In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
If a writer knows what he or she is doing, I’ll go along for the ride. If he or she doesn’t… well, I’m in my fifties now, and there are a lot of books out there. I don’t have time to waste with the poorly written ones.
When you read a book, you hope the writer of that book knew what he or she was doing.
When you put on a movie, or a new television show, you want to believe the writers and directors knew what they were doing, too.
And when you begin a new writing project, you yourself should have a clear idea of what you’re doing.
This is not to say you won’t make mistakes. There will be plenty of them.
I make hundreds of mistakes on every novel I write, and I always feel bad when I reach the end of my first draft, or even a revision, and the book still isn’t close to my original vision of it.
The point of a first draft is tell yourself the story, to get your story down as best you can. The point, really, of a first draft is to finish it, not to make it perfect, not to make it seem like you know exactly what you’re doing.
If you start the first paragraph of a novel thinking you know exactly what you’re doing every step of the way, you probably won’t even finish the first chapter, let alone the first paragraph.
What King is talking about in that quote is geared, of course, to finished novels. Published novels. Books that have been through ten drafts or more, that have been worked on tirelessly with a literary agent, and an editor, and a copyeditor.
Books that have actually gone out into the world.
It’s when your book is in the hands of readers, and the readers feel like you, the author, had no idea what you were doing, where the problems arise.
Why do they feel this way?
The readers might find sentences and paragraphs that don’t work, sure.
But for the most part, the reader will think you didn’t know what you were doing if the story doesn’t lead anywhere interesting.
Haven’t you ever watched a movie, liked it fine for its first half, maybe its first two-thirds even, but then realized in the end the writer and director had no idea what they were doing the whole time and delivered an ending that makes absolutely zero sense?
Worse is when this happens with a television series. You’ve invested six seasons of your time, maybe more. Hundreds and hundreds of hours. And then you reach the final season, and the last episode, and WOMP WOMP.
The whole thing ends with a whimper.
You realize there was no grand plan. They were truly just making up a lot of it as they went along.
Take that anger you’ve likely felt before, and channel it into making sure your writing never delivers that kind of feeling for any of your eventual readers.
One easy way to do that is to figure out exactly what you want to say in your story, what you want to do at the core.
Again, you’ll make mistakes. You might get the ending wrong the first time out, maybe even the second time out. I’ve had to re-write my endings before, and, almost always, the endings are ultimately made better, and more truthful to what I set out to do in the novel in the first place.
Don’t ever stop working on a novel until you feel it’s ready.
This could be a fifth draft. This could be a tenth draft. Never feel like your novel is ready because it’s good enough. Make sure the novel is the best it can possibly be.
There will be readers who love your story. There will be readers who hate your story.
But you always, always, always want your reader to finish your story.
And not put it down halfway through because they get the sense that you, the author, had no clue what you were doing.
Do the work you need to do to make sure that never happens.