The First Book

Congratulations. You’ve written a novel. Your first. It’s no longer a thing “you’d like to do someday,” it’s a thing you did.

The End.

You just wrote that, and it made you smile. Family members barely recognize you. Where’s the sullen, contentious, lost, confused, un-showered, frustrated writer-wannabe they’d come to expect every time you crawled out of your writing cave into the real world to briefly consider eating food that doesn’t come out of a plastic bag?

She’s gone. That was the exhausted, mud-caked, sweaty Basic Training writer; the “I’m going to finish this thing if it kills me” writer. You’re not her anymore. You’re a Bonafide Author now. And guess what? Your book, this very first novel of yours, could be the Next Big Thing. I’m talking Harry Potter big.

Have a sip of that celebratory wine. You deserve it.

You might want to have another sip. Because I have some news for you: your book is not going to sell a million copies. Or a hundred thousand. Or ten thousand. Chances are very good it won’t even sell a hundred.

Let me repeat that because you’re still distracted by that word “million.” The book you just finished, this book you slaved over for weeks or months or years, this baby you birthed all by yourself right there on the cobbled-together standing desk in the converted closet you call your “writing studio” – is most likely stillborn.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I’m not expecting my book to sell like Harry Potter. I’m not that naive. I really don’t care if I sell a single copy. I’m content to have simply finished writing a book.”

Or maybe you’re thinking, “I know it’s not that great yet…but that’s what revisions are for. I’m going to hire an editor to help me make it better. Because once it’s really good, then I can find my audience. I can sell more than a few copies.”

Or you could be thinking, “You don’t know. My book could actually be the next Harry Potter. There are all kinds of stories of debut authors hitting it big. Might as well be me.”

I’ll address the last response first: You’re right. It could be you. And you could win the lottery this weekend, too. You really could. Honestly, if that little dream keeps you going, keep on dreaming. Please note – I’m not disparaging you for holding onto that fantasy – I have a black belt in chasing impossible dreams. But know this: if your dream of hitting the publishing lottery with your first novel keeps you from writing the next one, it’s time to wake up.

Now to those of you who are saying you’re content with your participation trophy, I need to say “good for you” and also “really?” If you’re happy simply that you’ve written a book, go ahead and enjoy that feeling. But then take a moment to think about who you want to be as a writer. Think about the hopes and dreams you had while you were writing the first book. Is that it? Are you done? Maybe your soul is satisfied. But if it’s not – if there is a restlessness in you that says “I have to write again” or “I know there’s an audience for my stories out there somewhere,” then get back to it. Be happy to have written, then let the discontent of unfulfilled dreams drive you to write again. Just be honest with yourself.

Finally, let me speak to those of you who are counting on the revision process to make your novel great. You’re on the right track. That’s a good answer. You apparently understand the hard work that goes into writing a novel – that it’s as much (if not more) about the revision process as it is about finishing the all-important first draft. With the help of smart beta-readers, and an even smarter editor (I know a few), your book will get better. Better is good. Better means a greater chance of finding an audience.

But even then, your first novel could stall right there. Whatever the “final” draft looks like, no matter how much time and money you’ve spent trying to make it essential reading for anyone with a Kindle, it could fall flat. Most books do. Good ones, bad ones, amazing ones. I could list a dozen incredible novels I’ve worked on that have yet to find a home.

But that would only depress you. And, despite what you might think, this isn’t a post about discouragement. I’ve written that one already. This is about encouragement.

You wrote a book!

And every word you labored over, every meal you skipped, every gallon of coffee you downed was worth it. Not because you won the lottery. But because there are no wasted words in a writer’s journey. No, it’s not “all about the journey.” That’s overly-simplistic thinking. But the journey matters. The books you ultimately file away as “not ready to share” or “couldn’t find a publishing home” matter. Maybe just to you, but they matter. Because without them, you’ll never get to the books that will matter to others. The books that will make people smile or think or cry or hope. The books that will capture readers’ hearts. The books that will make readers wonder how you could possibly know them so well.

And yes, the books that will inspire them to become writers. Like you.

And so it goes.

 

#amwaiting

When the language gods sat down at their very expensive polished maple conference table to decide which term to use for the art of putting words together to tell stories, “writing” wasn’t their first choice. “Bloodletting” actually had the most up-votes and was likely to get the nod. But then one of the lesser gods – the one everyone mistakenly called Vern – felt compelled to mention how similar “writing” was to “waiting,” which they’d already determined would mean “excruciatingly long pauses where nothing appeared to be happening.”

While he was publically showing his support for the already-popular idea of eliminating “writing” from contention, he was secretly hoping his observation might be clever enough to gain him a little status among his peers. But when the other gods noticed this similarity, they immediately changed their votes. They’d find another use for “bloodletting.” “Writing” was perfect, because, as the god known as Carl V. Clamphammer said, “Writing and waiting are intimately intertwined.” The other gods cheered and nodded and deemed it a done deal and Vern was hailed as a genius.

All this is true. Except the part about Vern being hailed as a genius. Ask any of the gods today and they’ll universally respond, “Who’s Vern?”

By this point, you’re probably wondering if I’m ever going to get to the point of the blogpost. Oh, I will. Eventually.

But first, let’s talk about bloodletting.

Okay. Fine. I’ll save that for another post.

This one is on…wait for it…

[Taps fingers on table.]

