Writing Is Belief

Every novel begins as an idea you believe in. Usually, a really good idea. Humility (real or manufactured: pick one) might keep you from calling it brilliant, but you’ve had good ideas before and this one is a thousand times better than all of those.

This is the book idea that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: a successful* author.

So you sit down (or stand at your standing desk if you’re an overachiever with strong calf muscles) and start writing.

First sentence? Perfect. So incredibly perfect. (Nearly perfect. You’ll fix it later.) First paragraph. Amazing. (Well, mostly. Except for the abundance of adverbs.) First chapter? Nailed it. (The whole thing will have to go when you later realize it’s just backstory.)

Now, on to chapter two.

Chapter two. Chapter…two. Two. Two. Chapter Two. Two is a funny word, isn’t it. Why isn’t it pronounced “twoah”? Oh, right. You’re supposed to be writing.

You can do this. You believe in your book idea. You believe in the story that’s beginning to appear on the page. And you believe in yourself (the force is still strong with you).

You press on.

Chapters three through ten are remarkably decent. Now you’re getting somewhere. This is the story the idea wanted you to write.

Chapter eleven. Hmm…can you just skip chapter eleven? Because it’s not working.

No worries. Chapter twelve is great. Celebrate-with-a-glass-of-wine great. Good thing, too, because thirteen through nineteen are eminently forgettable.

But chapter 20. So. Very. Good. Only. Separating. Words. With. Periods. Gives. It. Proper. Honor. Of course, the new ideas you introduced in chapter 20 will require substantial revision to the rest of the novel, but it’s such a good chapter, the pain will be worth it.

Six months later, you’ve done it. Finished the book that’s going to make you into the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who finishes things.

Wait, no. A successful author. That’s what you meant, right?

Well, maybe. At the moment, you’re not entirely sure you can write. At. All. Oh, you can finish a story. Yes. You are the champion of finishing stories. And yes, now that you think of it, there are some good moments. But is the plot compelling enough? Do the characters seem believable? Is the pacing sharp or sluggish?

Yes. No. Maybe. Sort of. Probably not. You don’t know.

So you revise. And you revise some more. You get feedback and it breaks your heart and it buoys your spirit and then it breaks your heart again. Three months later you come to a stopping place because there has to be a stopping place, not because you recognize it as a stopping place, and suddenly you’re the author you always knew you were meant to be: an author who edits the work until it’s the best it can be.

Wait. What about the whole “successful” thing?

You’re still not sure about that. The story is better now. Maybe not quite as brilliant as the idea, but much improved from the first draft.

At least you hope it is. Is it?

You need to find more believers. Beta readers? Sure. Why not? Their feedback and support can be invaluable. But what you really want is the Holy Grail of believers: an agent.

So you craft a perfect query** and release it into the wild.

Five minutes later, a rejection appears. Five minutes! Oops, your mistake. That agent isn’t taking queries at the moment.

In the days that follow, more rejections appear, this time from agents who are accepting queries. They just don’t think your book is right for them. Hmm…this isn’t going the way you’d hoped.

Thirty rejections later…

Wait, did you just say “thirty rejections later”? Thirty? What does that mean?

Well, it means one of two things: You’re either 30 rejections closer to being the writer you always knew you were meant to be, or you’re 30 rejections farther away from that dream.

Which will you believe?

Pick one.

 

*We all define success differently. To some, it might mean simply getting published. To others, it might mean handing a freshly-printed copy of the book to a once-disbelieving spouse. And to still others (those selfish authors without an ounce of actual humility), it might mean selling no less than One Million Copies in the first six months. The definition of success doesn’t matter here – just the belief that feeds it.

**The “perfect query” is a mythical beast, like Bigfoot. I’m just using it here as shorthand for “the best query you can come up with after spending more hours studying the art of query writing than you spent writing the first draft of your novel.”

Spinning

The earth is spinning on its axis at 1000 miles an hour while it whips around the sun at  67,000 miles per hour.

And I can’t keep up.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t need to. The earth is going to do its thing regardless of my thing and thanks to the magic of physics, we don’t even have to hang on.

But I’m not here just for the ride. I want to stand on the leading edge and see the sunrise before it knows its colors. I want to stick my toes out as we cross into autumn, feeling the bite of the coming cool just ahead of its arrival. I want to experience the things that haven’t happened yet before anyone can tell me about them.

