Doubling up on answering questions from Advanced Fiction Writing in an attempt to reduce the backlog. Today’s second question is from Derrick, and it deals with choosing which ideas for a novel to pursue, and when it’s time to stop reading how-to books and actually start writing.
Your website, articles, and blog say that learning to be a good writer takes four to five years and several abandoned books on average. I have a couple “pet” ideas that I’ve been tossing around in one form or another over the years. Ideas that I would really rather not see die because I’m just not ready yet.
Is it OK for me save these pet ideas, put them on the backburner and come up with something new for my first book that I can part with a little easier? If I have to live with at least one or two failures that will never be successful, couldn’t they be ones of my choosing?
I will soon be reading Dwight Swain’s Writing Techniques of the Selling Writer and your Writing fiction for Dummies. I’ve already read about MRU’s, Scenes and Sequels, the Three Act and Three Disaster formats, etc. I have a good understanding of these writing tools, but without the working experience from using them.
Will this knowledge give me a bit of a head start towards becoming what you call a “sophmore?” or Would I be better off to finish a story and then worry about applying these tools to the first draft?
Hi Derrick–thanks for writing in with your questions! What I’m hearing from you, I think (and correct me if I’m wrong), is a very common wish to have everything figured out and guaranteed in some form before you start the long, hard road of actually working on a manuscript. You’d like to know that you won’t be wasting a good idea on a manuscript that won’t make it, and you want to have all the fiction writing craft tools you’ll need before you get started. If you’re like most of us fiction writers, including me, you are probably a bit of a perfectionist and want to “get it right” the first time.
That’s completely understandable. The problem is, it’s simply NOT realistic. I’m sorry to say, failure is part of becoming a writer. There is a learning curve to writing a novel, and for some it is far steeper than others. Being informed and reading the books and studying and knowing how the business works is vitally important, but it can’t take the place of butt-in-chair, putting-word-on-page actual work.
So for your first question–about saving your “pet ideas” until you’ve had a few manuscripts behind you, I can totally see why that would make sense to you. And it might be the best thing for you to do. But you have to remember that you will do your best fiction writing work when you are passionate about your story. And as hard as it is to contemplate failing and having to abandon a manuscript, your writing will lack that essential spark if you are approaching it as merely a writing exercise or a trial run or a throw-away attempt. That seems unfair, I know–we shouldn’t have to pour our hearts into something that has little chance of making it. But without that heart commitment, your book is much less likely to be a success anyway.
Now, does that mean that the book you are most passionate about writing has to be what you attempt first? No. It might be an idea that needs more time to develop. Or it might be one that you know you need more life experience or research in order to tackle it. It might be something that is so deeply important to you that you want to take years crafting it. That’s absolutely wonderful, go for it.
But in the meantime, choose another idea that you also are interested in, one that you also feel passionate about. And work on it! Even if your first manuscript isn’t usable, that doesn’t mean the idea itself has to be abandoned. Rework it, start over, hone it. As an unpublished writer, you have the luxury of time to refine and rework your ideas. Use that to your advantage. You don’t have to give up an idea just because your first attempt at it failed. There are no expiration dates on ideas.
Sometimes, you eventually lose your passion for the idea itself. That’s okay. In that case, let it go. The world is full of ideas, and there is not just one “book of your heart” in your future. You will find new ideas that you’ll feel even more passionate about. But you can’t avoid taking the risk. You have to put your heart and soul into each manuscript you attempt, and that means if it fails, that’s going to sting a bit. It’s part of the business of writing fiction.
As far as your second question goes, about whether to try to use your “head knowledge” as you are writing or just write and then use what you’ve learned to revise:
You’ve got to just write. You can research, you can plot, you can do all the pre-writing exercises you want–and all that is REALLY GOOD to do. I advise it. But none of that can take the place of experience. You actually have to sit down and try it. And it’s probably going to stink at first. Even if you know in your head what it’s supposed to look like, getting it there takes practice and experience. There’s no way to get that except by doing it. Over and over. Failing, trying again. That’s how you grow into a good writer.
So sure, as you are writing, if you can remember “use good scene structure”–please do it. It’s a great habit to develop. But if you find that trying to remember all the “thou shalts” is getting in the way of WORDS ON THE PAGE then forget the rules and just get the story down. You can always fix it later. You’ll find that for most people, the act of writing new content and the act of self-editing are not compatible. You have to do either one or the other. You can still make conscious decisions while you are writing to use good technique, but you can’t let that derail you into a lot of self-editing when you really need to write.
So, Derrick, take the risk. Go for it. Jump in with your whole heart. You can do it–even if it means taking a few lumps in the process.