Thoughts on Writing, from Before I Started Writing

I recently reread my journal from December 2002, trying to find the exact dates we’d traveled to Aruba that month. I came across an entry about writing.

In 2002, writing was still a pipe dream of mine. I thought I wanted to write when I retired, but I hadn’t made any decisions. I wasn’t even sure I would retire when I became eligible at age 50, though that was my hope.

My journal

Here’s what I wrote about writing as of December 15, 2002:

“I’ve been doing some thinking about writing as I’ve [browsed in] libraries and bookstores. There are so many books—most with really cockamamie plots or poorly written. Surely I can do at least that well. I’ve also read an interview with a writer—talking about the difficulty of staring at blank paper and of editing. Surely I am no different, and surely I can overcome.”

It’s now fifteen years later, December 2017. I’ve added three more books to those so many books, with a fourth about to be published. I read recently that there are over 1 million books published each year. The competition is fierce. In 2002, ebooks were only a theory, now they are the majority of new books published. These days, there’s a publishing overload, and I’m part of it.

Some readers probably think my novels have cockamamie plots also. I think my plots are (mostly) plausible, but I’ve learned as I’ve been writing that realistic writing is in the eye of the writer . . . And the reader.

I also think my novels are written at least as well as half of those that are published. I don’t pretend to be a great literary writer, but I think I can tell a good story with reasonably strong prose.

And through it all, I have learned for myself the difficulty of staring at a blank page (though I stare at a screen, not at paper). It’s a challenge to figure out how to translate the scenes I see in my head into words. I am more forgiving of other writers now than I was in 2002.

Some days I write well. Some days I write poorly. I try to always remember Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird—shitty first drafts are the norm. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who first said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Anne Lamott then expanded on shitty first drafts: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

Along with many writers before me, I’ve learned to overcome the blank page and get that first draft written so I have something to work with.

I’ve also learned for myself the difficulty of editing. Once that first draft is done, the real work begins. It’s only through editing—sculpting the work to approximate ever closer what I see in my head—that the novel takes shape.

Over and over I edit. For me, it takes several more than three drafts to get to something I can call terrific. . . . Or even acceptable.

I’m in the constant revision stage with my work in progress, Forever Mine. On the whole, I’m pleased with it. But I still see rough spots. So I’m still editing. Like with sandpaper, each pass gets finer. Soon, I hope I’ll have done all I can.

I will overcome the difficulty of editing this book, as I overcame the blank page.

And then I’ll start with another blank page on another book.

Writers, what’s your biggest challenge in your current work in progress?

P.S. My apologies to readers offended by the language in this post. Hemingway started it.