Monday, January 16, 2012

The importance of sucking for awhile

I was making breakfast Saturday morning when one of the housemates stumbled blearily into the kitchen. I’ve learned to get out of the way fast and not make conversation until he’s downed at least six gallons of coffee.

“Morning,” I said at last.

“Morning,” he mumbled. “Got big plans today?”

“Writing. I’m working on a new book, so that’s going to occupy a lot of my time for awhile.”

“Mmmph,” he said into his coffee. “How many pages do you think you’ll write?”

I shrugged and stuffed a piece of bread into the toaster. “I’m aiming for 25, but we’ll see.”

“That’s all? Huh.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean that’s all?”

“I dunno. I just would have figured someone who writes as much as you would be faster than that.”

Two things kept me from beating him over the head with the toaster.

The first is that non-writers just don’t understand that creating a brand new book from scratch involves more than repeatedly typing the phrase, “he plunged his pork sword into the dewy cleft of her love wallet.” You’ve got characters to name, backstories to develop, emotional baggage to unpack, and clever dialogue to finesse.

Sometimes, my editor even expects me to come up with a plot.

All that to say, it takes a bit longer to write 25 pages than it does to read them.

But probably the biggest reason I didn’t brain my housemate with the toaster is that I was totally lying. There’s no way in hell I was going to write 25 pages over the weekend, and I knew it. Maybe later, maybe once I hit my stride in this middle of the book.

But now – when I’m in the ugly, early stages of a new story – I’m lucky to crank out four or five pages a day. And those four or five pages will be some of the most abysmal, unfunny, uncreative examples of fiction you might ever lay eyes on.

People often ask me to name the best part of being a published author. I usually make a smartass joke about my private jet or the sleepovers with George Clooney. Want to know the truth?

The best part about being published and about having written for as long as I have is that I know sucking is part of the process. I can spend a weekend slowly oozing out horrible drivel, and while I may be disgusted with the drivel, I understand it’s necessary to do that before I reach the point where I stop sucking and start writing decent prose.

It takes a crazy amount of patience to hang in there and keep going when you’re writing at the pace of a slug crawling through tar, and every other word you place on the page feels like the wrong one. I’ve seen plenty of writers get discouraged and give up before they ever know that glorious moment when it stops feeling like you’re polishing a turd and begins to feel like you might have a decent novel on your hands.

The trick to writing isn’t hammering out a lot of brilliant prose at a speedy pace. The trick is knowing that if you keep going, you eventually do stop sucking.

I didn’t say any of this to my housemate, of course. By then, he’d fallen asleep leaning against the refrigerator, and the dog was lapping up the puddle of coffee at his feet.

Have you learned the importance of sucking in writing or any other aspect of your life? Please share!

I’ve got some sucking to do. Wait, what?


LAH said...

When I first read this I was like "25 pages, what?!" thinking you were some sort of writing wunderkind.

I've read a lot lately about how we need to realize the inevitable suckage of early drafts, and it's always encouraging to see a successful author saying the same thing, so thanks!

Unknown said...

Wow. 25 pages. That would be loads.

I've come to realise that usually my beginnings feel so bad because that's where I start. I've not had time to get to know my characters and figuring out the backstory. So I'm attempting to write less chronological now and I think it's working much better. I've got past the "it sucks" stage much faster at least.

Sarah W said...

“...he plunged his pork sword into the dewy cleft of her love wallet.”

Okay, that's the one---you've finally scarred me.

But seriously, thanks for this. I recently pulled out (har) a seven year old drawer novel and sent it to a betafriend to see if she thought it really sucked as much as I thought it did.

It does, she said, but with amazing potential.

Seven years ago, I didn't know from rewriting. Why bother? If it sucks, let it go--if it doesn't come back, consider yourself lucky.

But now . . . now I'm focusing on that "amazing potential."

Huh. Guess I learned something along the way. Had to happen sometime.

MJones said...

This is a difficult concept to master, especially if you're a perfectionist. And especially if you follow writers and read a lot and those writers make churning out beautiful words look so easy.
It's important to know that a first draft is ugly. UGLY! And that it gets prettier through editing and critique and hard work.

I've been writing for awhile now and I am just now starting to learn that it is necessary to suck for awhile. Otherwise you'll just drive yourself nuts trying to create a perfect manuscript on the first try.

