(Sunday Thought) The Hard Thing

Dear aspiring novelist,

Thank you for your letter. I don’t wish to offend. But I’ve been asked that question before, and I’ve learned something like the following is the best advice I can give. It may or may not be good advice.

No one is born knowing how to write a novel. Some spring writers succumb to the idea that if they just work hard enough — and want it bad enough — they can create something compellingly good their first time at bat. Probably not. (Imagine a surgeon believing that.) Probably we’ll need to practice, where practice doesn’t mean writing and rewriting paragraphs and chapters. A surgeon isn’t a surgeon because she’s really good at cutting, and we’re not chapterists. We’re novelists. That means we’re probably going to have to write a few novels before we’re any good. (An author’s first published novel is rarely their first novel written.) There are exceptions, but probably you’re not one. I wasn’t either.

That’s not to be discouraging. I encourage everyone to write a book. I even convinced my 70-year-old father, who blames me entirely for the cowboy trilogy he’s almost finished. I think there’s value in writing, as there is in learning a musical instrument or foreign language, even where you don’t intend to become a musician or interpreter. But there’s a difference between learning the guitar for personal growth and playing it professionally, where you expect people will pay you for the pleasure of listening, just as there is a difference between running a marathon for the challenge and competing to win. I doubt very many pro runners win their first marathon. I expect they have to lose a few first.

There’s something about writing a novel that makes people think it’s not like those other things, that it’s something they can sufficiently master the first time out, whereas you hardly hear anyone say they want to compose a symphony, just one, and have it played by the Royal Philharmonic.

I am not surprised you are struggling. The bad news is, it’s not immediately going to get easier. The good news is, the struggle is where you learn.

Definitely don’t write anything you’re not excited to write. Our words are our babies. If you’re not excited about yours, no one else will be by a long shot. Readers are not forgiving. And they can smell a cheat. It’s hard enough to convince them to give you a chance. You don’t get a second. And remember, if you’re going to do it professionally, you’re not going for the sale. The few dollars or whatever you make isn’t even going to buy you a coffee. You’re going for the recommendation, and you’re not going to get it if you know or even suspect a big chunk of your book is a slog. That’s point number one.

Point number two you already mentioned: editing. There is no version of this book that won’t require major rewrites before it’s worth reading. Accept that in your bones, and accept that you can’t get to the second draft until the first is done. So, finish it.

That might seem to contradict the first bit about not forcing it. Here, there’s some advice from one of the big name fantasy authors (I forget who) that applies. It’s simple: Get there. Are your characters planning a heist? Get there. As soon as they decide on the idea, cut to it in the next chapter and let the reader figure out the plan as it unfolds — and then goes horribly wrong. You as the author need to know what the characters did in the intervening time, but the reader doesn’t. Get there.

I don’t know what that means specifically for your work in progress. It seems to me a journey of some distance through a ravaged land gives ample space to explore, by adventure, the world you’ve created, but if you’re not excited about the opportunity, get there. You have to write the story that comes out, not the one you wished had come out. And keep in mind that just because you have a novel-sized space doesn’t mean any idea will fill it. I’m not saying that’s the problem. I genuinely don’t know. But there’s nothing that necessitates every idea for a novel actually is a novel. Some of the worst novels I’ve read probably would’ve made excellent short stories. (I think Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of all time, and he never wrote a single novel. It was all shorts.)

What you absolutely should not do is write filler to, say, turn a novella into a novel. (I started out writing novellas, which became The Minus Faction.) Instead, get there, even if the story seems awkward as a result. Finish the damned draft. Get it down using only the parts that excite you and then see what you have. Often, the mere act of writing spurs more, but if you get to the end and find your story is not a novel and you think it should be, then address that in the second draft, along with whatever else needs addressing. It’s your first time, so you may need four or more major rewrites, where you cut and delete large chunks, perhaps even the majority of the manuscript, before you can’t make the story any better. Don’t get discouraged by that. We learn by doing, so regardless of the outcome, your second novel will definitely be easier. People may even pay you for it.