Last fall, I wrote a post about the beginnings of my writing life, https://saradeurell.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/a-history-of-writing/, in which I said that someday I’d write a Part II about my adolescent writing projects. So here it is.
I finished a 100-page book when I was about ten (it was a pretty trite fantasy about a unicorn slaying a dragon, and the only good thing to come out of it was a weasel of a character who played both sides against one another through the whole story). Wrote a badly-researched ghost novel of about 120 pages, finishing when I was 12. Then I went through a phase of writing completely ridiculous horror stories (probably because that’s what I was reading).
And then, at 14, I decided I wanted to be A Very Serious Writer. I wanted to write sweeping, epic, heartbreaking novels that teachers would someday force their high school students to read. So I started planning and building a world for the most complicated fantasy novel ever conceived of in the history of mankind. (Incidentally, I tried to write that same novel again during NaNoWriMo last year, and it’s still too complicated for me to get my head around.) I was 17 when I admitted to myself that I just wasn’t ready to write anything that BIG and decided to try my hand at a literary novel with only a few major characters instead.
My main hangups as a teenage writer were that (a) I spent too long trying to write a perfect first draft and skewed the focus of the plot as a result and (b) I took everything far too seriously. I didn’t want to be funny, and I didn’t want to be fun. I wanted to be profound – which is a problem if you’re only 17 and don’t have enough life experience to be profound, and also usually makes your writing (or at least your narrator) sound pretentious, which is, ironically, one of my own pet peeves with what I read.
I finished the rough draft after a grueling 4-year wrestling match against a main character who dragged his heels every step of the way, reread it, and realized with horror that “flawless” was exactly what my book wasn’t. I wrote exclusively poetry and short stories for years afterward.
It wasn’t until I started working on The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn that I hit my stride and my modus operandi as a writer. Everything clicked with the writing of that book. Self-discipline, setting goals for myself and surpassing them, knocking out a draft in a reasonable amount of time, taking time to get perspective between rewrites, and rewriting ruthlessly…all that came with the process of writing Erica Flynn.
The moral of the post, I guess, is that writing is something you can really only learn by doing it. And you aren’t wasting time by making mistakes, even if an entire manuscript is just one big tangle of mistakes. Like anything in life, it’s only a waste if you don’t learn from it, if you ignore the lessons available to you within an experience, if you keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Keep trying new things. Keep experimenting. Try new methods. Branch out. Keep trying.
And don’t take yourself or your writing so seriously that it isn’t any FUN! It’s a rare reader that dislikes fun, but there are plenty of readers looking for it.
You’re too hard on your adolescent projects. They were all good stuff. Not what you want them to have been, but good stuff, nevertheless. Some day, you’ll go back to them and go, “Woah! Good stuff!”
That process sounds familiar. I think one of the hardest things about trying to be a writer is learning what kind of a writer you are. It’s certainly taken me several attempts at all kinds of things to begin to find out where I belong. It isn’t quite where I expected, either.
By the way, I love that book title.