The Journey is the Destination: Leveling up as a Writer

Posted: April 17, 2016 in Novels
Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

Somehow, I figured this whole thing would get easier with practice.

But writing is an eternal struggle between good and good enough. And if you have any sense of self awareness, the further you get into the creative obstacle course that is making art, the harder the challenges become.

Forever and ever.

Until you die.

Or, conversely, you could not push yourself to improve. You could find an acceptable level of good enough and cruise there to your heart’s content. Everyone does it from time to time. Sometimes you need to stop pedaling and coast, let gravity and momentum carry you through while you catch your breath to prepare for the next hill. Everyone’s route is different. And whether you’re cruising the lip of the plateau for a decade or so, or pushing for a new hill every year, the important thing is, you’re on the bike.

Also, apologies: I ran into a writer friend who is a cyclist just now. The tortured metaphor is her fault. My sharing it with you is my fault.

But here’s one more important consideration. Maybe the most important if you want to make something of a career doing this. That deadly tango of self-awareness and celebration, of good and good enough, that is everything.

So, let’s talk about the round of edits I just finished by way of example.

I wrote a book late in 2011 that I enjoyed quite a bit. The idea was to pitch it to someone who was considering publishing licensed novels set in their game universe. That didn’t end up panning out for a variety of reasons, which was fine. I still liked the novel. If nothing else, it was practice.

I gave it an edit and rewrite the next year, just to see if anything could be done with it. I still liked the book, but doing anything with it would require a major rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for that level of work. I wasn’t ready for that hill.

Another year later, I gave it that hard edit necessary to re imagine the universe and the alien races to make it my own. And then I let it sit for a while. Almost three years, actually. By the time I picked it up again to do a final pass with the intention of self-publishing this summer, something had happened.

In the intervening years, I’d become a somewhat of better writer. And a huge part of that was due to reading other incredible authors and wanting to write as well as them. That self awareness of your own skills, of where you are compared to where you want to be, is an incredible motivator. There was still a lot that I loved in this novel. I loved the dialogue, the overall arc, the characters, almost all of the component parts. But it was still weaker in execution than I remembered. And one of the antagonists was cartoonishly evil. Exploitatively evil. And that didn’t sit well with me.

Honestly, even with all the time I’d put into it, from the outline through the first draft all the way though multiple full rewrites/edits, it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I saw where it was and where I needed it to be, and considering how vile Zenda Vox was, I didn’t know if it was worth the effort to fix.

Because this was a hell of a hill. I could see it looming ahead of me. And even if I got to the summit, there was no telling if I’d be able to do anything with the novel. It was always possible that the antagonist was a problem I’d never be able to fix. Initially, I decided to scrap it rather than put in the work.

I’m not proud of it. I mean, I kind of was at the time. I was glad that I put on the brakes and decided not to release as-is. I’m glad that Zenda Vox gave me second thoughts.

But I’m not proud that I was willing to quit rather than put in the work. Because quitting is always an option. It’s an option that’s always there for every author. Writing is voluntary. And the difference between a successful author and an unsuccessful one is often that one of them kept working rather than quit. And if I was willing to throw in the hat rather than work for it, then I wouldn’t like who I was.

You don’t get better just by wanting to be better. You have to fight for it. So on the advice of another author who I respect, I decided I’d give it one more look, to see if it could be fixed. I knew going in that this was going to be a slog, that I’d have to break it apart piece by piece, spread it apart on the garage floor, and really make this work. And if, at the end of all that, the book couldn’t be saved, at least I’d have the practice of that level of edit. Win or lose, it was worth it to climb the goddamned hill.

I’m happy to say the view from the summit is pretty good. I’ll still need another edit pass to clean it up, but the book still feels like a victory. I’ll be getting it out to a beta reader or two to spot weak points. And once I get it cleaned up, I think I’ll be in shape to move forward with it.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Perfection is a moving target. A mirage. But is it a fun pulp fiction romp? Does it actually have something positive to say in the process? Absolutely.

And hopefully later this year you’ll be able to read it.

More importantly, at least to me, I feel like I’ve leveled up as a writer. At least a little bit. And that’s important because it’s a long ride with no finish line, just harder and harder challenges along the way.

And I feel up for the challenge.

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