What the Best Writers Know about Making It Work

Sometimes hating your novel is part of the process. That is not a cosmic joke to rail against. It just is. You will sometimes actually hate the process of writing your novel even as you fully understand that there can be no other process, no way around it. This disliking, this worrying, this fearing the worst, this plodding rather than soaring, all this is sometimes part of the process . . . You can choose to say, “I can do this even though it hurts.” That honors the process. Or you can dishonor the process by fantasizing that it must be different for luckier mortals. You can suppose that some writer somewhere, whom you envy and hate, is dashing off beautiful page after beautiful page, turning out masterpieces with ridiculous ease, laughing all the way to the computer and back, doing his effortless genius thing while you refuse to get out of bed. You can fantasize in this fashion to let yourself off the hook and avoid the reality of the process. Don’t. . . . [Much] of the time you are writing your novel you may not be pleased with it. Embrace that! Stop wishing it were otherwise. Stop avoiding nature. Stop hoping that reality were more like a pleasant dream. Stop craving the fantasy that you are a genius and that everything that flows from your pen will be honey. Embrace the reality that some of what you produce will be inspired, that some of what you produce will be dull, and that there will never be a substitute for showing up and moving your fingers over the keyboard.

—Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within

I love hearing the story behind the story: how the author got the idea; how the idea progressed; the author’s struggles and successes with it. Getting a peak “behind the scenes” makes both the book and the author less intimidating, more human.

This weekend I read the mega-bestseller The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In Green’s acknowledgements, he thanks his editor and publisher “who stuck with this story through many years of twists and turns . . . ” I sleuthed around online and discovered a Question and Answer page on Green’s website that talks about the story behind The Fault in Our Stars and the story behind his life as a writer in general:

Q. Are you currently working on a novel? A. Yes, I am always working on a novel, although I guess it depends on how you define “working” and “on.” I’ve become very superstitious, however, about saying more than that, because while I was writing the book that became The Fault in Our Stars, I promised many different stories – a zombie apocalypse novel, a novel about kids stranded on a desert island – and then delivered a very different book. [The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of two teenagers that have cancer and are grappling with mortality.]

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block? A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts . . . so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway.

How many of us give ourselves permission to suck in our writing? And I mean really stink it up—not just kind of, but really letting things get appallingly bad.

I think most of us know deep down that every story has to start out ugly before it can get pretty, yet we still don’t give ourselves the space to mess up. And ironically, that is exactly what separates the professional writers from the wanna-be writers:

Professionals want it badly enough that they give themselves permission to suck.

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

—Maya Angelou

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

—Octavia Butler

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

—Anne Lammott

Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.

—Stephen King

The good news is, it’s never too late to give yourself permission to suck. The beginning of your life as a writer may already be set in stone and it may not have gotten off to a great start, but it’s still in your hands to decide if you’re going to end your writing life. You certainly can if you want to. But if you’re not ready to say goodbye, if there’s still a shred of a writer left in you that’s desperate to stay alive, then let your writing suck. It’s how all of the best writers make it to the top.

The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.

—Diana Gabaldon

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