Before I finished the first novel I published, I had been writing novels for at least 10 years. Or, perhaps, almost writing them would be a better way to put it. I would start them and somewhere between the 1/3 and the 1/2 way mark, I would suddenly become gripped with the conviction that this was a terrible story. No one would want to read it, I should delete it and burn all my notes so that no one could every associate such a sophomoric, poorly written story with me.
And then one year, I finished National Novel Writing Month (where you write 50,000 words in 30 days) by doing one simple thing.
Okay, two simple things really.
- I refused to read anything I’d written except for perhaps a paragraph or two to get me going again.
- I refused to stop.
Both are easier said than done. The temptation to peek is insane! But don’t. Nothing will kill your story faster than reading it right now. So don’t do it!
And then, refuse to stop. Because chances are there will come a point where your story is going to get all self-conscious and it’s going to start talking to you.
Just past the one-third mark and slightly before the 1/2 mark that fateful November, I distinctly remember having this conversation multiple times with my novel.
Novel: “You should stop writing, I don’t think I’m a very good book.”
Me: “Shush. You’re doing just fine.”
Novel: “No, really, I know what I’m talking about, I don’t feel good about myself. This story is dry, it’s not going anywhere, and that last bit of dialogue… whew! I don’t even know where to start!”
Me: “Be quiet already, I’m trying to write.”
Novel: “You’re wasting your time! I’m like the worst thing ever written!”
Me: “You really shouldn’t run yourself down all the time, you know.”
Novel: “I know, but I’m just really depressed. I don’t have a good start, I’ve got way too much weight around my middle, and I don’t think I like where you’re taking me.”
Me: “Novel, stop it. You’re a shitty first draft [more on this in a second], that’s all you’re supposed to be, and you’re doing a marvelous job at it. So shush now and let me work. We’re going to be just fine.”
And then my novel settled down and discovered that there was something, after all, worth living for and we battled through to the middle of week three where things start looking better.
In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has this to say about first drafts:
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.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go–but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
That quote more than anything else helped me finish writing a novel (and get more in the works!) It was so freeing to be able to break down what I was trying to accomplish. I think every other time I sat down I was trying to write the “Great American Novel” in one draft. Which of course, is impossible and led to me giving up when I realized that not every word I had written was pure inspired genius. But write a shitty first draft? That I could do. So in order to succeed, let your inner artist child out! Send your inner editor on vacation, somewhere far away where he/she can people watch and critique so happily, he/she won’t have time to come back and bother you. Refuse to edit. Refuse to re-read except bare minimums to keep some continuity. Tell yourself, “I already fixed that” even if you didn’t, then write a note and keep going. Run away from the pages you’ve written like they are trying to destroy the rest of the book, cause they are. And when your book starts talking back to you, know that you’ve reached an important part of the process, tell it it’s a shitty first draft and keep going.
But mostly, keep going! (Did I say that already? Ah well, it bears repeating 😉 )
A. E. Howard is the author of the middle grade fantasy trilogy, The Keeper of the Keys Chronicles. After a near death experience at a traffic light, she passed a possum dying on the side of the road. She stopped, and with its dying breaths, the possum imparted a tale so wondrously strange, she drove home realizing the new world she’d been searching for was right there all along. So she embarked on a quest of mythic proportions, traveled far and wide to every obscure corner of this world to uncover its secrets.
Since then, her mind has been opened to various other worlds, invaded by characters of assorted reputations, and blown away by some hair-raising adventures.
Between chasing chickens off the porch and raising her son, A.E. Howard tells tales of the worlds in her heads and the ordinary heros who changed it all.
Flight of Blue: Keeper of the Keys Chronicles, Book 1
With the fabric of the world disintegrating, one boy must stand between the Darkness and everyone he loves.
When a wounded Opossum on the side of the road speaks, Kai’s view of the world is shattered. With the help of his friend, Ellie, he embarks on a journey to return the Opossum to his home. But a cursed traffic light, a rip in the fabric of the world, and an injured sorcerer on a quest for revenge means their journey only leads to more questions. As the Realm of Darkness threatens to push through and make his world vanish, Kai must uncover his parents’ past to find a way to close the rip between the Realms. But truth is more dangerous than illusion. As Kai struggles to wield his newly discovered magic, he must choose between accepting a role he hates, but was born to play, and abandoning everyone he loves.
- Reginald’s Tale (Spin-off novella in the Keeper of the Keys world).
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