Jessica Lemmon said...

When I shipped off my shiny new manuscript to Harlequin 2 yrs ago, I was already polishing my soon-to-be-earned writer's awards. (They have those, right?) Then I got rejected. (GASP!) Luckily, by then, I'd written two other manuscripts and had learned a thing or two. So, I rewrote said crap-MS and resubmitted a year later, and in the menatime, kept writing.

The weekend before it got rejected AGAIN, I picked it up and GASP! realized it STILL SUCKED. Good news is that NOW I know how to fix it. But yeah, sucking is part of the process. And I'm rewriting it AGAIN. I *think* it's less sucky now.

Anonymous said...

Love this, Tawna. Just what we writers need to remind ourselves. I've found that people don't understand how many drafts one novel can go through. It would be nice if I wrote a book, edited it once, and could publish it right away. But no one would want to read my second draft slop! And that's okay. I just keep slashing and chiseling until it's pretty enough for show.

Jess Corra said...

LOVE. And I too am now scarred from "pork sword."

Taymalin said...

Sucking is way more fun than not sucking.

Er, allowing yourself to suck is more fun than feeling bad about sucking.

Nope. No way to make it not dirty.

Skye said...

I, too, was amazed by the 25 pages comment, until I realized you were just being optimistic. Whew. I can do that with a technical document, but no way a creative one.

I have been getting a lot of very excellent advice and knowledge from reading you and Crusie et al., and I am finally, after many, many years, catching on to the "how many licks to get to the center of the tootsie pop" novel-writing process. (Sucking, licking, it all works out the same, and it all sounds dirty, too!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you that's exactly what I needed to hear.

Anonymous said...

I am totally backwards but still can relate. I can crank out a plot, characters, story line, where I want it, and get a long 5 page beginning in no time flat. However...I also get the point where my beginning has to go into the story and that is my slow part. I can never seem to get the excitement to carry through past the beginning. I tend to have to change and add things to much because I jump to spots to quickly.

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

Love wallet... oh, that's precious.... XD

Maery Rose said...

I feel great if I manage to sweat out three bad pages before I have to head off to my "real" job. I love the "polishing a turd" wordage. Perfect description of the process...

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think four or five pages a day is very good, let alone twenty-five pages. I know what you mean though; sometimes when I hear about other writers succeeding in their writing and getting their stuff published while I'm still working on my first or second draft, I feel like I'm not working fast enough. But I guess we all work at our own pace.

Ladybird World Mother said...

Loved this, you have cheered up my writing day!

BarbN said...

great post! not to quibble, but if he's plunging his pork sword, shouldn't it be into the dewy cleft of her love scabbard? *ducks and runs* I mean, really. sword and wallet?

Iris said...

It's good to know that sucking may just be a phase. However, I do worry whatever I wrote when I don't think I am in that phase still do... suck...

I can tell myself that as long as I'm happy when I write then everything is fine. But what's the fun in making up stories when you don't have readers to share them with?

In the mean time, thanks to my obsessive nature, I'll keep on writing. I'll remind myself often that "sucking is necessary." ;)

Mike Schulenberg said...

This was both amusing and inspiring. Thanks!

Brooklyn Ann said...

Yay for sucking! Yay for pork swords and dewy love wallets!

Yes, we all need this reminder!

Brooklyn Ann said...

With references to sucking, pork swords, and love wallets, I must say this is the best post on this subject I've read.

Tammy Patton said...

There was a writer interviewed in RWR a couple of months ago who writes more than twenty pages a day. She'd completed eight novellas/novels in less than a year, and planned on two or three more---I don't remember exact numbers--- probably beacuse I was feeling depressed and inadequate long before I reached the end of the article. I wrote two pages today, and felt pretty good about it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article, and maybe that is the reason why I do not write as much as I should. I am afraid of it sucking, but you are right about keeping on writing even if it sucks. I might suck on rough drafts, but that is what revising is for. Thank you for saying I can suck when it comes to rough drafts. Good luck on your writing journey!

LilySea said...

Thanks for the reminder! I am beginning a new project and feeling very sluglike lately.

Anonymous said...

It's fun to suck when you know the piece will never see the light of day. You can work out all the hostility you have and not screw up the piece you're working on. I save the initial run at a story just in case I might have let a good nugget slip.