I have been writing novels professionally now for, what, seven years? Eight? Over twenty books? And here is a thing that happens to me every fucking time I start a new book —
a) I’ve lost it
b) I am lost
Translation: I had a map, and now it’s gone.
And now I don’t know where I am.
I think: I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, this book is bad, what was I thinking, it’s too slow, or too fast, or too confusing, or too much this, or not enough that, or is this even in English, do I speak English, are these words or just doodles of dongs, oh my god am I just writing page after page of dong doogles like some kind of puerile pornographic Jack Torrance, oh no.
It’s not even Impostor Syndrome — that is a related-but-separate repeating phenomenon — it’s just the feeling that I’ve gone and fucked up the book already. In the first 5,000 words, I’m sure I’m going to have to scrap it and kick it into the sewer grates where the sewer clowns can have it.
(At least down there it’ll float.)
This feeling feels new every time.
It also happens every time.
Which means: yeah, it isn’t new. It’s just some shit I have to go through, and I have to remind myself this is the way it is.
And it might be that way for you, too, and so I’m here to offer some emotional advice to get through it:
Cultivate patience and trust in the process.
What I mean is this:
Your process is not my process, but I’m going to assume that we at least share the common bond of writing a first draft, and then having to write subsequent drafts. Some books demand robust re-drafting, others require gentler tweaks, but at the end of the day, there’s bare minimum a first draft and a second draft, right? If you’re the type who writes only one draft for every book, you are either a genius, or a delusional fool. (And the line between those two is a lot blurrier than you think.)
Me, I gotta do the work.
But here’s the trick: that process is in place for a reason.
And that process will save you.
Let’s switch gears a little.
AWOOGA AWOOGA FOOD-AND-COOKING METAPHOR ALERT
I FUCKING LOVE FOOD-AND-COOKING METAPHORS
I’M SORRY IN ADVANCE
Okay, so, when you cook a meal, how does that work?
You get out your ingredients. You prep them however you must — you chop the vegetables, you debone the fish, you pummel the turnip, you grind your foe’s bones in a mortar-and-pestle which is itself the skull of another former foe, yadda yadda.
Point is, you gotta get your mise en place together (which is French for “I NEED DIS STUF”) and then you… put it wherever it needs to go. In a pot, in a casserole dish, in a hot skillet.
That’s your first draft of the meal.
It’s just the elements revealed and arranged.
But cooking is a factor of time and heat — okay, it’s not just that, but those are two critical factors to cooking. To cook a dish, you need to apply heat in a variety of ways, and you need time. Sometimes the heat is high and the time is short, sometimes it’s a long time with low heat. Sometimes, a mix: start high heat to sear, then break down slowly with minimal heat over several hours. There can be agitation involved. There are adjustments made for flavor. You can add thickeners, you can add and then take away a bay leaf, or a herb bundle, or a wizard’s fingerbone. (So zesty!) Point is, chucking a bunch of food in a pot is not the meal. The meal is more than those first stages.
The meal is more than the first draft.
To switch Metaphor Horses midstream —
You wanna put together a puzzle, you first put all the pieces on the table.
I have to remember this every fucking time I write.
The first draft — and in particular the first 5-10k of that first draft — is just me chopping vegetables. It’s prep. It’s learning the recipe. It’s dumping out the puzzle pieces. It’s wandering through a new house in the dark, learning its layout, its topography, and how not to break my pinky toe on the fucking coffee table.
I have to remind myself, this is normal.
I’ll get through it.
It’s like turbulence on a plane, or an anxiety attack — I have to take myself out of the reaction I’m having and recognize, this has come before, and it will come again, and it always goes the same way. That way is: I’ll get through it. I have to cultivate patience in myself and the work. If I don’t remember this, then panic unspools. I feel like I can’t control this, that it’s new, that I’ve done well before but this time, this time, I’ve really gone and fucked it up in an irrevocable way. But if I remember the legacy of this reaction — that it is as regular as clockwork — I rob it of its power, and it can no longer feed on itself. It’s not controlled, exactly, but it is held distant, so I can examine it for what it is.
I have to trust the process I have laid before me. I have as many drafts as I need to get it right. And if I care enough about the story, no part of it is unfixable. Further, my own judgment on a story is the literal worst as I am writing it — I love parts that will need to get cut, I hate parts that are already amazing and I just can’t recognize it. My self-estimation is a mess; it’s just static and broken signal.
So, that’s my message to myself, this morning, and to you, should you require it:
Trust in the process.
Cooking takes time and heat.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.