Listen to the Mustn’ts

A few years ago, I went to the Rainforest Writers Retreat and started a novel. I’d been thinking about the book for a year or so, and I knew Lake Quinault would be the perfect backdrop for writing it. I got up early, drank a lot of coffee, stared out at the lake or sat roasting my feet in front of my fireplace, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. In the five days at the lake, I produced about 22,000 words, and some of it the finest I’ve ever produced. (And certainly the creepiest!)

Then I went home. Okay, I thought. You’re back to the real world. You don’t get to sit around looking at this all day–

Lake Quinault

–and then use this crazy process you used at the lake. You’ve been doing far too much editing and far too little drafting. All the blog posts I read over the years and all the cheerful “you can win Nanowrimo” pep talks told me that process would never work. So I said, you need to write this properly. You need a real outline. You need to power through and make a first sloppy first draft.

So I made my outline. I pushed onward with that book. And I never, ever finished it.

At some point, I looked at what I’d written and I saw that what I loved about my book stopped the minute I began writing my “sloppy first draft.” At the lake, I’d been writing in a cyclical sort of fashion–I’d write a bit, then go back and re-evaluate large swathes of text. I needed to consult with myself about the character: did the stuff I’d just written fit with what I knew about her character? Was the action in tune with the deeper problem? I wasn’t just messing with commas and adjectives; I was carefully rejiggering the vessel of my story and letting it inform my next steps. It was a slow process, but I enjoyed it, and I felt like I had complete control of my story.

When I plowed through the draft, I somehow lost touch with my story. When I created my outline, I crafted a solid plot, but it didn’t come together inside my characters. They felt like flimsy cutouts clinging to a felt board, held on by the velcro of my will.

I have written three and a half novels since that one. Two were drafted as tie-ins for the Pathfinder role-playing game, and they were rigorously outlined before I started writing them. Perhaps because the main character of these books is tremendously well-defined in my mind–she felt like her own, entire person before I ever started writing the first short story about her–I had no problem writing those stories in a straight through messy first draft style. But a third novel, a YA SF book about pirates, drug dealers, and boxing, never really came together. The action was exciting, the world intriguing, but the characters floated along the surface, never quite connecting to their world. Even a thorough rewrite didn’t help it much.

Having two books fail broke my heart. I didn’t see it happening at the time, but when I looked back at my feelings about writing since the day I gave up on that creepy novel, I saw that I’d been deeply depressed about writing. Even finishing two fun Pathfinder novels didn’t make me feel better. Why? I think because I had found a method of writing that felt deeply and wonderfully satisfying, but I turned my back to it because it wasn’t the “right” way to write a book. If I couldn’t trust my instincts, how could I trust my work?

Now I’m writing a new book, and I am throwing out the advice I’ve gotten from all the big writing advice folks. I am not going to make a messy first draft. I am not going to write as fast as I can without looking back over my work. I will make an outline, but I will keep re-reading and editing my work as I go. If I have to re-write half my scenes and then find I have to cut them after they’ve been polished to the sheen of diamonds, so be it. For me, it’s better to waste some time than to be demoralized by my work.

You know, I have completed seven novels and sold three (one of which was never published because the publisher went under). I’ve sold more than thirty short stories. My first actual novel came out last year. And I still don’t know how to write a book!

Somewhere, Neil Gaiman has a story about finishing American Gods and then telling a writer friend he thought he had finally learned how to write a novel. And the friend told him that no, now he knew how to write that novel. And of course, he’s totally right. Every single thing you write will have its own unique process.

So don’t throw out any advice forever, but don’t take any of it too seriously. Remember, as Shel Silverstein said, to “listen to the MUSTN’TS”–but also remember how he ends the poem: “Anything can happen, child, / ANYTHING can be.”

We’re all learning every day, and with any luck, we’re all getting better at this writing stuff.

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  • Alma Alexander

    Oh, sweetie. There is only one rule when it comes to writing, and that rule is There Are No Rules. You have to write the way the story calls you – and if you have found that way but turned your back on it because of something somebody else told you… just don’t. Nobody else can write your books, only you can do it, and only in teh way that YOU see fit. Writing books by other people’s rules produces, at best, other people’s books, ones you cannot ever quite connect to yoursef – and at worst it produces what you call “failures”. Let go. Do what YOU need to do. And don’t let anyone tell you what the “right” way is to write a book. They’re all travelling their own roads. You have to find yours. Yours is no better or worse, intrinsically, than anyone else’s – but it is the only one that will lead you, specifically, to the place where you want to go. Everyone else’s maps (while perfectly wonderful for them, and their own destinations) are not ones that match to your own inner landscapes.

    You need to find your own words, at your own pace,, in theplaces where you know they live. THAT is the only rule. Go write. 🙂

  • Great post, Wendy. Thanks for sharing your experience and frustrations.
    Trying to write a novel by another’s rules is like trying to be your true self by doing what others do. It can’t work. Each manuscript is so different that what we find works one time mightn’t for the next. The last novel I wrote took five weeks to draft and little rewriting; the previous one took over a year. I think much depends on how the story fits in your head.

    Best of luck with the new novel.