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Traveling the Writing Road

© 2008 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

An old saying goes: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I am reminded of that whenever I get ready to start writing a new book. A journey of eighty or ninety thousand words (or more) begins with a single word, an initial sentence, the first paragraph, section, and chapter . . . and marches forward like a journey of a thousand miles. Writing a novel takes endurance, persistence, and inner strength.

As you travel the Writing Road, you are likely to run into obstacles. Everybody runs into dead ends, roadblocks, and stretches of bad road. (Watch out for bandits, especially time bandits!) Along the way, you're going to discover that there were lots of preparations you wish you'd made: improved hiking boots, rain gear, more detailed maps or a GPS, etc. But you've never taken this particular journey before, so of course you don't know everything you need to know in order to have a fabulous - and perfect - experience. Some of the time you'll be uncomfortable, perhaps even miserable, because nobody can plan for everything, and no single trip goes exactly the same as any other.

Like many writers, I go through periods where I doubt why I'm writing, and whether I can keep on. I get fatigued. Sometimes I feel appalled because I learn new information about craft and technique and realize that previous writing was not as accomplished as I wish it could have been. As I've talked to other writers, I have come to understand that this happens to nearly everybody.

You Don't Know What You Don't Know
I have said this over and over when I teach and speak (and probably ought to make it the sub-title to my How-To book): You don't know what you don't know. Like a camper who finds out how to pitch a tent after much trial and error, you, too, will likely discover the hard way what you don't know, and sometimes that's embarrassing, time-consuming, or even painful. Initially, we do the best we can with what talents we possess. We hope for help from other writers and from our editors, and we constantly try to improve our skills and tactics. But you can't address topics or issues or weaknesses if you don't even know what they are. Like everyone else, you're going to learn all that gradually.

Just when you think you've learned the drill, you may discover with the next writing journey that much of what you learned with the last book doesn't apply entirely to the next book. Ellen Hart often says that every book you write will call for different skills, a different focus, different talents. Some of those talents you may have to work hard to master.

And if you ARE having the same exact experience over and over with every book you write, your readers are not going to be all that happy after a while. If the writer doesn't stretch and learn and try to deliver something new on the page, then the reader eventually poops out and stops taking the journey with you.

So it's highly likely that every journey through a book will be something new and different, just like hiking the Appalachian Trail is going to be significantly different from hiking Crater Lake Trail in Arizona. You're still out on a trek, but the terrain is surprisingly varied. You can study up, get advice from those who've been to each locale, and try to prepare, but you can't plan ahead for all inclement weather, for washed out trail sections, or for unexpected illness. No writer can fully know what to expect when beginning work on the next project.

The Unexpected, The Out of Control, The Maddening
I can't count how many students and authors I've talked to who tell me they started a project with the best of intentions, and somewhere along the way, it took a left turn into the wilderness. Or it jumped genres. Or the characters refused to carry the plot in the way the writer intended. Or any number of other problems cropped up.

We'd like to think that we're in total control of our writing, but the fact is that some of it comes up out of the unconscious, that deep well that's hard to tap and often delivers in dreams - which we then have so much trouble remembering. Robert Olen Butler, in his writing book From Where You Dream, wrote: "Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you."

This means that you can't control every aspect of the writing journey. Unexpected themes arise. Maddening details catch you unawares. If you think you can control all of that, then you're likely to get frustrated and perhaps even give up. I'm reminded of a scene near the end of the movie "Parenthood" where Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen are at their kids' school play, and everything starts falling apart on stage. The Steve character is tortured. His kid has messed up in a big way, and he feels even more stressed than he has been through all the previous parts of the movie. He suddenly starts feeling like he's on a roller coaster, dizzy, about to get sick. With the sound of the roller coaster going, he finally "gets" what his wife and many others have been trying to tell him all along: There's nothing you can do about Life - you just have to quit worrying and enjoy the roller coaster ride. He laughs. Suddenly he realizes that if he can't control everything, well, jeez----it's actually funny as hell.

This is what you have to do with a book. You can't take it so seriously that you're ready to let the roller coaster derail and kill you. Instead, you have to look at the writing process as a bumbling series of learning opportunities that (thankfully) you mostly do by yourself. There'll be plenty of time later to share your work - but those early drafts are yours to muck around with all you like.

Angels and Devils and Alchemy
I know logically that I can't control every aspect of the writing process, and yet, I, too, am often discouraged, and it seems like I have to do constant self-talk to stay on track. Just as an example, the conversation goes something like this:
DEVIL ON MY SHOULDER: You're writing crap. You're definitely the worst writer ever! You may have gotten some good reviews for the last book/story/article, but this one is going to stink to high heaven!

