I left school in 1978 and promptly set out on a cross country road trip with nothing but my typewriter and what I could carry in the back of a 1974 Toyota Corolla. I had been writing short stories since high school but I felt that I would never kick my writing career into high gear until I wrote my first novel. This hilarious, unplanned misadventure was my way of focusing on that exact thing.
Actually, there’s probably a pretty humorous novel in the telling of that calamitous journey, but that’s not why I brought it up. No, I brought up that first novel because I wanted to remind myself, on this day in particular, what it felt like to be so young, to have so little experience that you literally don’t have any ideas. A pampered, suburban white kid doesn’t really get expurgated into adulthood carrying a big bag of harrowing experiences to draw from.
Over the course of the next year, I left my home in Virginia and traveled all the way to California. Then I turned around and went back to Texas, eventually ending up in a rented room over a carriage house in the Vieux Carre’ in New Orleans. And all along I typed. Every night and sometimes all day, I fed paper into the roller and banged out the next page. Then I gathered up what I had written and disposed of it – once in California accidentally setting off the smoke detector in my apartment to further hilarious consequences – only to start over immediately.
I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words I put to paper during that journey of discovery but I ended up with a 300 page novel called Sending Down The Fare. It was a coming of age story, obviously, because that was the only experience I had to draw on. It was written in the present tense, mostly in long, long run on sentences, a style I had developed to cover my lack of actual style.
Somehow, I managed to get an editor interested. Not just any editor, either, it was Bill Thompson, the guy who had discovered Stephen King and would later go on to discover John Grisham. But that’s also not why I brought this up. This post isn’t even about that novel in particular, it’s about the hardest part of writing. The waiting.
So, here you are, more than a year of your life spent in service to this stack of paper. What do you want to do? Send it out. Right? Finishing a novel is an accomplishment. Even if it’s a terrible piece of crap, just getting to “The End” is like climbing Mt. Everest. Who cares if it was a sloppy, dangerous climb? You made it. Time to take some photos of you holding a flag or something.
Don’t do it. I mean, go ahead and take the photos, you’ve earned it, but do not ever send out a first draft. Not even to your first readers, those poor suffering souls whom you use as a bulwark against sending out stuff that will humiliate you and possibly ruin your career. No one deserves to read a first draft. Not even [insert name of paragon of evil here]. Think about that. Not even [insert name of paragon of evil here] deserves to be forced to read a first draft even though [he/she/it] is at this moment roasting in eternal torment. That’s right, I went there. So you must know that it’s important because I went there.
Why? Because the human brain is a magnificent piece of squishy machinery. You aren’t even aware of half the stuff this pale, vaguely cabbage looking thing can do. For instance, it has the power to plug plot holes without telling you. That’s right and it can also filter the memories of what you’ve written through rose tinted glasses. It can also convince you that you wrote that one chapter about the unicorn that’s pivotal to the story when, in fact, you only thought about writing it. You thought about it so hard you actually remember doing it. Even though you didn’t.
Why? Why does your own brain betray you like this? Well, and this brings us back around to the main point, because writing a novel is really hard and if you knew how poorly you were doing you’d quit half way through. Also, that idea you started with? It was really stupid, man. Remember how you came up with it? You couldn’t sleep so you stayed up late drinking whiskey and watching 1970s Science Fiction movies on Netflix. And, just to finish ripping the bandage off with one solid yank, I’ll just add that you have some “sentences” and “paragraphs” that are so ridiculously long and convoluted that if you fed them into a supercomputer you could bring down the internet. Did you read that? The whole internet, man. Nobody wants that, so back away from the Send button and take a few months off.
A few months?! Yeah, and just to be upfront about it, it’s more like six months. And you can’t even look at a single word during that whole time. You have to quit it cold turkey. Quit and stay quit.
Why? Scientists refer to the process of de-familiarizing yourself with the product of your own creativity as “Gray Matter Leakage.”* GML relies on the fact that your brain has a finite amount of storage space. In order to keep your head from exploding when you remember too much stuff, it gets rid of the least used information by up and forgetting it. By ignoring your manuscript for six months, you’re basically giving your brain carte blanche to forget everything it remembered about it including plot hole plugs, nonexistent chapters, and the rosy tint it applied to your writing style. After a couple months passes, you may wake up from a dead sleep with the horrific memory of a paragraph that was a two page long sentence that ended with an ellipses.
Once the process of GML is complete, you can return to your first draft and read it with the same horrified expression of intense embarrassment that any stranger would have had you sent it out. Now, before the depression sets in, take a moment to imagine what that would have done to your career. The next book you write may be a potential best seller but, and trust me on this, agents have long memories. If you want to get over sending out a first draft, you’ll have to change your name and your address and possibly your sex.
Here comes the fun part: Depression. Okay, that’s not the fun part, it’s the worst part, but it’s also the part where you find out if you’re ever really going to be a writer. If you get depressed, get drunk, and vow never to put yourself through this masochistic process again then you’re never going to be a writer because, published or not, good or not, popular or not, this is part of it. A crucial part of it. If, on the other hand, you do all that stuff and then three days later find yourself picking through that first draft to find the parts that can be salvaged, then you might never become a writer but you will get better at writing.
If I seem overly harsh in this post it’s because I just finished the first draft of a SciFi novel and today is the first day of the six month moratorium. I stayed up late watching American Horror Story with my daughter last night instead of writing, the first day I’ve taken off in months, and I’m spending my time writing blog posts today. I am eerily reminded of what it was like when I quit smoking.
Right now, in my mind, it’s the single most brilliant thing I’ve ever written. We’ll see how I feel about it in March.
* This is not true. No scientist has ever used this term.