I have been writing literally since I have been able to construct sentences on (construction) paper (with crayons). They were the plagiaristic early fan fiction of a child who had just watched The Last Unicorn and Labyrinth about a hundred million times, but still. I was telling stories.
I would say I began writing fiction in earnest, meaning not for teachers or to create my prefered endings to pre-existing stories, when I was about nine years old. I started my first novel then. I took an extracurricular creative writing class between the end of 4th grade and the beginning of 5th, and the short story that resulted quickly became epic in scope. When I was ten, I saw Star Wars for the first time, and suddenly everything I wrote had to be a science fiction fantasy space opera. Yeah. My first novel was over 165,000 words. (I kept that draft, and all the variations thereof, until The Great Hard Drive Disaster of 2009 where I fucking lost everything I’d ever written unless I had emailed it to someone else since I got my Gmail account.)
I knew the draft sucked, but it didn’t stop me from loving it. I thought, jeez, it’s awesome that I know it sucks. Because that means at some point I’m going to be able to tell when it’s really good, right? So I kept writing. I wrote the sequel. The prequel. Another prequel. In college, I joined a writing group and shared bits and pieces from this story, and it was good, the words were right, but the story…
I am a cocky mother f***er when it comes to my ability as a writer. Words are my home, my craft, my tools, my prayers, and I know how to make them shiny and beautiful or crude and jagged. But story is where I’ve always had my doubts. Am I good enough? Is this how it’s done? Is this something people will want to read? Does this even make any sense?
I took up other projects, finally, when the decade of pressure I’d placed on my epic made it impossible to live up to my dreams. I tried writing in different ways–quickly, before my inner editor could catch up (a little something I wrote for NaNoWriMo that would end up getting me my first full manuscript request from a rather high profile agent); by the seat of my pants as a whole new world unfolded for me and the main character (the original draft of The Hierophant); on display for all the world to see, live-writing a serial fiction fairy tale (The Poppet and the Lune‘s first incarnation); from a mind-mapped outline that helped me rein in my habitually lengthy wordcounts (Ghost City); and finally, a combination of all the methods that have served me best, so far (THE TOWER; SAVAGE CASTLE, though SC is not anywhere near being done, yet).
The point is this: I’ve been writing (very nearly literally) all my life, and I have been writing novels for over twenty years. I have been honing my craft for over two decades. I’ve written over ten different novels.
And I still have no idea how it’s done.
There’s a phenomenon in the arts, but especially in writing, where you pick up some long-abandoned project and read through it and find yourself thinking “my Nicolas Cage, this is beautiful! This is brilliant! …….who the f*** hacked my computer and wrote this? Because it sure as hell wasn’t me.” When you’re feeling less than stellar about your work, you literally cannot understand where those beautiful-brilliant words came from. Where does any of it come from? The story, the characters, the tone, the voice…is there actually a method to any kind of art? A set of instructions, maybe? Ingredients, even?
I’m not talking about talent, or about what makes writing and story good or bad. This is about process. You see authors asked all the time about their “process,” about where they get their ideas from, how they construct a novel from concept to closing sentences. Sure, some authors have things that they do on a pretty regular basis that work for them. But I, for one, have no such thing. I have a tool box that I can draw from, depending on the project, depending on my state of wild inspiration or complete conviction that I am the worst writer of all time (or, you know, somewhere in between).
I’m always trying new things, because the story might need it. What if something works better for me than the way I’ve been doing it? I used to hate outlining, and now I don’t think I could write another novel without it. But the right project might come along that demands being pantsed (written by the seat of my pants, that is). Sometimes it takes me years to write a novel, from conception to final draft. Sometimes it takes me weeks.
And then, I have to ask myself: why do I write at all?
Without romanticizing it with fancy concepts like “it’s my calling” or “purpose” or “what I was put on this planet to do,” this is why I write: because I love it. Because it fills me with glee and passion and profound faith (not necessarily faith in the usual suspects). Because the feeling of finding the right–perfect–beyond perfect–words to express the story and character and feeling of a single moment in a single scene is incomparably exhilarating. I am not being romantic when I say that the experience of a good day of writing, especially fiction, is, to me, incontrovertible proof of magic.
That’s why I write. I don’t write to get to the finish line. I don’t write to feel good after the fact. I cringe when I see people talking about suffering through words and saying the draft was like “pulling teeth.” I want to shake them and say “you’re doing it wrong!”
I’m not saying that writing a novel is a cake walk for me. It’s not. It’s difficult. And there are days where it fucking sucks. But ever since I realized that those days are more a symptom of where my mind is focusing than an inarguable part of the creative process, they’ve been fewer and farther between. And on the days where there’s a problem–a plot hole, a corner to be written out of, a character that just isn’t right–then that is a challenge to be taken head on, to be embraced, to be loved as fervently as the challenge of finding the right words to bring your ideas to life. The entire process of writing a novel from beginning to end–whatever that process might look like for that project–is something that can be fun, exhilarating, and life-giving.
tl;dr: Writing is hard. Storytelling is hard. There is no one way to do it. But if it does not fill you with passion, if it feels like you are losing more life than you are gaining, then something needs to change. Because writing, like everything else in life, is about the journey.
At least, that’s how it is for me, anyway.