[Stares at clock on wall.]

[Goes online to try to understand Tumblr and find out where the missing “e” went.]

Writing and waiting. Carl V. had it right. If you’re a writer, you’re a waiter. (And yes, you might also be a waiter, but that’s not important, so ignore that six-top and rejoin me here at the point. Oh, and could you bring me some water? With lime, please. Thanks.)

Here are some of the ways a writer waits:

  • You wait for the computer to wake up from sleep.
  • You wait for inspiration.
  • You wait for the children to take a nap so you can wait for inspiration.
  • You wait for the Internet to stop offering you pictures of kittens knitting sweaters for their pet sloths.
  • You wait for feedback from your beta readers.
  • You wait for a response (or non-response) from literary agents.
  • You wait for your editor to get back to you with his notes. [Ed: Thanks for your patience.]
  • You wait for someone to buy your book.
  • You wait for the first five-star review.
  • You wait for the first one-star review.
  • You wait for someone to respond to the one-star review by telling the reviewer he should probably read the book before reviewing it.
  • You wait for writing elves to finish your novel while you sleep.
  • You wait for sleep that never comes because you’re worried that the writing elves might steal your idea and give it to James Patterson.
  • You wait for phone calls. Emails. Texts. Ideas. Words. Brilliance. Coffee. Wine. Hope.

There’s a lot of waiting in writing. But it doesn’t have to be an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening.” See, you can still write while you’re waiting. You can brainstorm the next book. You can come up with marketing ideas. You can argue with the voices in your head. You can crawl out of your bed and put on sweats and running shoes and pretend like one day of exercise will make up for the dozen donuts you ate yesterday while you were writing.

Waiting is a great time for pondering things. But here’s a tip – be sure to have paper and a pen (or a laptop, or a smart phone) nearby while you’re waiting. That plot problem you were struggling with? The answer will inevitably come to you while you’re waiting in line at the corner deli.

But it’s not like you have to fill every waiting moment with stuff. That’s insane. Please feel free to enjoy an “excruciatingly long pause where nothing seems to be happening” if that’s what you need. Sometimes doing nothing is exactly what you should be doing.

Then, when your nothing time is over, you can get back to waiting. I mean writing. I mean waiting. I mean writing. I mean…

Bloodletting might have been a better choice.

Thanks a lot, Vern.

How to Write a Novel

You’re going to need an idea.

It can be a clever plot. Something about uncontrollable magic or unpredictable mayhem or unconventional love. Or maybe your idea is a character. Someone who stands out. Someone who blends in. Someone who lives in a coffee house attic. Someone whose feet never touch the ground.

Okay, now the hardest part: You must write a sentence. Any sentence will do (yes, even a sentence fragment) because you’ll probably change it a hundred times anyway. Here, I wrote some for you:

  • The monkey never saw it coming.
  • Halfway between the sky and the sidewalk, she realized she had forgotten how to fly.
  • His favorite sound and his favorite activity were defined by the same two words: shattering glass.
  • Nothing moved.

Next comes the hardest part: You have to write more sentences. Lots of them. Good ones. Bad ones. Brilliant ones. Ugly ones. Sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence.

This is going to take you longer than you thought. It always does. Oh, sure, you’ll have one 10,000 word weekend. And for a few days after, you’ll think of yourself as an Actual Professional Writer.

That feeling will fade.

After three weekends in a row with an average output of 723 words, you’ll be ready to quit.

You’ll be ready to quit a lot. Writers walk a tightrope from the beginning of a book until the end and even the slightest breeze can tip them off balance. You know these breezes by their more common names: doubt, frustration, uncertainty, hopelessness, fear, distraction. They’re relentless, so just fix your eyes on the other side and keep moving. It’s okay if you only wrote seven sentences today. It’s even okay if those seven sentences suck.

Just stick to it. If you do, you’ll eventually be ready to face the hardest part of writing a novel: Typing “The End.” Yes, there’s a moment of satisfaction, perhaps even joy in typing those two words. It’s a well-deserved moment. You just wrote a novel!

No. You didn’t.

You just wrote a first draft. When you type “The End,” you’re actually typing “The Beginning of All That I Still Have to Do to Make This Great.”

But there is some good news here. You’ve made it to the hardest part of writing: Revisions.

During this season of a book, you’re no longer on a tightrope; you’re carving through a jungle of your own making with a machete. All sentences are suspect. Many must die. You’ll have to write some new sentences, too. Lots of them. (I know the machete metaphor breaks down here. Let it go.)

During the (interminable) revision process, you’ll hand your “latest draft” to friends and family and hired strangers. They’ll nearly always tell you what you don’t want to hear: “It’s not finished yet.” Deciding which suggestions to use and which to ignore may very well be the hardest part of writing.

[Side note: Revisions last forever. I’m not being hyperbolic. Twenty years after your novel has hit the bestseller lists, you’ll still be re-writing it in your head.]

This leads to the hardest part* of writing a novel: Deciding to be done with it. Despite the infinite revisions that will go on in your head, there comes a time when you must say “Enough!!” (in a doubly-exclamatory voice) and begin the marketing process or the agent-search process or the contest-entering process, so you can move on to the next book.

The next book? The next book.

Sigh.

You’re going to need an idea…

 

*I’m well aware that I described every step as “the hardest part” of writing. I don’t need to explain myself here, do I?