Growing up, I was a curious kid. I wondered about things to a sometimes annoying degree. If we’d had the internet back then—the age of brontosaurus burgers and dodo birds, according to my kids—I would have fallen down the Google wormhole and never emerged.
Alas, having to travel to the library to look things up in an encyclopedia limited my research. One thing I didn’t understand until my late teen years was the process of invention.
If man could build an airplane or rocket, if the human brain could figure that out, why did we bother with the Model-T Ford or the Wright Brothers? Why not skip right to the harder stuff?
The concept of building on a body of knowledge was a hard one to grasp.
When I spun my first complete rough draft of a novel, I wondered the same thing. Why didn’t it feel the same to read as books I picked up at the bookstore or library?
I wanted to be able to write the perfect novel on my first try. I wanted to go straight from horse and buggy to Apollo 13.
When friends or family ask me about “my book,” I try to find the right words to convey a complicated, mysterious process that I’m only beginning to comprehend myself. Today, I spent an hour geeking-out with a fellow writer on the magic of figuring out this writing a novel thing.
Because the cool thing is . . . I am figuring it out. Draft five (yes, you read that correctly, I’m in my fifth rewrite of a 260-page novel) is a billion times better than that first rough draft. And yet, it’s still so far from ready. According to an interview I heard, Station Eleven, a popular novel by Emily St. John Mandel released earlier this year, took over 20 drafts to complete!
Writers are taught to avoid clichés like the plague (see what I did there?) yet the study of the craft of writing follows many. One of the standards is “writing is rewriting.” It wasn’t until this fifth draft that I was able to use some of the tools I learned about in my first class on writing fiction.
Like the internal combustion engine, there are specific working parts to a story that runs. Reading a zillion books over the last 42 years did not make me capable of writing one. Just as driving a car for the last 34 years has not given me the ability to build one from scratch.
Studying fiction, learning to read like a writer, finding out what the parts of a novel are and how to put them together is a work in progress. I needed to learn to build on the body of knowledge I was accumulating.
Many more write wonderful stories that never make it to publication. A few are both publicly and critically acclaimed. With modern technology, many publish their own books without ever learning what makes a novel work.
I didn’t want to do that. My goal is to learn to write stories like those I like to read, books that you get lost in and never want to leave.
So the latest update on my book is I’m working on it! And, it’s starting to take shape. I described it this way to my fellow writing geek friend just today:
It’s like I’ve been hiding in my garage using odds and ends to build a car from the ground up. And it runs! There are creaky parts, parts that fail to spark, parts that clunk where they should click, occasionally a foul cloud of smoke puffs out of nowhere, but it’s drivable.
Writers often refer to first novels as “under the bed” books, books that will never see the light of day because they’re not good enough. The rare whiz-kid turns out a masterpiece on her first try. That has not been my experience. I couldn’t have gotten to this draft, to this level of improvement without writing that first awful draft.
For any beginners out there working on their first draft, or for any of the 200 million out there that think they have a book in them, you learn how to write a book by writing a book. Study craft, technique, read, practice, write, screw up, delete, add, write some more, then do it all again.
The jury is out on whether or not this particular book will be hidden under my bed, or left to rust in the garage. Either way, I can tell you this, the process of getting it running has been one of the most challenging and exhilarating of my life.