There was a line in a recent episode of the tv show Castle, a line where Richard Castle (the mystery-novelist main character, played by Nathan Fillion) says of the book he has not yet begun to write: “I already have the story. That’s the hardest part.” *
Now, first of all, on the (extremely) unlikely chance that the show’s producer Andrew Marlow or anyone else associated with Castle production is reading this, let me say that: a) this is a totally minor quibble that in no way impacts how much I love the show; b) it’s not just Castle; this is probably the most common writing misconception out there, which is why I felt it was worth talking about today; and c) if I were to write a book about, say, a crime TV-show writer/producer, I am sure that anyone who knows that world would laugh themselves sick over all the details I would inevitably get wrong. So, this is all in good fun and we’re still friends, okay?
However: getting an idea–or even a whole plot outline–for your story is NOT the hardest part of writing a novel.
As a general rule, I’m not all that fond of book/baby metaphors; the comparison for me breaks down because we do not (I hope) sell our children in the way we work to sell our stories if we want them to find readers out there in the world. And if you truly love your books as you would your children, you’re more or less guaranteeing yourself some hugely crappy emotional times when the inevitable rejections, bad reviews, etc. roll in. That said, saying that coming up with an idea or a plot outline for a story is the hardest part of the writing process? For me, that’s a little like saying that jumping into bed with your significant other and conceiving a child is the hardest part of parenting. Huge step, sure, but coming up with new story ideas is pretty much the fun part, and as easy as this whole crazy writing gig ever gets.
All the authors I’ve ever known, myself included, have so many ideas for new stories bouncing around in their heads and clamoring for attention that it’s positively irritating at times. The hard part is selecting just one of those bright, shiny new ideas, and sitting down with it, day after day. Typing until you reach your daily word count goal again and again and again–hundreds of times until finally you have the story all written from beginning to end.
And the hardest part? The hardest part is to keep right on sitting down at the keyboard, even when you are at, say, 60,000 words, and the idea is no longer bright and shiny in the slightest. In fact, you suspect that 59,999 of those words are complete and utter garbage. Well, maybe only 59,998; you’re pretty sure that that ‘Chapter 1’ on the top of your first page is solid. Assuming that the numeral 1 can in fact be counted as a word. And come to think of it, debating that point sounds like a lot more fun than actually slogging away with work on your book.
That is when writing a novel gets truly hard. But it’s also perhaps the most crucial part of the process–because the way you respond as a writer is the most important choice you’ll make in your entire writing career.
Recently (by my friend’s request! I swear!) I was writing out my top-10 list of things I wish I had known about motherhood for a friend who’s expecting her first child. And I found myself writing:
#3– Your kids will need you. This seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t think anything prepares you for what it feels like to be the object of that kind of 24 hour-a-day dependence. Whether you are sick, sad, discouraged, overwhelmed, or so exhausted that you’re hallucinating Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner meep-meeping their way across your kitchen–none of it makes even a single iota of difference in the degree to which your kids need you to be their mom. Sometimes this truly is a gift in terms of allowing you to grab some perspective, laugh, count your blessings, and get over yourself. And sometimes, to be honest, it really just kind of sucks. And I’m not suggesting that you don’t have your own life and your own goals and that you never ever take care of yourself; of course you do, you have to, or you won’t be able to function as a human, much less a mom. But I also think that the best advice I can offer is that at some point you learn to turn that dependence, that constant need of you as a mother, into the true north on your compass, your emotional northern star.
To shamelessly violate my own book/baby comparison ban once again, I realized as I was typing that the same words can in some measure be applied to our roles as authors.
Our stories are completely dependent on us to tell them. Sick, sad, discouraged or overwhelmed–your story is still never going to be written unless you sit down and write it, and I think every writer out there would say that that relationship feels awesome at times, and completely sucky at others. However, the crucial difference is that unlike children, who are notoriously skilled at bringing their needs to our attention, a novel is all too easy to ignore or put off for any one of the multitude of excuses our brains can find not to write. We’re stressed, we’re tired, we’re too discouraged by that recent rejection . . . we have to exercise instead, we have 6 billion loads of laundry waiting to be done . . . the list goes on.
But the hardest reason of all not to write is the feeling that we’ve lost faith in our stories or in ourselves and our own abilities to tell them. And that is the true turning point, the most important choice you’ll face in your writing life: when you reach that crisis-point, do you abandon your unfinished story in favor of another shiny-new idea? Or do you keep plugging away, even when everything right down to the basic premise of your book seems flawed, and you’re certain it will never be worthy of being read by any eyes but yours?
Anyone who reads the title of this post will guess that I’m of the ‘keep plugging away’ school of thought. Some may disagree, and I’m not at all saying that this is the only way of being a writer; only that it’s the only way that I know how to be a writer: when the hard times come, you keep writing, keep working on your story until you type ‘the end’. And I know, too, that it’s hard advice to hear and even hard advice to give. Because unfortunately, I can’t promise that just because you don’t give up on a story until it’s finished and you’ve even revised it half a dozen times–I can’t promise that means it will achieve you Richard Castle-like (sorry, couldn’t resist) success. I can’t promise you’ll be published or find an agent or any of those other concrete career goals. Some stories really are inherently flawed, and will be no matter how many times they’re revised.
But what I can promise is that the process of continuing to write through the hard times, pushing through to the end of the book and on into the revisions phase, that will improve your writing craft in countless invaluable ways. Ways that will help you get published some day, if not with this story, then with another.
I’m writing this post now, because this is the month of NaNoWriMo, which encourages thousands of writers, newbie and professional alike, to take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in a month. Which is awesome. There’s also always some NaNo controversy around this time, but I personally think that anything that gets thousands and thousands of people excited about books and writing is fantastic. I think the hardest part for many, though, is not writing those 50K words in November–it’s when Dec. 1 rolls around and they have to sit back and take stock of what they’ve written, decide whether they want to keep on working on their stories.
Some genuinely may not, some just do NaNo as a lark, and may not want to seriously pursue publication or a writing career. And that is totally okay; no shame, no blame. Just because writing happens to be a career for many is no reason it can’t be a perfectly great hobby for others.
But for those aspiring writers who do dream of publication, this post is really for them. It’s for them that I bring up the ‘getting an idea for your novel is the hardest part’ myth–because when you’re stuck and struggling, buying into that myth can make you think that there must be something wrong with you, that maybe you were never meant to be a writer at all. But as Junot Diaz once said, “You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
Even when you’re struggling–or rather, especially when you’re struggling–commit to your story, hold on, and don’t lose heart. You are a writer, with a unique voice and a unique story to tell. And if you give up, your story will never, ever get the chance to live and breathe. It is your story; you are the only person on the planet who can tell it in the way it needs to be told and bring it to life. When the hard times come–and they will come–make that the northern star that guides you towards the amazing moment when you type ‘the end’.
*What’s that you say? You were too distracted by (finally!) getting to see Castle and his love interest Kate Beckett in bed together to notice this? Yeah, kind of amazing that I noticed it myself, really.