Thank you, Mr. Hemingway, for providing some much needed encouragement today.
I am writing a book – well it’s a novel – historical fiction, to be specific. I am slightly terrified to put that out there on a public blog… but here goes nothing.
Hemingway’s quote is even true of this particular blog post. I revised this draft about three times over the past two weeks – but mostly because I’m learning new things about writing every day. But I finally realized precisely what it is that I’m learning. Do you want to know what it is? Brace yourself, it’s very profound… here it is: I have no idea what I’m doing.
Thankfully, I’m also learning that EVERY SINGLE person who has ever sat down to write a book for the first time has felt this way.
Some days I like some of what I’ve already written. A few of the emotional scenes made me cry the other day when I sat down to run through some of it. That’s a good sign, right? …Or it might be a very bad sign… like when you laugh at your own jokes.
On other days, I loathe each and every word I’ve written. It’s one of the most discouraging feelings in the world – to put so much time into something and come to find out that you absolutely hate it.
But it’s helpful to know that everyone has felt this way – from Hemingway to Capote. Not that I will ever put myself in the same universe as those guys in terms of talent – but if they felt that way, surely it’s OK for me to feel that way too, right?
So why in the world am I putting myself through this torture? Well, mostly because the story itself ambushed me. It jumped into my head and stuck there – it demanded to be told. The characters came alive in my head. I know them so well at this point that I can imagine what they’d say if they sat down across the table from me right here, right now. And when that happens, you just can’t walk around like a crazy person, talking to imaginary people – you have to get that story out!
I’m not sure how many first time novel writers start out that way, but I’m finding out that while it might be a common, and even necessary, beginning – it is a rather naive one. You rush to get all of the fragments of story out onto a blank page. You think that you’ve spent “enough” time outlining, and you jump into it, thinking that your own creativity will make up for your “light” outlining. Then you reach the middle of it, and you look back at what you’ve done and you look forward at what you need to do, and you reach a kind of impasse.
In order to go back and fix all of the issues with what I’ve written so far and figure out how to write the second half, I have to get down into the nitty gritty, which has required some actual study. I am learning about the mechanics of story structure, plot, and character development. I’m learning about the pitfalls of spelling things out too much and not giving the reader enough credit to put two and two together. I’m learning about the difference between putting my characters in “situations” versus real “conflicts” that offer a point of actionable departure. I’m learning to show things instead of tell things. And most importantly, I’m learning not to go grab a book off of my shelf and compare what I’ve just written to somebody else. (That only ends badly.)
Most people who know that I’m doing this ask me what I’m going to do with it when I’m done. I usually say that my first goal is just to finish it – honestly that would be a feat in itself. After that, well, it depends on how I feel about it. I hope it is something that I feel good enough about to let other people read, or try to publish somehow. But it might not be. So don’t get your hopes up.
All right, time to shut up and write.