This started off as an e-mail reply to a writer I know who’s struggling. But, given that I not long ago opined that most people don’t really want to hear opinions that don’t gibe with their own, I thought I would publish it here, modified to be more generic.
I wrote on my website that the first thing a would-be novelist must do is “finish.” But what do I mean by finishing? Here are my thoughts about the danger of being too focused on finishing.
Whatever a writer’s natural speed, almost everyone wants to go faster. It’s not, as the old cliche would have it, that no one likes writing, but everyone likes having written. The problem is that writing is exceedingly solitary and one doesn’t know what one has until finished. FINISHED, finished. So even someone who can execute a novel in full (not rough draft) in three months, is walking through a dark tunnel for three months, with no affirmation, no “atta boys,” no encouragement.
It sucks. I’d give anything to go faster and I can write a book in eleven months. The way I see it, my work life is structured so that I have one truly happy day a year: Delivery and acceptance. If I were a writer still looking for a deal, that day would be the day my agent said, “Okay, this is ready to go out.” But that would be it. Please note, I’m not saying that’s the only time I’m happy. I like writing. I like the little vacation I take after completing a book, in which I let my mind empty and fill again. I like my life. But in my work, there’s only one day a year that I’m truly finished, and that’s the only day I’m truly happy. In our newspaper days, when we worked long and hard on something — a big Sunday feature that took two weeks, let’s say — some of us allowed ourselves a victory lap, or what one friend called “a day off at my desk.” But the next day, it was: What have you done for me lately? My novel-writing life is the same way, except that I get the day off at my desk only once a year instead of every few weeks. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.
(You might think good reviews feel like atta boys, but they don’t. A good review feels like someone admiring your photograph . . . from two years ago. By the time reviews arrive, one is onto the next project. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer good reviews, but I always wish I had a time machine so I could send the good reviews back to the Laura who was despairing over the book a year earlier.)
I’m telling you this, unpublished writer, because it’s my sense that you’re pushing too hard to cross the finish line and when you can’t execute quickly, you move on in despair.
I also think you might be showing your work too soon. Rough drafts should not be shown to anyone. A proper first draft is a Gorgon head; it should turn to stone anyone who gazes on it. It’s a monster. It’s your secret sibling, as in the film Basket Case. Don’t let anyone lift the lid.
The fact is, most people show their work too soon because they want praise. Again, it’s that terribly rhythm of long-range projects, the lack of feedback, the impossibility of knowing if you’re going the right way until you get there. But a rough draft won’t indicate that, even to the best reader. There’s just no point. When I was twelve or so, I once told my dad I was trying to write a novel. He asked me what it was about, and I told him in great detail. When I was finished, he told me: “But you should never ‘talk away’ your novel.” Perhaps not a great moment in parenting, but fabulous editing and my dad is an outstanding writer, temperamentally similar to me. Quick, almost too quick, which means one has to force one’s self to go a little more slowly, not settle for those words that come rushing out.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, easy for you to say, with your contract and your backlist.” The thing is, I make the same mistakes all the time. Tried to halve my writing time by changing up my process one year; it was about as successful as revving one’s engine while stuck in the snow. This year, I showed my work too early and was appalled that my editor actually had constructive suggestions for it.
My stepson asked me recently what it’s like to be edited. I told him that my editor is diagnostic but not prescriptive. She’s like a consumer with a big, fancy appliance that isn’t working correctly. She says: “The thing is, the Subzero isn’t very cold and all the food is spoiling.” I stomp around privately for three days, grumbling to myself: “Who says refrigerators have to be cold? I’m trying to do something NEW with refrigerators. The spoiled food is GENIUS.” And once that’s out of my system, I take the back off and get to work.
That’s what I did just this past spring. Showed too early, grumbled too much, went back to work. I turned my book in the Monday after Thanksgiving. I figured it out, by the way, solved an important problem, on Thanksgiving Day, while on a treadmill.
That got me to D&A. I celebrated. Then I went to work on the revision.
To sum up: Slow down. Find your natural speed limit. Don’t show your work too early. And if you can live without writing — by all means, do it.
Happy Holidays. Seriously. I’m sure you would have preferred a gift card with some serious cash attached, but this is the best present I have for you.