Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Just write

This morning I got an e-mail from a new writer who was frustrated because she'd allowed a published author to critique the first chapter of the novel she's working on and she didn't like what that individual had to say about her work.

My heart goes out to this writer because it sounds like she's trying too hard. Instead of having some fun and allowing herself to be swept into an exciting new world, she's focusing on a single chapter (which is, I believe, all she has written so far) and what one person thinks of it. I hope this experience doesn't turn her away from writing.

Critique partners, groups, and services have been useful to many writers, but I think my friend has made a mistake. I advised her to finish the manuscript and then ask someone to critique it. I think she ought to prove to herself that she can conceive a plot and produce a finished, polished manuscript before she starts worrying about whether her work is salable.

If your writing gives you joy, you're doing great. Even if you never sell, you'll have known the pleasure of writing. And if you view all of your writing as practice for more and better writing; that is, if you can learn to appreciate and enjoy the process of writing, you'll keep at it--and you won't be able to help getting better at it.

There's a difference between wanting to write and wanting to be a published writer. That's why I always advise new writers to finish their manuscripts before they start worrying about how good their writing is. Finishing a manuscript is a tremendous accomplishment. If you can do that, you just might have a chance of getting published. If you can't do that, you're wasting your time. No matter how many glowing critiques you get on those first few chapters, you're not going to make it as a writer.

It's not enough to write well. Some wildly talented writers lack the talent or the discipline--and it definitely requires both--to tell a good story from start to finish. So I'd advise all of you who are dabbling at novel-writing to stop worrying about whether you're any good and just finish your manuscripts. If you can manage that, I believe you'll find that craft is something you can (and should) learn as you go. Nobody ever reaches perfection; all of the published writers I know are still honing their skills.


lindaruth said...

I know what you're saying, Brenda. My family didn't think I'd finish my novel -- and why should they? I have a huge stack of half-finished craft projects as proof of my lack of discipline. But I kept at it and even though it took me something like 4 years, I wrote the story from beginning to end. It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. :) And that's fueled my desire to keep writing. So even if nothing much comes of it as the rest of world sees it, I'm doing something I enjoy and I think I'm getting better. And I didn't let anybody else see the novel until it was finished.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agree with lindaruth. I finished my first manuscript and started on a second. No prospects for the first, yet, but I love to tell stories, so I continue to write.

Kristin said...

My first took 2 1/2 years to complete and has a ton of problems. But my 2nd book is halfway done, and it only took me 3 1/2 months to get this far. And, may I say, it is much better than my first attempt.

I see that first book as a trial run. I could have taken a class in how to write a good novel, and I wouldn't have listened to one bit of it. I am the kind of person that must learn by doing, making tons of mistakes along the way. Then, I figure out what works, what doesn't, what's lacking, etc.

Brenda Coulter said...

A friend told me recently that it had taken her six years to complete her first manuscript. I was awestruck. I could never have kept with it for so long!

Let me just add that when I referred to people who "dabble" at writing, I was not disparaging anyone. There's nothing wrong with dabbling. I'm a great believer in dabbling. All I wanted to do here was encourage those writers who believe they must get the first chapter perfect before they move on to just write their stories and have some fun.

Anonymous said...

I guess I wonder if this person you mention thought the pubbed author was gonna gush and declare the chapter perfect?

I mean, shoot, there have been published first chapters in bona fide books that I thought were lacking, so why wouldn't my first or second draft need work? ;)

I am, for the first time in 2.5 years, enjoying my writing again. I hadn't realized until AFTER she passed away, how much the my mother's illness and death had taken out of me. And it's taken me a year plus after her passing to totally shake off the blues.

My problem had never been ideas or terrible craft. My problem, as you mentioned, is discipline. So, it's been a month of writing nearly every day and taking joy in it again. My amalgamation of genres will likely be unsellable, but there is still that feeling of, "Oh, this is nice. This makes me feel more myself."

So, for the "one chapter" person bummed by the critique--take the criticism (cause writers gotta learn that one way or another) and squeeze all the joy out of creating a story that you can, because that will always be your reward, especially should the publishing powers-that-be say nay.

Plus, it keeps your brain young, I'm told.


pacatrue said...

I think I agree with Brenda. Finish the manuscript. That's the main thing. If you wanna show a chapter to someone to see if it has any emotional pull to someone else, then go for it. But you are doing nothing other than feeling things out. It says little about the end point. Otherwise, just finish. But when you finish, know that, if you really wanted to write a good novel, a novel that is worth someone's time to read, then you just started. You might have to, when done, take the ideas that you finally worked through, and re-write the whole thing. You may spend more time re-writing it than you did writing it. Only the most experienced and gifted write a book, make a few tweaks, and send it off for publication. I am reminded of some account of Spielberg's current movie making. At this point in his career, he pretty much storyboards every single thing right from the beginning. Then everyone just runs off and does it. But that's a director who has completely honed his craft (others can decide about his art, but his craft is clear). I have a feeling, however, that his first couple projects weren't quite so clean in production.