Unless you’ve studied engineering, you probably couldn’t build a ten story building. No one would give you the resources to let you try. Unless you’ve studied coding, you’re unlikely to be able to unilaterally create a new computer app that anyone would want to (or could) use. You might be able to come up with a great idea, but by the time you gain the skills necessary to turn it into something useful and readily available, someone else will have done it first, and probably better.
Hard skills – from driving big trucks to brain surgery – are not things that are easy to fake.
But we are all taught how to write in grade school. And most of us are fluent in at least one language. As a result, almost most people think they can write, and to be fair, most people can write to some degree. So when you’re unemployed or unhappy in your job and you’re looking for some sort of outlet for your energies, and you start tallying up your skills, you may think, “Oh this skill isn’t current” or “I haven’t done that since grad school” or “I was doing that for a living ten years ago and haven’t even thought about it again since I was promoted.” But many hundreds of thousands of people write on a daily basis – or at least believe that they can write. And so we do. It’s a natural fallback
We write about the things we do know, sharing our skills and opinions. We write poetry, even if we barely understand the concept of rhyme schemes. We write stories like ones we’ve seen on TV. We write fan fiction and blogs and recipes and erotic fantasies. And we dream of penning the next breakout bestseller, becoming the next JK Rowling or EL James.
But at some point, most people come to the realization that writing well is harder than it looks. I remember the auditorium where I went to my first year creative writing class and I remember the professor saying, “You’re all dedicated to becoming professional writers, but I want to all to look around at the people next to you and behind you. Only one out of ten of you will ever have something professionally published. Maybe one out of a hundred will make any kind of a living from it. The rest of you will realize at some point how hard it is and will go do something else.”
With the economy and the job market the way they’ve been over the past twenty years and with the extra free time many of us enjoy, there are more people than ever who set their sights on becoming writers. With the advent of self-publishing, we don’t have to deal with the same level of rejection or frustration and we don’t have to wait for someone else to publish us.
I’ve been pretty impressed at the number of people who persist – who find the hidden talent deep inside them and coax it out and get better and better. But unfortunately, the number that get good enough to make any kind of a living from it probably still hasn’t increased since my university days. There are just a million more people to fight off on your way to the top.
Most of us who write believe we are better than we actually are. But becoming a successful writer involves so much more than the ability to coherently put your thoughts on paper. If you’re funny and entertaining enough you may get by with not much more than that, but sooner or later most writers realize that – as in engineering – creating a solid story or novel requires an understanding of structure and involves a complicated and time consuming process. These are the aspects of writing that most writers learn through a combination of training and experience. They are often hard won. And while they can be circumvented, if you ever hope to have a career as a writer, there comes a point when you have to find your process.
That’s the tricky part. The process is different for everyone. I can tell you or teach you what works for me. But chances are, it won’t be what works for you. Here’s what I have learned about my “process”:
For me, a first draft is little more than a raw idea. Very often it is a summary. First this happens and then this happens. The characters are only there to move the story forward. I explain things rather than letting the reader experience them.
The second draft is just a clean up of the first, making things flow better, fleshing out the characters a bit, making events more logical, finding a scarier narrative voice etc.
My characters don’t usually come to life until the third draft because that’s when I’m able to ask, “why would this character do something like this? And why would the other character react the way she does?” When relationships and relationship dynamics come into play, they usually change the course of the story. This is usually the draft when I examine the structure and change it so that the reader gets the necessary information at the right time to keep them intrigued. All that revision usually introduces complications that need to be fixed.
For me, it’s pointless to worry to much about sentence structure, word choice, story rhythm and character arc until the fourth draft. If I’m really lucky, the fourth draft is publishable.
The fifth draft shines it to a high gloss – and if it’s not working at that point it’s best to rethink it from the ground up – which is sometimes worthwhile and sometimes not. If I read the story after that draft and it’s still not working, I have learned to recognize that fixing it may require more effort than its worth. Endless revisions suck the life and inspiration out of any project, so that you end up with something workmanlike but unspectacular. Or it may be lacking something vital – ie: nice house but too bad you forgot to put in a kitchen or a bathroom.
For me, the two hardest things in writing are figuring out when something is done and when to admit to myself that I have no idea why something isn’t working – and then to simply wipe my hands clean, walk away and work on something else.
With all the work it took getting to that fifth draft, it’s brutally hard to simply accept it as a learning experience and realize that the greatest potential lies in future projects.
I am somewhat buoyed by the knowledge that putting something away and not looking at it for awhile can enable me to look at it with fresh eyes a few weeks, months or years down the line. I often see the problems more clearly, which enables me to find the solutions. Or I may simply love the idea and make a fresh start – avoiding the mistakes I made the first time around.
This is my process. One thing I have learned in my years of writing is that everyone has a different process – and that process can change considerably from project to project. But knowing my own process helps me come to terms with the fact that my stories often still suck when I’m several steps in. This used to make me tear my hair out and stress and want to throw in the towel. Now I just smile and say, “Oh well, it’s part of the process. I’ll have another look at that in a few months.”
It makes me glad I’ve always got lots of irons in the fire.