7.19.2011

million-word apprenticeship

So.  Let's talk failure, shall we?

The first novel I ever wrote was - well, it was a first novel.  It had a massive outline filled with characters I didn't know all that well, which didn't bother me in the least.  So what if my main character wouldn't ever actually say that thing he just said?  I needed him to say it, because then Secondary Character Who Exists for this Very Purpose could respond just so, and the plot would move forward like I'd planned.  DUH.

I had an outline.  Those characters had places to be.  I didn't have time to sit around waiting for them to react organically; if I just let things just unfold, they might surprise me... and then what would happen to my story?  Improvising wasn't part of the plan!  I have a plan for you, characters!  Trust me!  IT ALL MAKES SENSE IF YOU READ THE OUTLINE!  STOP WHINING!  THIS ISN'T THAT HARD!

That was my philosophy the first time around: keep your head down, ignore your characters, and stick to the outline no matter what.  Shockingly, that first draft was... terrible.  Terrible.  The characters were one-dimensional, the writing was flat, the pacing was way off. 

"Ah.  Must have been the outline," I thought to myself.  I nodded sagely and got back to work.

Attempt number two was a complete re-write of the first.  This time, I was armed with a new-and-improved monster outline, a couple writing classes, and a ton of books and blogs on setting and character and plot and pace.

I got through re-writing about a third of the book before I realized, with a growing sense of dread, that it still wasn't working.  *gulp*  Things just weren't coming together.  The thing is, the farther I got, the clearer it became that this manuscript was going to need at least one more major overhaul to make it work.  I'd arrived at one of those forks-in-the-road that makes for such good drama in fiction, and such awful angst in life: should I keep fighting the good fight, or was it wiser to know when to say enough is enough?

Finally I made what was, for me, a really tough decision.  I stopped.  Put the manuscript away, told my characters we needed a break, said a quiet little goodbye to them.  I intended to come back - I still intend to come back.  But I just... couldn't make that manuscript work.  That was not the story I was meant to tell at that moment.  And the idea of plowing through it - for the third time - was enough to make me forget why I loved writing in the first place.

As you might imagine, this was not a very happy time in my brain.  It felt like failure, walking away from everything I'd been working on.  It seemed like such a colossal waste of my time and energy.  After all, what had I gained?  All those hours, all that thinking and writing and gritting my teeth, and all I had to show for it were thousands and thousands of useless words.

Except.

Except when I picked up a pen again... something had changed.  This time around, my brain was all: Wait a minute!  I've done this before!  No sirrie, not going to make those mistakes again!  How about instead of that, we do this?  Try that!  Plan for this!  Nope, not that - let our characters figure that out!

It wasn't like I'd turned into an expert overnight, but it didn't feel like I was fumbling around in the darkness anymore.  I'd built myself a lantern out of all those useless words.

Here's the thing.  Writing is a craft, and it's something you can only learn by doing.  You can read about how to write (and you should), you can listen to what other people do and try it out for yourself (and you should) - but ultimately, you don't begin to understand how to spin stories out of nothing until you put pen to paper and do it.  And you know what?  Your first attempts might suck.  Hard.  Because it takes practice to make words fit together like joints, to make stories flow like streams.  It takes attempting to write a novel to figure out whether you're a plotter or a pantser.  It takes totally short-shrifting your characters to realize that they're the ones running the show.

They say it takes a million written words to turn you into a writer: that each word, each attempt at creation is inevitably better than what came before.  And so I refuse to see that first manuscript as a failure.  It wasn't a failure, or a waste of time, or anything I ought to regret.

It was just another step in my million-word apprenticeship.

The truth is:

There is no such thing as a wasted word. 

The truth is:

You can't fail. 

...so what are you waiting for?

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