Book deals come and go. A working writer has to write through all the good and bad times. We need to develop useful habits and traits if we are going to be one of the people who “make it” in the long run, who write for the whole of their lives or as long as they wish to, anyway.
So what are these traits?
Successful writers do not rush through their writing
I wince every time I read the advice that writers should race through their novel draft as quickly as possible in order to “get it all down on paper.” I think this is some of the worst advice anyone can give a serious writer.
I’m not saying you can’t do it, or that there is never any benefit all all. Every writer has a slightly different process and perhaps a superfast first draft is part of yours. If you are driven by a passion for the story and its characters, go as fast as you’d like. As long as it isn’t forced, you are doing well.
Or maybe you need to plow though a particular scene over which you are procrastinating. That’s okay once in awhile–do it.
As I’ve said in the blogs, counting pages or words isn’t a great idea in my opinion, but a steady commitment to writing certainly is. If you go so slow it is difficult to tell you are a working writer at all, you will lose that addictive feeling that drives you on. If you race through your whole of your manuscript, you may finish, but what is the value of an artless clump of pages? Have you robbed it of the very life force that will make it worth reading?
Excellence is not something you can infuse into a book later, but an amorphous bit of magic that threads itself through the whole concept of the book from the very beginning. You cannot go back and import excellence into a book with no life. It would be like putting make up on a corpse.
John Gardner, who was a wonderful writer himself as well as, famously the creative writing teacher of Raymond Carver when he taught at Chico State College (now California State University, Chico), warned against rushing through a manuscript. He was amazed that anyone would feel it was correct to get through the story as fast as possible as though running through a cemetery at night.
And yet, this is exactly the advice so many of us are given. Why should we rush so, when the quality of our prose depends upon precise observations, accuracy of description, a “feel” we develop for character and setting? When we rush, our characters will be “forced” into doing things that make no sense, given who they are, if indeed there has been any character development at all.
However, we feel we need to get quickly through to the end of our draft because we haven’t yet produced a book and are worried we won’t. We take the “write as fast as you can” approach because we are afraid that if we don’t, there will never be any novel at all.
And that is the point, we are afraid.
What we need to address is not our inability to finish a book, but our fear of not doing so, perhaps our fear of writing, itself. Our relationship to the blank page is the most important one we have as writers. We must see it as an opportunity, not as a threat. We must make friends with the inventiveness that allows us to create with freedom and confidence.
Considered, honest first drafts contain that kernel of brilliance that drives the whole book, the freshness that makes it so appealing and which will be enhanced in later drafts. If you rob yourself of that freshness, of that insight and private vision at the outset, your book will suffer.
Racing through a novel is like standing at a canvas and throwing paint. You are depriving yourself of the activity that defines you as a writer – that is, writing—and the only part of the process over which you have any real control. Later, you will have editors and copywriters and proofreaders and then actual readers, all of whom will have their opinions. But right now it is only you and the manuscript. Or perhaps you and the notional reader. Anyway, you are in the driver’s seat. Don’t give up the wheel to some wrong-headed, utilitarian idea.
Think about your relationship to your work. Don’t be afraid. Don’t compare where you are in your career to others. Don’t worry about what anyone else will think right now. Enjoy the one part that is truly your own, the creation of the work itself.
John Gardner has some inspiring words about what will happen if you do that. In his excellent book, On Becoming A Novelist, he says, “But the writer who sets down exactly what he sees and feels, carefully revising time after time until he fully believes it, noticing when what he’s saying is mere rhetoric or derivative vision, noticing when what he’s said is not noble or impressive but silly—that writer, insofar as the world is just, will outlast Gibraltar.”