ANGEL: No, it's not! It's your first draft. Don't listen, just keep writing.

DEVIL: You're making a big mistake. You're waaaaay too stupid to pull this off. This time you've finally bit off more than you can chew.

ANGEL: No, you haven't. Quit looking at the thing in its entirety. One foot forward, then the other. Baby steps all the way. You can't take such an enormous journey all at once. Just breathe, and keep on moving, one small step at a time.

DEVIL: But it sucks! It's isn't flowing at all, and you know what? It's not going to work!

ANGEL: It *always* sucks, remember? First drafts are hard. You're perfectly capable. You can do this.

DEVIL: This part is NOT going to come out right. Heh heh heh… No matter what you do, it'll be rotten.

ANGEL: Skip that section and leave a note you can come back to. Move on to the next part because hey, that next scene is clear. Don't wallow in the worry - keep on trucking.

DEVIL: You'll never be able to write this scene!

ANGEL: Ridiculous. Of course you can write it. You're just not ready yet. You need more info, more thinking time - just move on, and stop dithering!
And so on and so on and so on . . . more worries, more kvetching, more nervousness. . .

The important thing that I've learned is that at some point into a first draft, if you keep traveling, eventually it starts to flow. If you persist, EVENTUALLY it comes. Sometimes I think that's the Universe's way of testing whether you really have the strength and persistence to make the whole journey. We get tested early on because God knows there will be many more obstacles (editors, promotions, critics, etc.) to come.

But if you do persist, once you have a draft, you can clean it up. You put on your editing hat, show the manuscript to friends, consult your resource books, maybe even pay an editor, and you keep on going step by step. You get smarter, your writing muscles grow stronger, and you learn new things that help you now and with your future journeys.

Writing is not an area where you can be a perfectionist, at least not initially. You've got to write a lot of Crap before you can parse out the good stuff. That's probably the one thing that blocks the greatest number of my students. They're not willing to write Crap, share Crap, or acknowledge that the whole point of revision is to put on your Alchemist's hat and transform that Crap to Gold.

The Road is Long, The Journey Sometimes Hard
It's not unusual to feel writing fatigue periodically and to need a break for rest and to amass new information. In fact, if you're doing some study and resource checking, and not actually drafting, maybe that's where you need to focus for the time being. But you can't afford to spend a lot of time running yourself down and fretting about your writing of the past because the only thing you have control of is now. If you want to improve future writing, then focus forward. Do go on a journey to learn new skills and to find out more of what you don't yet know. But don't beat yourself up if you get sidelined in camp for 48 hours because you had no idea wearing one pair of good socks would give you blisters and you should have worn an extra liner pair. Do what you need to do to repair the problem, then travel on.

In my humble opinion, every new book should be a new journey, a new opportunity to try out what you've learned and to advance in your craft. If you were already perfect in nearly every way, what's the point? Even in our current flawed and searching states, we're already farther along in the journey than about 95% of the American population who have never published a book, much less actually written a complete first draft. Just because you haven't managed to take over Joyce Carol Oates' mind and career doesn't mean that you can't aspire to write with as much confidence and skill as she has. (I always love to use Oates as an example because she churns out books faster than practically anyone besides Nora Roberts, and they're always so well-written. How does she do that!)

All writers must take time to recharge batteries. Making time for learning and research is a good way to add to your journey gear, which can only help in the long run. Stop fretting that nobody ever told you to get the waterproof matches and now you're spending inordinate amounts of time on hands and knees with a magnifying glass and a piece of dry bark. Eventually, you WILL get sparks, and you'll be excited when they start burning nicely. Pretty soon, out of the ashes, a new fire will burn hot and true, and you'll be ready to write that next project. Don't rush it. It'll come.

Do what you can to stoke up that fire, and then once you have it all banked properly so that you're feeling warm and comfy, dry out your matches, put them somewhere safe, preferably on your person, and cherish them. Those are magic matches you'll need to light future fires.

Some of my magic matches include my partner, writer friends who give me moral support, resource books that inspire and inform, daily exercise, and Milky Way dark chocolate bars. (Those last two things seem to cancel one another out.)

Little by Little...
Whatever you use to help you pry out your first drafts, cherish those tools like a hiker holds fast to a canteen and good boots. You can always add more gear, too, more ideas, more tactics, more craft knowledge.

And always remember what J.R.R. Tolkien once said: "Little by little, one travels far." You don't have to make this writing journey in a week or a few months. Chances are you won't be able to, even if you try. Many books have taken years for their authors to write. Don't let time deter you. The writing journey begins with that first step, then a second step. You may get lost at times, the forest may grow dark, but keep on moving, and eventually you'll reach your destination.
© 2008 Lori L. Lake From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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