I’m very, very close to finishing the first draft of my first novel. I’m trying to get comfortable with saying phrases like “the book I’m writing” or “my novel” but I stumble over them every single time. How presumptuous, to think my word splurge might one day exist as An Actual Thing.
Friends, it is such a mess.
I’m trying to be zen about that, and to remember that first drafts are necessarily messy and full of holes. Plenty of authors whose work I love have written extensively and honestly about the amount of work that goes in between that initial pile of words and the finished, polished product at the end. (See Non Pratt’s recent post on revisions, for example).
But oh, I’m frightened.
Because one of the things that’s got me to this point – that I’ve clung on to like a rubber ring when the swirling sea of feelings is threatening to pull me under – is that First Drafts Are Meant To Be Rubbish. So when I know I’ve skimmed over a plot hole, or used the word “tiny” for the four thousandth time, or created a character whose only discernible personality trait is has quite a nice jacket, I cut myself some slack.
But now I have to fix that all. And even though half my working life is spent editing – and I like it! I’m good at it! – this is so much more daunting than I anticipated. This is where it’s meant to get good. And what if it just isn’t?
It’s such a leap of faith, writing a novel. This nebulous, fragile, beautiful, ugly thing that you chip away at over months and months. Sharing little fragments with your trusted writer pals, and cherishing the nice things they say and doing your utmost to incorporate their helpful feedback – but feeling like a fraud, all the same. Because yeah, you liked that 3000 words. Course you did. I picked the very best extract I could find and polished it until it sparkled. But what you don’t know is that there’s no follow through on the relationships it hints at; the character arcs are barely-there squiggles.
Here’s what I think is scaring me.
Writing is a habit, now, in the same way that making the bed is a habit. After work, most days, I shove some Ludovico Einaudi on the speakers and bang out some words for thirty minutes. More often than I’d like, I have to have a strong word with myself so that I stop faffing around on Twitter or suddenly needing to research Moroccan recipes or whatever elaborate procrastination technique I’ve invented that day. But when I finally get going… it’s magic.
My brain quiets. My mood lifts. I can physically feel the tension easing out of my shoulders. (This is why people like exercise, right?). Brief daily writing sessions are so, so good for my mental health. They’ve helped me feel balanced in a way that felt out of reach for quite a long time.
I’m writing forwards, with hope. That one day, several drafts from now, an agent will read my work and want to represent me. And an editor will read my work, and want to publish it. And a bookseller will read my work, and want to sell it. And readers, lovely readers, will read my work and find something in there that resonates in their brain or heart or tummy.
It’s easy to hold on to that hope before you’ve tried to make any of those things true and before you’ve opened yourself up to the inevitable rejections that are going to come your way. (Rejections are normal! Rejections are part of seeking publication! Zen, zen, zen, zen, zen.)
But what if there’s never anything except rejections? What if I’m just not good enough, or the timing’s wrong, or there’s some other reason I’ll never fully understand that it isn’t meant to be? I know myself well enough to doubt that I’ll be able to keep writing into the void without the hope of it coming to something tangible and validating at the end. I’m not proud of that, or comfortable with it, but I think it’s true. Writing for myself won’t be enough, and it’ll get flung onto the Good Intentions Memorial Pile to nestle in with crochet and swing dancing and my two half-hearted attempts at Couch to 5k.
I’m scared that all that mental balance will disappear and I’ll be back to simmering with anxiety. And that it’ll be self-inflicted: because I’m too proud, too weak, too arrogant to get on with things unless there’s someone giving me a gold star at the end of it all.
Here’s what I’m trying to do, right now. To not psych myself out with a doom-laden imagined future where everything’s gone off the rails. To not psych myself out with a whizzy imagined future where I am making a living from writing. To get over myself. To see the spiral spiralling, and stop it. To write, for myself, because writing is good for me. To speak my anxieties out into the world, in the hope that naming them goes some way to taming them.
I’m putting this out into the world for two reasons. Partly, because I want you to read it and say nice, soothing things that will make me feel a bit better. (If you haven’t got it by now: I AM HUNGRY FOR YOUR ATTENTION AND VALIDATION). But also, because I’ve found it so helpful and so important to hear from other writers saying, It’s hard. It’s a slog. It’s OK. So this is me, adding my voice, for the next person who needs it.
And if that’s you, don’t stop here…
- Here’s that Non Pratt post on editing again
- Amy Spalding publishes a weekly tinyletter, The Check-In, where she’s radically honest about the good, bad and ugly parts of book-writing
- The Master Your Craft series on The Winged Pen is consistently excellent and reassuring
Let us go forth and give ourselves courage, friends.