You guys. When it comes to writing, I am a brand new beginner. Like the kind that still needs their food steamed and mashed up, and would it be too much trouble to make airplane noises while you feed it to me?
My total green-ness at writing was a hard thing to admit. For one, I had a bunch of positive reinforcement sprinkled throughout my writing history: awards from writing contests, memories of enthusiastic feedback from my college writing groups… And for another, it’s in my genes. I’m directly related to someone who’s written over 25 NY Times Bestsellers. Doesn’t that count for something?
Short answer: no.
The only thing all that stuff meant was that I had the potential to be a writer, which really just put me in the same starting position as all would-be writers, a place called: You Might Become a Decent Writer if You Work Really, Really Hard.
But for a long time I didn’t want to work hard. At least not on my writing. Yes, I hammered out the occasional blog post, and twice I got ambitious and started (but never finished) a new story. But that was plenty, right?
Not even close.
Because when I actually started the business of writing, writing, writing, I realized. CRAP. I have no idea what I’m doing. And CRAP. you can read Stephen King’s On Writing until it falls apart, but you can’t learn how to write–really write–any other way than by actually writing. By actually doing the hard work. AND CRAP. HARD WORK ISN’T FUN AT ALL.
Also, HOW DOES ANYONE EXPECT ME TO GET ANYTHING DONE WHEN MY MASSIVE PRINCESS CROWN IS GIVING ME A HEADACHE?
Growing up is so fun, isn’t it.
So the first thing that I had to learn was this: if I wanted to be a writer, I was going to have to write. And write. And write. And then when I was so sick of my book I was having regular fantasies about shoving my laptop up the fireplace, I was going to have to write some more.
But that wasn’t all. I was going to have to learn a lot of stuff. Some of it really hard. And humbling. And although I’m the first to tell you that I’m brand new to this, I thought I’d set my laptop screen to bright and angle it at the new writer’s path in hopes of illuminating at least a few steps. And then I’m going to go right back to my mashed carrots. They’re actually kind of good.
1. You’re going to have to be okay with throwing out your stuff. Even when you think it’s really good. Maybe even especially when you think it’s good.
For about six months I had this prologue I refused to let go of. It had this mysterious, lyrical sounding first paragraph and I thought it was great. In fact, I thought it was excellent. One teeny problem: my editors didn’t agree. They thought it was passive and not terribly engaging. Lucky for me, my incredibly seasoned, insightful editors didn’t know anything. I was right. They were wrong. And I was going to fight them on it. And I did. Until the day it dawned on me that I wasn’t fighting them anymore, I was fighting my own ego. The prologue was all wrong, and I knew it. I threw it out and wrote something way better.
2. When writing something feels too hard, it’s because you’re going the wrong direction.
Writing is difficult, yes, but in some ways it has to flow. If some aspect of your book feels like the stories your grandmother used to tell you about walking to school (uphill both ways, always in a blizzard), then maybe you need to rethink it. For example, I had this character who I could not bring to life. I had her all planned out in my head, I knew what she needed to say and do, but I was spending HOURS on trying to make her come alive. It was like trying to revive a mashed up raccoon you find on the side of the road. And then one afternoon it dawned on me “I just paid a nanny $50 so I could rewrite a single paragraph for five hours. Something is wrong.” It was totally wrong. The voice was wrong. The character was wrong. I started in a new direction and it flowed like butter. (The kind you forget about in the microwave.) And I LOVE that character. Like so much.
3. Don’t write the way you think you’re supposed to write. Write what YOU are supposed to write.
My book has some really heavy themes. The basic premise involves a girl losing her mother to a devastating illness. So for a while I felt like my book had to be very serious and broody. Except it made my writing feel flat and artificial because it wasn’t me. It was who I thought I was supposed to be. The second I gave myself permission to write from my real voice–with lots of hyperbole and all the weird lines that pop in my head–that’s when the book started happening for me. And I was still able to handle the grief part. But in my own way.
4. You need an editor/critic/mean person to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
This one is really important. You need someone: an editor, a writing group, someone who knows what they’re talking about, to give you the bad news. What’s the bad news? Some of your writing will suck. Sometimes you’re going to have to make a massive U-turn and try something new. You always, always need to follow that unique voice that’s telling you stories in your head (after all, it’s going to be YOUR name on the cover), but you’re going to get to the point where it’s impossible to look at your work without going cross-eyed, much less with an objective eye. Find someone good who isn’t worried about hurting your feelings and ask/pay for/beg for their opinion. And then when they hurt your feelings, smile politely, tell them you’ll get back to them soon, then demand your husband take you out for Thai food so you can spend the whole night ranting. Let their feedback marinate for a bit, then try some stuff out. I promise you’ll end up with something way better.
5. You need a BFF/significant other/mom-figure to tell you what you’re doing right.
This is just as important as #4. Somewhere in the process this is all going to feel completely hopeless, and you’re going to need someone who is too naive to realize you’re about to go out in a ball of flames.
Let this person tell you that you can do this, that they’ve always known you could do this, and that they’re planning on living out their life as a trophy BFF/ trophy spouse / trophy mom-figure because that’s how successful you’re really going to be. Let them carry you piggy-back up the hill for a while and then hop off. You can do this. Tomorrow your writing will suck less. I promise.
6. Accept/expect criticism.
Fact of the matter is, there will be people that hate your writing. In fact, one of your very first advance reader reviews may contain the phrase “some of this book’s writing was as boring as dry toast.” This will make you feel like hell. And also sort of make you crave toast with grape jelly. But that’s just the way it goes. You are a writer, which means you aren’t someone who is content with “standing outside the fire” (thanks, Garth Brooks). Come to peace with getting a little crispy and/or singed around the edges. Make yourself a couple of slices of toast with jelly. Get back to work.
7. You are so lucky.
The fact that you learned to read is a privilege. The fact that you learned to write is a privilege. The fact that you have something that makes your heart sing is a massive gift. Be so, so grateful for it! Be excited for other writers–you’re all working towards the same goal. Don’t forget how much you LOVE reading, or the reason you started all this. Annoy everyone by talking about it way too much. Enjoy the actual work, not just the finished product. (Will it ever actually feel finished anyway?) Be a writer. Wallow around in all that luckiness.
P.S. That book I kept blabbing on and on about? It’s called Love & Gelato and it will be out on April 12, 2016. Are you the preordering type? Bless your soul.