Just this past week, my mom finished writing her first novel. (Yay, Mom! Everyone please insert loud cheers here!) Apart from being so stinkin’ proud of her for taking the plunge and diving into this whole writing gig, just on a personal level, the whole process of her taking up writing has been so much fun for me. My mom has always read my books, and we’ve talked about them, of course. But getting to connect writer to writer and talk craft and dialogue and book construction has been a blast –especially since it’s not something I ever thought I would share with her.
One of her comments, though, (I think she was mid-novel when she said it) made me alternately stare in complete amazement and snort with laughter. My mom said, clearly frustrated with her own abilities, “I’m still in the stage where I have to keep rearranging and rewriting my sentences to get them how I want–rearranging whole paragraphs, even.”
To which I answered, “Are you kidding me? You honestly think any writer ever grows out of that stage?”
At least I hope to goodness they don’t and that it’s not just me–because with 10 books written, I sure haven’t grown out of it yet. I am constantly rearranging my sentences as I write them–or a day, a week, several months after I write them. Sentences that seem witty and wonderful turn out, when I go back through and read them again, to be so pedestrian I would die of embarrassment to have anyone else read them . Ideas occur to me as I write, new information about the scenes or the characters or the overarching plot I haven’t considered before–which means I have to cut and paste and rearrange whole paragraphs, and move the conversation about the heroine’s dog to Chapter 2. That’s just how writing works, at least for me.
Anyway, it was my mom’s turn to be astonished. As I say, she’s read all my books, and she said, “Really? You mean your books don’t just, you know, come out like that on the first try?”
Ha. And everyone else who has written a novel is probably also laughing hollowly here. But I also think it can be a common misconception, and a paralyzing fear: we read other authors’ works, and they seem so good, so perfect, even. I’ll never to be able to turn out anything that good, we think. But when we read other authors’ books (unless we’re a beta-reader, critiquing a draft, obviously) we’re only seeing the finished, polished, product. We haven’t seen what’s gone on behind the scenes: the plot that dovetails so neatly was probably a sprawling, shambling mess at some point in the writing process, and the cause of much pulling out of hair. The dialogue that’s so snappy and funny–it probably took hours and hours and multiple drafts to get it that way. That’s actually one of the great things about writing–that perfect comeback that occurs to you at 3 am? You actually get to go back and use it. Or as Robert Cormier said, “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.”
Is it work to revise and polish and cut and rearrange and revise again? It absolutely is. Would I love it if I could simply swallow a magic bean or knock three times on my keyboard and have a perfect book pour out through my fingertips? Yeah, kinda–and I honestly do even enjoy the revising stage. But as Michael Crichton wrote, “Books aren’t written–they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
So if you’re struggling, wrestling, frustrated with your own writing skills–know that you’re not alone. Even James A. Michener once said, “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.”