About the Author: Donna Levin is the author of Extraordinary Means (William Morrow), California Street (Simon & Schuster) and the recent best-seller, There’s More Than One Way Home (Chickadee Prince Books 2017). Her new novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, was published by Chickadee Prince Books in October 2018. In addition to novels, Donna has published two books about writing, Get that Novel Started and Get that Novel Written, both with Writer’s Digest Books. She lives in San Francisco. More at donnalevin.com.
SPOILER ALERT: writing a book (be it novel, memoir, short story collection or political treatise) is hard.
One afternoon it’s particularly hard, and you think, okay, I’ll put it aside, just for a little while. Maybe a week. To recharge. To get some perspective.
That’s a good idea.
The next morning you’re brushing your teeth, and you realize that six months have passed.
How did that happen? Well, let’s get back to why you put the manuscript aside in the first place. Or why, after that week of recharging, you didn’t go back to it. There are as many reasons as there are writers, but what’s the one I’m thinking of first? Oh, yeah, life.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the world stepped aside to let us make writing our priority? Actually, it wouldn’t; it would be lonely. The computer doesn’t kiss back. If we’re fortunate enough to have people in our lives, those people expect and deserve some reciprocity. So when a family member falls ill, that’s the end of the writing time you so assiduously hammered out of your schedule. As it should be – until you can make time again.
Then there’s that other thing that happens to a lot of us: Mean Readers.
You started a novel in a white-hot fever. Hey, you know these characters. And the setting – it’s all there, you just have to add a few details, like the posters on the walls of your heroine’s bedroom. Stunning sentences flow from your fingers, onto paper or a keyboard.
You can’t wait to share your work with someone. So you show those first chapters to your writing group, or (shudder) to a coworker, or (double shudder with horror movie music) to your (soon-to-be former) best friend.
And you get feedback that’s, shall we say, less than stellar. “Am I supposed to like these characters?” or, “This sounds just like (insert name of a Danielle Steele novel),” or even, “Sorry, I didn’t finish it, there was a rerun of Frazier I wanted to watch.” Now those disappointing, and sometimes unkind, comments play in your head on a loudspeaker whenever you sit down to work.
How to give constructive, empowering feedback while also being honest is a discussion that goes beyond the scope of this article. Besides, we’re here to talk about you, not the feedback-giver with their head up their derriere. The moral of this story so far is that while we all need input, I always advise fellow writers to carefully choose with whom they share their work. Inevitably, though, at some point we’re all going to get responses that discourage us.
But, “To heck with Britney/Katelyn/Sean!” you think bravely. “I’m not going to let them stop ME!”
Yet somehow the next day doesn’t find you at Starbucks with your laptop, or on the porch with your notebook. No, the next day finds you cleaning out a closet, or binge-watching British murder mysteries.
Then your car breaks down. And there’s the darn day job. What is it with the boss and her spreadsheets? Why didn’t you get a real estate license like your dad said you should?
None of this changes the fact that you have a half-finished manuscript on your computer, or in a drawer. It ain’t gonna finish itself. So how do you go back to a book you put aside so long ago? The manuscript is a high strung horse that will bolt if not handled gently. (This is a metaphor. The manuscript is a stack of papers or, more likely these days, a digital file.)
So, start easy. Reread what you have so far, be it five pages or 500. Here’s the hard part: read without judgment. Whatever you thought derailed you – the dismissive attitude of an early reader or a visit from a college friend who stayed three months instead of three days – was possibly a displacement of the self-doubts and fears that are as built-in to the writing life as the ink cartridge is in the printer.
When you reread, you might be surprised by how much you’ve forgotten. You might be surprised at how good the manuscript is. And yes, you might cringe at times. But that, too, will pass. We ourselves are the meanest of the Mean Readers.
If you like, go ahead and take copious notes about what you want to change in the existing pages, but do not stop to rewrite. I’m begging you. We’re getting some momentum here.
Then, get back to the reasons why you wanted to write the book in the first place. Write them down. Reconnect with the passion that launched the work. This was a story you wanted to tell, and that only you could tell. Beyond that, your reasons may be more personal. For me, at least, there’s always an element of I want the world to know how I feel, dammit.
Now, create a writing schedule. Put it on your calendar, whether that calendar is on paper or on a computer. A calendar in your head is not good enough. Nor is, “After work if I feel like it,” or “I’ll try to get up early.”
I believe that writing a book is much like exercise: regular – ideally, daily —work is crucial. When it comes to exercise, it’s easy to see you that you can’t run a marathon on Sunday if you haven’t been training during the week. Our brains work much the same way. I’m not a neurologist, but I play one in my dreams, and my own experience, at least, with both writing and exercise, bears this out. If you’re working daily, even if just for a short time, then your unconscious mind will keep on it. Ideas come to you in the shower, when you’re doing dishes, when you’re taking a walk.
Then, keep to the schedule you created. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll need an emergency root canal. And there was that family member who fell ill – remember her from a few paragraphs ago? But you get what I’m going for. You make it a priority. Real writers don’t “do lunch.” They don’t volunteer for every cockamamie fundraising committee the school dreams up.
If it’s not a good time for you to be showing your work, still, get involved with other writers. Plug into a community online or maybe even find one with three-dimensional people, those creatures with heartbeats and sweat glands whom we don’t see as often these days. Sure, there are always a few Mean Readers out there. There are even some Mean People. They want to weed out what they see as competition, which is ridiculous (and how ridiculous it is becomes increasingly obvious as years go by). It would be disingenuous to say I’ve loved, or even liked, every writer I’ve met, but of all the milieu I’ve found myself in – theater people, lawyers, and elementary school moms, among others – writers are the nicest, most intelligent, and most thoughtful.
Someone once asked me, “How do you get inspired?” I replied, “I don’t get inspired. I show up.”
Show up for half an hour. You can do that.
Write a sentence. It doesn’t have to be “true.” It doesn’t have to be “good.” It just has to be. Then write the next sentence. Same lack of standards.
And tomorrow, show up again.
Get back to your book in Donna’s 2-part workshop Get Back to That Book.