cradled in your mind with great devotion and worked at with diligence and craft.
I love to revise. I’m like a little girl rearranging doll house furniture. Just let me at it! This is the candy store part of writing for me. I know some writers hate to revise, but I can’t really imagine that, so if you’re one of those writers, I can’t think of anything to say to cheer you on except this:
Revisions mean that the first draft -- the hardest thing in the world -- is done. Hallelujah!!! Now comes the opportunity to take what you’ve done and make it better.
First, take a break. This is really essential. Put the story or book away for as long as you can. Write something else. Read things. Go on a trip. Organize your office. Bake cookies for your writing group and/or editor. Personally, I do not advise giving them your first draft, not if it is a true first draft. Some writers call that first thing the “zero draft” because in their minds it doesn’t even qualify as a first draft. I like “exploratory draft” better, of course, but still, I will not be giving anyone, not even my editor, my earliest draft to read. It would be cruel and pointless.
It’s still a mess. You might not think it is, but just assume it is.
And don’t have the attitude that you’re hoping to change as little as possible when you revise, like it’s boring homework or something you’re trying to get away with. It’s not homework! It’s vital, beautiful work -- but still in its early stages. The best is yet to come. I mean, what are the chances that you wrote the coolest, best, most awesome possible version of your book on the first try? (Never mind you, William Styron.) The chances are slim. I would say that this point, having finished my first draft and being poised to begin revising, is my very favorite part of the whole process.
I know earlier I said revising would never be so thrilling (or miserable) as the exploratory draft, and that’s true. It’s not thrilling, but it does satisfy the perfectionist in me, the one I’ve been battling with all along, trying to keep her from taking over too soon. Now I can stop fighting. I can let my true persnickety, word-loving, sentence-futzing nature emerge. When I’m revising, I’m in my element.
I love to print out the manuscript -- especially if I haven’t read it in a while --into a nice neat, white stack and start reading and making notes on it. I feel so accomplished and so in charge. And I still feel that anything can happen. I’m not just copyediting myself here, marking typos and such. I’m still casting my mind out for bigger, better, cooler ideas and solutions, more elegant ways to fit the plot together, new things the characters might say and do. I’m writing whole new scenes; I’m rearranging a lot. I’m cutting whatever I possibly can. I’m hyper alert for any boring parts and I am trying desperately not to deceive myself on that score.
I really really don’t want to write boring books! This is my first real chance to test my book for boringness, and I hope I’m going to be ruthless with it -- as ruthless as if it were someone else’s book. Even worse: as ruthless as if it were someone else’s bestseller. (I don’t know about you, but I judge bestselling books with a much more critical eye than non-bestselling books. It’s like some jealous little part of me wants to prove why they’re unworthy of that status. I love it when they are worthy and are fabulous -- I recently read and adored Water for Elephants -- but I also kind of relish it when they’re not, when I can chuff and snort and bemoan readers’ poor taste. It’s weirdly satisfying!)
Revising as I go
I don’t want to give the impression that my first drafts get written straight through, or that I forge ahead in one bold plunge like some kind of madman! I admire writers who can do that, but I have not yet been able to. I try, and each time it is like losing at arm-wrestling match. . . with myself. I have to revise as I go. I have to.
This is how my personality manifests in my process. Despite the fact that I currently have pink hair and blue toenails, I am not a wild, daring person. I like the idea of wild, daring people, but I’m on the cautious side of artistic expression myself. In art school I did not like drawing in front of others; I don’t generally enjoy dancing (I’m a tad too uptight); I can’t sing; public speaking makes me anxious, and back in high school I remember distinctly even being a bit too self-conscious to belt out loud “woo hoos!” at football games. I was afraid I’d do it wrong! (That’s so sad.) My painting and drawing style is very planned and controlled. Never have I attacked a blank canvas with a big drippy brush. Never! I spend ages on a drawing first; I use tiny brushes, I love detail, and paintings take me a really long time.
So too with writing.
Usually, after all my thinking and planning and all the brainstorming, note-taking, and daydreaming that precede my actual writing, I get started, and soon enough I discover that I don’t know what I thought I knew. I change my mind. A lot. With Silksinger, page 60 has seemed to be about the magic number for changing my mind. I have written multiple different beginnings to this book and gone on ahead with them, only to get to that same spot and get a new, better idea and have to change everything.
It can be very disheartening. It can also be very exciting to get the new, better idea. It’s all bad things and all good things rolled up together, just like life.
I know it seems like a good strategy to just keep going, to just get a draft written. But once I feel like I’m on the wrong track, there’s no way I can go on. I have to fix it. I’m not talking about little things or minor adjustments. I’m talking about the entire framing of the novel changing, the perspective, the circumstances of the main character’s life, even who the main character is. Silksinger, still very much underway, has been a hard book to write because I have too many ideas, and I am trying to do a lot with a lot of characters, all while keeping it working within the overall series arc. It’s a puzzle at all times. It makes my brain hurt. But it also lights my mind on fire with the possibilities. I am so deeply in love with this book! I can’t wait to get it right and let some people read it!
It’s on track with it now. I’m certain this time. But there were times where I was poised on the verge of yet another big change and I thought I must be some kind of insane. This is straight out of my notebook:
“OH MY GOD -- the rumors are true! I have another new idea for the framing of this dang book, and it involves another new beginning. I make myself very, very tired. But I can’t help it. I like this better.”
Revising is a huge part of the craft aspect of writing, and it can be a time of luscious possibility. Don’t dread it. Embrace it! Do what needs to be done.