This week, I’ve been having a conversation with a writer who is frustrated by how long his book is taking to get published – 16 months from the day he started writing – and by the fact that I have told him he needs to return to the manuscript for significant revision before it’s even ready for editing. He doesn’t want to return to the manuscript. He’s written down the words, and now, he thinks the book should just get edited and then, magically, published.
I find he expresses much of what I see in the conversations about writing today, much that troubles me, in fact. If I could tell newer writers four things about writing and the hope to “finish” and publish, I would say:
1. Writing is not quick. Most of us don’t produce a work of substance in a week and then publish it the next. For any work of depth, anything that requires research or nuance of character or complex ideas and story lines, the process can take much longer – at least months, maybe years.
2. Writing is not linear. It’s not something that follows a ten-step process, no matter what all those writing blogs say. Most writers don’t sit down and write word one and end with word 95,388. Most of us start and then restart and then scrap the start and then write the middle and then the end and then rewrite the middle. It’s best to think of writing as one of those looped, figure-eight drawings we learned to do in kindergarten. The ones where you put down a crayon and draw interlocking figure-eights on a page and then color them in. That’s more like writing than any straight line I’ve ever seen.
3. Writing requires skill. It’s not something everyone does well right away. Simply because a writer knows words and how to string them together into phrases and sentences does not mean the writing is ready. And if the writer doesn’t know how to write sentences and paragraphs, then no matter how compelling the story, the work still needs work. Writing requires understanding of grammar and sentence structure, of the effective use of white space, of the methods to build suspense and momentum, of the way to leave an ending finished but not final and solid. All of these pieces of knowledge require skill to execute, and skill takes practice, lots and lots and lots of practice, practice that never ends.
4. Writing requires that you read. Much of this knowledge about pacing and structure and language can be picked up through reading and reading a lot. A writer must read, often and much. I know I’ve said this before, but it seems to bear saying again since I keep reading manuscripts that show the reader does not read since s/he doesn’t understand what goes in the main text and what in a footnote, since any idea of suspense or structure is supplanted by a brain dump in the first paragraph, or since clearly the writer does not realize that a vampire story set in Transylvania has been done before.
Writing is hard – not coal mining hard, not teaching PE to middle schoolers hard – but hard. Harder than we often make it out to be with our 5 steps to great writing lists and our idea that we can produce books in months and make loads of money (which apparently, some people do, but no literary writers of depth that I know). Writing is art. It takes work. Lots of it.
And for me, it’s the work that holds the main value, not the product. I wish more writers found value in the process, too. I suspect then we ‘d have more good work.