Chuck Wendig recently announced a new series over on his blog, where writers tell five things they learned while writing a story. I like this idea. I like it a lot. He’s only opening it up to traditionally published writers, and I get that. He has sound reasons for that. And honestly, I doubt the highly experienced crowd over there has much to learn from self-pub newbies.
But since I just finished writing a story, I decided to make a list of my own. Because I did learn some stuff that’s maybe worth contemplating.
I don’t feel qualified to give writing advice, that’s not my intent here, but perhaps some other embryonic writer will stumble across this someday and find it helpful.
1.) Deadlines are more effective with significant consequences
Obviously, not everyone has this problem. But I’m pretty much an expert-level procrastinator. I’ve set writing goals before, with mixed success. This time was different, for two reasons.
First, I publicly promised people I care about that I was giving them something for the holidays (goal: 12-25). Pretty sure they knew it was a story. Since it was supposed to be a short story, I figured I had plenty of time. HA! Writing short is hard and I don’t have the skill for it. I should have known this would be a longer piece, that it would take more time. I started writing it on December 3. What was I thinking? Talk about a ticking clock.
Second, I asked one of my sisters, a graphic artist, whether she’d make a cover for me. She not only agreed, she started working on it immediately. Even though I told her there was no rush, because I WAS STILL WRITING THE STORY. But no, she was off and running. Er, drawing. An original hand-drawn creation (and it’s gorgeous) is no small undertaking for an artist who has MG, as my sister does. No way in hell was I going to tell her I didn’t need a cover after all.
Those two things combined were a perfect storm of unacceptable consequences for not finishing. I hesitate to even say this, for several reasons, but I learned that I can indeed write 25,600 words in two weeks and spend a week editing it down to 27,000 words [sigh] and then publish the thing.
2.) Sometimes speed is your friend
I don’t necessarily recommend writing and editing and publishing a novella in three weeks. Really. I guarantee you, there are sensible people reading this right now who are recoiling in horror at the very thought. Hell, I’m a bit horrified myself and I’m the one who did it.
However. If you’re like me and tend to take forever writing a thing and edit it to death as you go and then second-guess yourself into paralysis, this approach might be something to consider.
I didn’t have time to stop and edit. Each day, I’d briefly skim over the previous day’s work and wade right back into writing. At the end of the day, I’d jot a few quick notes about things to come. There were a ton of notes that said “XXfix this later.”
But I learned that my brain is doing things I’m not consciously aware of and that some of the things I would have deleted if I’d had time to edit as I went turned out to be important to the story. I’ve heard other writers say this, but didn’t quite believe my brain was doing that.
For instance, early in the story when Jo was lost in the snowstorm, she thought longingly about finding a loving family who would offer shelter. It was a stupid thought. If I’d had time, I would have deleted and re-written that part immediately. I realized later, much later, that finding a community of loving people who treated her like family turned out to be an important theme. That’s not something I set out to do.
There were a bunch of things like that, so many that it was sort of shocking. Little seeds planted unintentionally that turned out to be significant.
When I decided Jo wrote stories for children and then named the rabbit Steve, I added a note: “XXthis is stupid, fix it.” I had no idea at the time how important that would be. Or that Mac knew how to whittle. And it turns out people kind of liked that stupid rabbit.
And you know what? It was fun. I had a blast writing this story, free from the self-criticism of constant editing.
3.) Editing is SO important
Okay, this isn’t something I learned writing this story. I’ve always known this. But I can’t just not say this, in light of item #2.
I like to think the mechanics of my writing are pretty solid, in terms of spelling and grammar and (unless you’re overly fond of commas) punctuation. I’ve had years of practice. When I say I wrote the story in two weeks, what that really means is it took me a dozen-plus years of writing and studying craft and a lifetime of reading to write it that fast.
With the deadline I’d given myself, and it being right before the holidays, there wasn’t time to find a professional editor who wouldn’t try to have me killed just for asking. Possibly a dumb decision, but in this particular instance (see #4), I have no regrets. At all.
A week to edit a novella? That’s really pushing it. You can’t just run spell check and be done. That’s not editing. I did enlist the help of a very savvy reader friend and she gave great feedback on an early draft. But as a writer there are things I’m aware of, and responsible for, that a reader might never notice.
It helps that I know the type of stuff I tend to screw up. I skip words. Just leave them out entirely. It’s hard to catch that, even when you know to look for it.
I write things like, “She stood up and walked over to the window and looked out and saw…” GAH. That’s fine for a first draft, but you need to fix that crap.
Also, after reading so many romances, I tend to use familiar or clichéd phrases. It’s lazy writing. At one point, I wrote that Jo “wrenched away” when Mac put a hand on her arm. It sounded like he was being physically aggressive. Only he wasn’t. In the final version, she “shrugged it off.” Little thing, big difference.
And since my mind is always in the gutter and I see innuendo everywhere, I changed “he turned his phone on” to “he turned on his phone.”
Word choice, word order. It matters. I spent more time editing in the span of a week than I spent writing during the previous two.
That said, I am absofuckinglutely sure there are still mistakes in it, both large and small. Especially on the developmental, story structure level. I have no doubt whatsoever there are things in that story I’ll look back on in the future, probably next week, and wish I’d done differently or better or not at all.
3-1/2.) A bonus thing, since the last point wasn’t a new thing I learned
It’s a bad idea to publish a 27,000-word story in 11 posts on your blog. What can I say, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was wrong. Don’t do this. It’s irritating and frustrating and breaks the flow and is not the way you want readers to experience your story.
4.) It feels so fucking good to “finish your shit”
Credit to Wendig for that particular expression, but it’s a universal truth. This story isn’t the first thing I’ve finished. It’s not even the first thing I’ve published. But it is the first time I’ve finished a piece of fiction and then shoved it out into the world. (I’m being quite literal here. I’ve never even sent out a query.)
It’s not perfect. It might not even be particularly good. But, you know what, no one died. The sky didn’t fall. No one came to my house and kicked my cat. Well, not yet. Early days.
It feels indescribably good to just be done. I don’t mean “done” as in one more lingering done-but-not-quite-ready dark blot of indecision on the hard drive. I mean irreversibly done. No more endless editing. No more angst about whether to re-write that one part. Or that other part. Again. It’s out there and gone. DONE. I needed that. You have no idea how badly I needed that. Far more than I needed another edit.
5.) I have got to stop taking this whole writing thing so seriously
I struggle with this. Yes, I take it very seriously. Probably too much so. I feel an almost overwhelming obligation to the people who invest their hard-earned money and irretrievable time into the reading of a story. There’s a level of trust there and I’m trying my damndest not to violate that.
Plus there’s that ever present fear of failure. Or success. Or both. Whatever.
But still. It is just entertainment. It’s not open-heart surgery where someone could die if you get it wrong. And it’s as ephemeral as it is eternal. Every story is just one small drop in an endless flow. No matter how good it is, a story will never be so good that a person who reads it will feel like they don’t ever have to read another. They might re-read it, but there will always be another. Always. And I want to be the one who writes it. Now that I know I can. Without, you know, endangering the cat.
I’ll be working with an editor on the next one, so it will take more time. Perhaps not to draft, but definitely in the editing stage where the real writing happens. No doubt I’ll learn more than a handful of new things. Maybe I’ll even learn to write short. Don’t anyone hold your breath.
PS- The story in question is available here: