Posted in Writing

Keep Writing the Novel Even If You Think It’s Terrible

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I remember the first time when I was really, really hating what I was writing.

It was the fall of 2010, and I was working on my first young adult novel, Happy Birthday to Me. I loved the concept, the idea of a 17-year-old jock suddenly facing his own mortality as he ages a whole year of his life with each passing day. It allowed for lots of creativity and fun chapters to write.

However, I still distinctly remember one day where I struggled so hard in getting my writing down for the day that I stopped early, with only 600 or so of my 2000 words done, and spent the rest of the afternoon seriously considering abandoning the entire novel. I was stuck on one single plot development considering my main character’s plastic surgeon father, and nothing I could come up with made sense, and finally, I just said, screw it. Forget this whole thing. Even though I was at least 20,000 words already in the novel. I seriously thought about dumping the manuscript and moving on to something else.

Thankfully I didn’t abandon the project. That night I figured out what was missing in the chapter I was writing, and the next morning I fixed it, finished the chapter, and moved on to the next. I finished the first draft of the novel a few weeks later, and then about a year after that I self-published the novel to Amazon and had, still to this day, the best publishing success ever with that one book, which is at more than 80 reviews on Amazon.

In eighteen novels, this is the one and only time I’ve considered stopping completely, considered tossing the manuscript in the trash, but this practice of stopping a first draft before it’s done has certainly hit me often with short stories. I have at least five files in my Short Stories folder that have 200–500 opening words, and then… nothing. Sometimes I just couldn’t find the conflict behind the central idea, and sometimes I couldn’t make sense of the main character. One of the stories just seemed too controversial, so I stopped it.

I also have 60 pages of a screenplay I wrote years ago that I never completed, and the never finishing that script STILL HAUNTS ME. 60 pages is a LOT for a screenplay — the average script is 100–110 pages — and I feel like if I had just spent two more weeks staying the course I would have completed it. This was one of my earlier screenplays, and it would have been terrible regardless. It would never have sold, would never have been made into a movie. But it would be finished. It’s something I could read years from now, maybe revise and edit one day into something that works.

My advice is simply this: by any means possible, once you start a writing project, whether it be a novel or a story or whatever, do your best work — and finish the damn thing. You don’t want to be that writer who started 15 different projects and never finished a single one of them. At the end of the day, you can’t do anything with an unfinished writing project. You can’t query it to literary agents. You’ll never get published in a literary magazine.

And you know what? King is absolutely right. Sometimes you ARE doing good work even if you think what you’re writing is total crap. Sometimes you will struggle in a scene, or a chapter, and think, this isn’t worth doing, this story doesn’t work at all. But none of this matters. That scene you’re struggling with today might be cut from the manuscript anyway in a few months when you revise. I’ve cut probably 80,000 words of writing from my MFA thesis novel over the last 14 months. That’s right, an ENTIRE NOVEL’s worth of writing. Much of those 80,000 words I obsessed over, struggled with. And then, months later, it didn’t end up in the manuscript.

If we always had to get it right the first time, then yes, it’d be easier to quit projects halfway through. But there is so much more than the first draft. There are third, and fifth, and seventh drafts. My middle grade novel currently on submission to editors went through FOURTEEN drafts. It was really hard, and took nearly TWO AND A HALF YEARS, but it had to be done. Imagine if I had stopped writing the first draft of that middle grade book halfway through because I was frustrated with a scene or with the overall story, and just gave up. I wouldn’t have been able to do a second draft, or a third. I wouldn’t be on the cusp of a book deal with a major publisher.

If you are having a terrible writing day, stop. Leave the room. Go do something else. Relax.

But don’t quit the project you’re working on just because it’s hard, or because the current scene you’re working on is crap. It’s fine if it’s crap. You’ll probably cut the scene later on, or maybe you’ll revise it considerably. Just come back the next morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that, and KEEP GOING. Keep going until that first draft is done.

You never know. What you’re working on right now might be the book that launches your whole career!

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