Lesson Learned

May 8, 2010

Two novels now complete.  Unsold for the moment, yes, but complete.

I was talking to some guy the other day and when I said that, among other things, "I write," he countered with, "yeah, my friend's wife writes, too. She goes off a few weekends a year promising to get the book done but never finishes it. She's been at it for 10 years." The implicit dismissal in that statement irked me.

  1. I don't know this woman and while she could just be dabbling, some books do take 10 years to write (see Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)
  2. By telling me this story, this guy was not so subtly dissing me and my efforts, as well.

So it felt really good to politely tell him that, well, buddy, "I finish the novels I write." My not so polite inside voice was saying: Go take your snide insinuations that I'm wasting my time elsewhere.

But if I'm being up front with myself, the other reason it irked me is that his story hit too close to home. The process of finishing what I consider the first truly critiquable draft of my second novel was significantly harder than the first, and involved major amounts of time wastage on my part.

With Untalented, my first novel, I only had one rough period, very shortly after I started writing it. That bad patch was caused by the fact that I had absolutely no idea how to write a book. I almost gave up, until I decided to take a class or two, read a book or six on craft, and learn what I needed to do in order to actually complete a novel. Once I had an outline, the writing of the book became fairly easy, and nine months later, voilà! A finished novel to start editing.

The second book, perhaps because I got complacent and thought I knew what I was doing now, or perhaps because I bit off more than I could chew, kept throwing curves my way. A first draft wound up only being novella length. I got positive feedback on early chapters, and started beefing up the story to novel length.

And then I made a nearly fatal mistake. I let a single person's reaction shake my faith in the story. The worst part? This reaction wasn't even critical feedback. It involved simple indifference, which I interpreted as "wow, my story's not even good enough to critique". I went into a tailspin for four whole months, despite the fact that positive opinions were still coming in from elsewhere.

Even after I managed to pick myself up, dust off the story, and convince myself that yes, it still had legs, I still believed in it, I struggled. I don't know how many days I'd wind up with only 50 to 150 new words. A 500 word day became something to celebrate, but I still reamed myself mentally because I'd been told I should consider getting my daily word count up to say, 2000+ a day.

Writing became painful. It felt like a complete chore, like building a sand castle one grain of sand at a time. The only thing that saved me was sheer pigheadedness; I'd spent so much time on this story already that I wasn't going to let it die. Keep the butt in the chair; every word counts. Just type something, anything, dammit!

Then two things happened right around the same time. First, I started to see the light at the end of the editing tunnel, and what had made me so happy about the story to begin with came back to me in a rush. Second, I went to WorldCon and met up with some new friends and discovered somewhat by accident that lo! They'd had exactly the same experience with exactly the same person.

I realized I'd been stupid. I'd projected an interpretation of that person's reaction onto my work based on my own insecurities. It's not that I would just discard this person's advice had they given me actual critical feedback on the story. This person's advice is well worth listening to. But there'd been almost no feedback, and I'd somehow twisted this into them not wanting to tell me how bad it was. On top of it all, I'd broken my own golden rule, which is, with critiques, you use what I call figure skating marking: you toss out the tough Russian judge's low marks, and you also toss out the easily bribed judge's highest marks, and what's left is really telling you what you need to fix.

After that, aside from a brief interruption due to a bit of a crisis at work, it was fairly smooth sailing. The book is ready for critique. And I have learned my lesson the hard way, a good lesson for any newbie writers out there:

If you believe in your story, listen to critical feedback, because you will learn a lot from it, but don't let your faith in your work be shaken by only one person.

2 comments on “Lesson Learned”

  1. Congratulations on completing your second novel! Interesting to hear about your lessons and experiences, too. It's easy to start something. It's easy to have an idea for something. It's SO hard to follow-through. Good for you - I totally admire you!

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