Don’t get me wrong. I love self-publishing. It’s been a boon to writers in the same way cheap digital technology has opened up access to low budget filmmakers. As readers, we get to experience deserving books that would have never seen the light of day in traditional publishing because they’re isn’t a mass market for them, or they’re controversial, or there’s just not enough room on bookstore shelves for another new writer.
That said, most self-published novels suck. That’s not surprising. It’s damn hard to write a good book. Odds are, 95% of self-published novels are going to be dreck. The question is, how does your novel, or my novel for that matter, make it into the coveted 5% that are actually worth reading?
I come to the world of novel writing from the world of screenwriting. When I was young, I was a first-round reader for screenwriting contests. I literally read hundreds of scripts, but only passed along a handful to the second round. I learned how hard it was to write a good script, and I saw the many ways they fell short.
I also coordinated a screenwriting group for many years, working with a diverse group of peers to improve our writing. Some people went on to success, others gave up. It was like a great Darwinian laboratory that showed me why many writers fall short of their goals.
I’ve obtained a few nuggets of wisdom through those experiences and from working with Hollywood agents, managers, and producers. Here are five lessons that have stuck with me and changed my outlook on writing.
- Your first draft is going to suck. I love how writers are portrayed in movies. They usually are struggling with writer’s block, which is finally cured through the love of a good man/woman are some mind-blowing experience they have. They then sit down and bang out a first draft that their agent/friend/lover reads and declares to be the greatest thing since Faulkner. But the reality is, even a book as great as To Kill a Mockingbird started out as a mediocre first draft called Go Set a Watchman. (Or so an article in the New York Times posits.) Your first draft is going to be bad. Accept it. Embrace it. Be happy that you’ve finished it.
- Your 10th draft will probably suck too (though less so). A manager once told me that the real work doesn’t even start until the 10th draft. I once wrote over 30 drafts of a screenplay that turned out to be the best thing I’d ever written and garnered me some attention in Hollywood. Good writing takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. It’s like training for an Ironman. Many writers get frustrated and declare that they can’t write another draft. That’s the time to put it aside until you’re ready to rewrite and rewrite some more. It’s definitely not the time to start sending it out to agents and publishers.
- Listen to your critics. I have a friend who is a talented writer. She sent out her first novel to at least 20 friends who served as her beta readers. Most of them weren’t writers themselves and offered only vague, positive comments. I, on the other hand, sat down with her and gave detailed suggestions on how she could improve her book. But she didn’t want to hear it. She was defensive and said she wasn’t willing to do any extensive rewriting at that point. I realized that she was looking for people to prop up her ego, not improve her book. We writers need to put our egos aside and listen to every comment, positive or negative. Not all of them will be helpful, but if we’re open and free from judgement, we’re bound to learn a few things about our work and ourselves.
A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark. — Woody Allen in Annie Hall
- Grow as a writer. A friend of mine who dances socially likes to say that some people have six months dance experience, while others have six times one month experience. In other words, they don’t continue to improve with experience. I’ve found this to be true of writers too. There were some very nice people in our writing group who never improved much as writers. We encountered the same weaknesses in every script they wrote, no matter how much the group tried to help them. Was this about a block that they might overcome eventually, or were they hitting the ceiling of their talent? I’m not sure, but I know it was frustrating for them. So do whatever you can to help yourself grow–have new experiences, take a class, find a new mentor, read a book, change genres, or switch from screenplays to novels, like I did.
- Accept who you and and where you are. Not everybody is going to be a best selling author or win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But you know what? Even if you achieve those things, you’re still the same person inside, and you still have to get up every day and face the distinct possibility that the next thing you write is going to suck. Enjoy the process. Enjoy living. That’s what writing is all about.