Volumes and volumes of work

Yesterday, I finished a 72,000 word novel. I started in the middle of January, so it took about two and a half months to create this workable, readable draft (but it will still go through multiple edits, I’m sure).

Even so, I was astounded–and, if I’m being honest, pretty impressed with myself. It usually takes me a year to get a good first draft finished. I’m a full-time student, with a part-time job ghost writing and a part-time internship editing. Writing my own stuff has always been eked out in whatever time I could spare, and it’s just hard. 

I still had to eke out personal writing periods with all the pain of wringing water from a stone, but I spent less time smacking my head against my screen in frustration, it seemed, and more time producing things I could actually use. Not just that–but in my limited and warped judgment of my own work, it’s better than my previous two novels and the handful of stories and essays I’d written.

What was the difference? Maybe because it’s only a little speculative. Other novels took world-building finesse, which surely needed more effort. Or is it just as difficult to accurately translate our own world in a way that won’t put everyone to sleep?

But here’s the thing–the other thing, that I’d like to believe, but am nervous to say out loud in case I accidentally jinx it.

And that is . . . I’m getting better. I am visibly improving in my craft.

Ira Glass has said, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not . . . It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Stephen King, as well, has instructed young writers, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Some writers, in their quaint biographies, will say, “I knew since I was a kid I wanted to be a writer.” And they have stories about picture books they created at age seven or nine–or three novels they wrote before they were eighteen. They weren’t good, probably, but still–not the usual behavior for an adolescent. These writers seem to me to be natural writers. Sure, their stuff wasn’t good yet, but they were already doing it. It was in their blood! And amid the adjectives and comma splices, there were some darn creative ideas in there.

This was not me.

I only got into writing toward the end of high school, and even then, I wasn’t in writing, I’d just discovered fanfiction and decided to write my own. Bad fanfiction. With cliched romance and very typical Mary-Sue characters. And then, for the action, I would copy sections of books I’d read and liked (and even what I was copying from wasn’t that good, in retrospect). I was plagiarizing crap. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

Then, as an art major in college, I took my first creative writing class (not that I was doing much accept low-level roleplaying and half-hearted fanfiction). It blew my mind: Passive sentences! Repeating the same sentence structure! Verbs, not adjectives!

I was pulling all of these amateur mistakes and more, and it was the first time I recognized it–even realized that hello, this was an actual skill. There were techniques to learn and apply. I mean, people talk about writing a novel like it’s just another thing to cross off your bucket list, like seeing the Eiffel Tower.

That class was when I wrote the first chapter of Once Upon a Nightmare, which would become the first (still not very good) novel I ever finished.

What I’m saying is, I started at the epitome of bad writing. No one could have defined the qualities of amateur, naive, dang-awful prose better than I did. But I worked. I took to writing like a holy calling, going in with my sword blazing, ready to kick ass and take prisoners. I had a lot of ground to cover, because frankly, I sucked.

I can see jumps in my writing in not only yearly increments, but by months. My real fear, actually, is plateauing into something mediocre. 95% of writing is mediocre. It takes a monumental amount of effort to make something great, and that effort is in addition to the skills you’ve already honed as a foundation to start from.

Finishing a good first draft in a shorter amount of time, feeling the pacing and flow of the plot as something instinctive, gave me all the feeling of running a half marathon and thinking, Nice warm-up for the Iron Man I’m soon going to attempt.

The only way to be a writer is to write, ladies and gentleman. So keep writing, reading, studying, working. Do not come, as the King says, to the blank page lightly.

4 thoughts on “Volumes and volumes of work

  1. Well done McKelle–congratulations! That is so awesome. Do keep us posted on revisions and any querying of this butt-kicking novel that takes place in the future. I wish blessings on your efforts and want to hear how it goes.

  2. It’s really fabulous to see that progress in your own writing. I had started some terrible writing in junior high, dropped it in high school, moved to fan-fiction in college, and finally am writing novels. When I look at my earlier stuff, I cringe at all the editing it needs. The ideas are decent, but dang, the grammar!

    I did something similar last summer and knocked out a 60k novel in a month. Like you it was the first time I felt comfortable with the pacing and plot. It felt cohesive instead of a jumbled mess.

    Learning to write is definitely a difficult road, and learning to write well is like marching through the swamps. Congrats on knocking out a fully-formed novel so quickly!

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