Not so I can lord it over you and call, “First!” There isn’t time to consider you. Or me. The things that haven’t happened yet appear like a sudden recognition and disappear as quickly as that recognition bends into a memory. It’s not about being first. It’s about wanting to linger a moment longer in the company of the not yet. Because that’s where the unwritten stories live.

And some of those stories are mine.

I spend most of my time wrestling with words after they’ve already enjoyed a few spins. And I’ll keep doing that. This is the hard work of the writer.

But let me stand for a moment where the day and the night and the summer and the winter begin so I can see those stories before they break up in the atmosphere and fall to the earth like satellite shrapnel. Let me catch a glimpse of what the stories are meant to be, how they long to be told.

Then maybe when I climb back down through the clouds, settle into my seat in the coffee shop spaceship filled with fellow travelers who haven’t had a single thought about where the stories come from – maybe then I’ll be able to put the words together in a way that looks a little something like the sunrise before it knows its colors.

The Weight of Your Words

I love my computer*. Let me say that up front, in case it thinks otherwise and decides to unflash its memory. But I have fond (if only for the purpose of this post) memories of a time when writing hurt more than it does today. Oh sure, we have carpal tunnel syndrome and baked sperm syndrome (well, some of us, anyway), but those are fancy aches. Yesterday, a writer’s pain was blue-collar. It was immediate and visceral.

Remember writer’s cramp? Now that was a pain you could feel. It started somewhere between thumb and forefinger, then exploded up the arm like lightning. And who can forget the grating, yet sublimely satisfying earache inspired by the ratchet-clickity-rip of paper from the typewriter platen? (Look it up, youngsters.)

Writing on a computer is easy. Comfortable. Maybe too easy. Too comfortable. Oh, I’m not about to go back to typewriter days (I don’t remember them that fondly and I’m much too old to make a convincing hipster), and my handwriting is even more illegible today than yesterday, thanks to the doctor-signature scrawl I was unable to deny inheriting from my parents. (Note: They’re not actually doctors. They just write like them. My mom’s handwriting isn’t so bad, really. But my dad’s? I was fully qualified to interpret hieroglyphics by the age of seven, thanks to his cleverly-disguised birthday card wishes.)

Back in the day when writing was more physical, we felt every word. We punched high-heeled keys like stubborn elevator buttons. We scraped leaky pens against reluctant paper like fingernails on a blackboard. (You’re welcome.) We didn’t have a delete button (Liquid Paper doesn’t count, Michael Nesmith’s mom). And a save function? Nope. We called that “starting over.” (Cue purchase of more paper, more typewriter ribbons, more pens. That means cutting bacon from the family budget, son. Sorry.)

In the computer age, words are cheap. They cost you nothing because you can write all of them down without a second thought. You can delete them, revise them, replace them, all with the slightest touch of fingers to a quiet, accommodating keyboard.

No, I’m not raising the flag of the writerly curmudgeon. (Though hey, if you prefer a typewriter or pen and paper, more power to you. Especially to your fingers.) I’m just stopping by to ask you to consider a new way of looking at how you write. I’m not talking about when you’re writing the first draft. Computer Convenience is the patron saint of the first draft. Go ahead and throw everything you want on the page. First drafts are free!**

I’m talking about when you’re tunneling down to the bedrock and revising your manuscript for public consumption.

The revision process is painful. After all, you’re throwing away perfectly good words and ideas. It’s supposed to hurt. Certainly far more than a comfy keyboard and endless undo might suggest.

So let it. Feel the ache in your head, your heart, your elbows, your wrists, your fingers. Feel the sharp edges of every word against the soles of your feet. Imagine you have to cough up real money from your meager bank account to pay for each word that finds a permanent home on the page.

And when it hurts too much? Celebrate the pain. You’re almost there.

Because if you feel the weight of your words – really feel it, chances are, your readers will too. And that’s a price worth paying.

 

*No. I don’t plan on marrying it when such a thing becomes legal (because really, that’s where our country is headed, am I right fear-fueled zealots?). We’re just going to live together. And when I’m tired of it, I’m going to trade it in on a new model. When it comes to computers, I’m proud to be a serial monogamist. Okay, fine. You caught me. I have more than one computer. A serial bigamist, then. 

**They’re not free for everyone. I labor over mine. Every. Stinking. Word. Yeah, I’m one of those people who can’t seem to abide by the advice I so freely give to others.