At the Risk of Sounding Like a Broken Record: You Learn to Write by Writing

When I travel, I almost always bring work along, but the kind of work depends on the kind of travel. For me, writing and revising require a level of focus that itself requires periods of planned, uninterrupted alone time. (“Planned” meaning “anticipated.” The uninterrupted alone time can happen on the spur of the moment, but I have to know at the time it begins that it’s happening. In other words, I need to be confident that I will not be interrupted in the next however-long. In (other) other words — if I believe the cable guy is coming, then that’s not good writing time, even if it turns out that the cable guy never comes. Also, when the cable guy doesn’t come, WOW do I ever hate him for ruining my writing time for nothing. But I digress.)

As it happens, planned uninterrupted alone time does not occur very often when one has traveled to a house of twin babies. :o)

Therefore, last week, when I went to Florida, I did not bring writing or revising work. Instead, I brought a little bit of planning work for a couple of future projects I’m contemplating, and I brought the manuscript of the first novel I ever wrote.

I wrote a practice novel before I ever wrote Graceling, although, of course, I didn’t think of it as a practice novel at the time. It’s a middle-grade realistic novel about a 12-year-old girl who lives in a rural community and is dealing with issues of (lack of) popularity, a best friend’s illness, financial stresses, and questions about her own faith. This is the novel I mentioned the other day when I answered a few FAQs about writing — it’s the book I started writing at the end of my time at Simmons.

I brought this manuscript to Florida in case I had time to read it again (for the first time in years) and decide whether it’s worth trying to fix up and publish. One afternoon, while the girls both took miraculous 2+ hour naps at the same time, I sat on the couch reading it while secret codename: Cordelia sat at the table, doing some paperwork. (In addition to being the mother of two 14-month-olds, a wife, a volunteer at a camp for grieving children, a runner, and an awesome sister, Cordelia is a licensed therapist who works with kids aged kindergarten through high school.) Cordelia knew enough not to ask me what I was working on, but at a certain point, I felt like maybe I should explain to her why I kept grimacing and moaning and tragically grabbing my hair.

I said to her, “I wish I could publish this book exactly as it is right now, so that beginning writers out there could read it, and see how AWFUL it is, and take heart. I wish they could see how corny the dialog is; how the prose is straining, so obviously, to be more poetic than I was capable of making it; how unoriginal the conflict is; how much it reads like a practice novel. If beginning writers could read this, I think it could give them hope for their own work. Yeah, Graceling is full of flaws and things I wish I’d done differently, but it’s SO much better than this, because I wrote this practice one first. I mean, I’m even reading this in its 5th or 6th revision — and it’s still so awful!”

Guys? It really is awful.

Writers need to have objectivity to write a good book. We need to write that first (or second or fifth) draft and be able to see that it’s awful, so that then we can figure out how to fix it. When a writer tells you that her work-in-progress is awful — don’t jump to the conclusion that she has low self-esteem. She’s probably just telling the truth. Being able to see a book’s flaws is the first step in trying to make it better, trying to get it closer to the dream you had in your heart and head when you started.

(If you don’t believe me, read Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog post in which she reveals the The Big Secret of Writing. I LOVE that blog post.)

Cordelia knows how awful this first book is, because she’s the first person who ever read it (in its earliest, most awful incarnation!) and gave me constructive feedback. She didn’t disagree with anything I said last week, but she also said, “Still, I really liked that book.”

I asked her, “What did you like about it?”

She said, “I liked the cat, and the sewing, and following the main character’s thoughts as she explored her faith. I liked the overarching concept.”

This made me happy, because these are a few of the things I like about the book, too. These are the rare parts of the book that I think succeed at expressing whatever I was trying to get at.

After last week’s reading, I’ve decided *not* to revise this book. But that doesn’t mean I’m abandoning it. I think that what I’ll want to do at some point — when I don’t have so many other ideas clamoring for my attention — is rewrite it entirely, starting almost completely from scratch. Maybe with a very similar plot — maybe not — but definitely with brand new prose and dialog, except for a few bits that I love from the original. Because even though the book is currently awful, I can see what I was trying to do, and I have Cordelia’s assurances — and the assurances of a couple other readers — that there is something in there worth taking another crack at. I think that someday in the future, I’ll be ready enough, and good enough, to try it again, and do it better.

Writers out there: be patient with your craft; take heart; do your best; and, keep writing.