Anne Lamont writes in her how-to-write book, Bird by Bird, (if you haven’t read this, find it NOW, one of the most important books I read about writing) that the only thing we can do to write is to get started, no matter how shitty the first draft is, because all first drafts are essentially shit. Just get it out because nothing will come out a diamond at first. Write it, bleed it, take the pen and cut yourself open until all of the mess splatters onto the page. After that, at least you’ve written something. It’s down, it’s out, perhaps not totally ready to serve but it’s breathing the air and possibly screaming.
A very important and needed step.
That’s what I’m doing right now, at least apart from this post. I’m juggling short stories and racking the gutter of my head for more. See, I was never fantastic at making stories, well, short. The story never seemed great enough in the bare bones, so detail was needed, so I planted detail but it overgrew into a patch that could not be contained. Before I knew it, I had over thirty pages and a crazy word count that many literature magazines won’t read because it’s too high for a “short story publication length.”
I used to think, “MY WORK CANNOT BE CONTAINED!!! I MUST TURN THIS PATCH INTO AN ALMIGHTY FOREST!!! IT MUST BE A NOVEL!!!”
Not quite. I just didn’t drill the technique of self-discipline into myself to cut the unnecessary tidbits that weighed the entire idea down. Trimming the fat (I always enjoyed that phrase) is key, and I have my meat sheers ready. I’ve found that revision is the greatest component to writing, once its written out anyway. Many authors and writers have different ways about revising and editing; some will have others edit for them through paid services (plenty you can find online should you have the funds and lack of contact with anyone willing to give your work a go) and many will only trust themselves, perhaps a close friend or colleague, to take a red pen to the print outs and make it bleed from line to line. Personally, I get edgy when certain people grade my work. A colleague is great, an old professor is best, but for my husband to point out my mistakes? It strikes a sensitive nerve for him to see I’m not perfect at what I love to do so it’s best that he not read anything until I’ve gone over it several times.
Revise, read, repeat (100x, or less if you have a full-time job, a social life, or enjoy more than a few hours of sleep per night).
An English professor I highly respect told me he revises his work at least eleven times (perhaps more depending on how soon it is due and the length). For a short story, I might become obsessive and that deadly notion will snake its way into my thoughts:
What if we made this into a novel? It could be better with extra subplots and backstory!
Calm yourself, Mrs. Rose. Small projects can actually be more profitable. The professor mentioned before urged me: work on small stories for a while.
“You work on your books and novels for, what, a whole year, right? But then you can’t get an agent hooked or a publishing house to look at you. So you self-publish online and get thirty cents back, maybe? It tires you out and you question putting all of that time and effort for next to nothing. You can reap much more with shorts that you can sell off to magazines.”
Without funds to pay towards a printing house to publish my works, I decide this route is best. It also gives me opportunity to begin to shape and mold ideas I’ve had written in journals and on loose leaf paper shoved away at my desk for a long time. Of course, I still do have ideas that I heavily doubt can be created as a short piece, but it’s important as a writer still looking for the doorway to lead you into publishing or the writer’s market (whichever path you feel pulled towards) to give yourself purpose. Without purpose or motivation, whether the fair weathered muse has found her way to you or not, a writer begins to dim and the need to force your hand to a pen and notebook or your bum to the seat before the keyboard falters altogether. You question yourself: am I wasting my time? Am I deluded thinking I can do this?
Writers, in some ways, can be deluded; we have mental conversations with fictional people, fall down rabbit holes of social justices we feel compelled to write about from the points of view that matters to us, and put ourselves in the realms of fantasy and fiction we know as truth. Yes, we’re deluded, but we should never be foolish into thinking this “hobby” or “job” or “art” (however you refer to it) is all in our heads. It matters, so we write. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met plenty of ill-support as much as regular support. Many people close to me (not strangers telling me I have no talent but family and friends who don’t understand people who choose to write or are compelled to do so) have made it clear they wished I was more realistic. One person even told a couple of my university professors that they didn’t understand what anyone can do with their life in the areas of English, writing and literature.
(My face when I was told this by one of the professors because I did not know this happened till weeks later).
Thankfully, the professors were kind and open to such a blunt statement. One, another well-respected teacher I fondly remember, simply smiled and said that I (since this was at my capstone seminar) would “find my way.”
Years later, I still am. But it’s not about the destination, as they say. I’ll get there when I get there. One story at a time.
Keep on writing.