Four years ago my ninth novel, Beneath a Wounded Sky, hit the shelves. It was the final volume in my Fallen Cloud Saga, and it was a hard book to write for several reasons. The years since then haven’t been kind, and my writing was relegated not to the back seat, but to the way back (those of you who remember tumbling around in the back half of an old-style station wagon will understand).
My writing output for those years was, primarily, this blog and the poems, vignettes, essays, and short stories it contains. Larger projects have consistently fought my control and eluded my grasp. I’ve started one novel several times. I’ve outlined a screenplay. I did a full proposal for a sitcom, worked with the creative team on an indie film, and spent a month or so researching and outlining a biographical novel of a regional sculptor.
None of these attempts got any traction, though. Rather, they just sat in the muddy ditch and spun their wheels.
Despite this paltry output, I still think of myself as a writer, and thus I follow a couple of writerly pages. You know…the type that feeds you bits of trivia about famous authors or tosses out inspirational quotes about writing.
Usually, the memes they strew about are nothing new — old chestnuts from great pens — but the other day I saw a quote that made me stop and smile. I smiled because, for once, the words emblazoned in bold, white, Impact font actually affected me. Was there a picture under those block letters? I don’t know. Did I recognize the name of the author? No. Neither of those things was important. It was the words that did carried weight:
When writing a first draft I remind myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles. —Shannon Hale
I had never heard this quote before, nor had I ever heard of Shannon Hale*. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me who said it — the words wouldn’t be more apt if they came from someone more familiar to me. What matters is how they changed my thinking.
The hardest part of writing is, well, writing. (Except maybe the editing. Editing is hard.) I can research the finest details of a scene for a week. I can outline a story and jot down idea after idea. I can play with structure and allusions for days and days. I’ll concoct backstories for characters, from the banal to the bizarre, while queuing up for the bus.
Writing a novel is a slog, a terribly arduous and protracted effort that takes months (or years). When writing a book, it’s like an application that runs in the background, continuously pulling cycles as acts and scenes simmer and percolate, and then comes to the fore when words get put to the page. It’s a constant low-level drain on reserves, and I have to work hard to keep up my energy, especially as I push through the slower parts of the story.
One of the reasons I find it difficult is because my story ideas always sound stupid once I’ve distilled them down to an “elevator pitch.” It sounds great as a concept and looks interesting as a broad brush-stroke sketch, but when I get down in the weeds it looks like…weeds…and I end up convincing myself that I can’t write, can’t plot, can’t devise a decent story to save my life.
If I shift my perception, though, I can drop the negative feelings about first drafts and see it instead as a foundation upon which I can continue to work, build upon, and refine. It’s a rough draft. It’s not going to be pretty, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be perfect.
So, here’s to Shannon Hale. Thank you for words that truly made a difference.
*Shannon Hale is an American author of young adult fantasy and adult fiction, including the Newbery Honor book Princess Academy, the Books of Bayern series, two adult novels, and two graphic novels that she co-wrote with her husband. — Wikipedia