This month at YAOTL, we’re talking about the lessons we had to learn over and over. Practically everything about writing books is something that I’ve had to learn over and over. But probably my biggest headslapper is this one:
I’ve published two novels and have another in production. Before and in between those novels came other novel-length manuscripts that reached varying degrees of completion. My point is that I should be familiar with the book-writing journey by now, right? But apparently, no matter how many times I travel this road, I am destined to suffer Novel-Beginners’ Amnesia with each new project.
I forget how hard it was to write my earlier books. I forget how many false starts and deleted scenes and rambling drafts I produced. I forget about the doubts, the times I set aside the manuscripts. After all, those books are now complete and polished to a shine, and I don’t miss what I had to take out.
So my particular brand of delusion is the expectation that I’ll sit down and type a coherent story, proceeding forward every day while knowing and believing in the story, and finishing each day satisfied with my progress. Why I believe this, I have no clue. No book I’ve written has ever worked this way.
I suppose I fool myself into thinking that now I know what I’m doing; I’ve learned how to write a book! Well, I have. I’ve learned how to write the books I’ve already written. (Go ahead and ask me to write my first book all over again: I can totally do it!) What I have no idea how to do is to write the next book, because I learn the story as I go along. The characters don’t always do what I expect. And I worry the whole time that the book isn’t interesting enough, big enough, important enough.
I also hear other writers complain about the difficulty of drafting a story. In her classic book for writers, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about this very thing: “We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.” Anne Lamott is a more accomplished writer than I am, yet for some reason I still expect to sit down and spool out a first draft like that ticker tape she speaks of.
Perhaps Novel-Beginners’ Amnesia has a purpose. Perhaps it is designed to protect me, to allow me the glow of hope as I sit down at the keyboard. Perhaps without it, I would break down weeping and banging my head before I even started. Perhaps I wouldn’t even try if I remembered how difficult it is.
But when I’m in the thick of the first draft, it helps to peel that amnesia away and remember: Oh, yeah, this is what it’s like. Slow and uncertain and full of dead ends, like a GPS with very spotty reception.