The biggest compliments often come from the most unlikely sources. One of my wife’s colleagues is a delightful young woman in her mid-twenties. She and her partner have come to our house for dinner on a couple of occasions. We enjoy their company, and they like to play with our three-year-old son, who, fortunately, loves to play with them.
My wife’s colleague loves books but is not a writer. By her own admission, she had never given much thought to writers before she met us, or to how they go about constructing their books. But during her last visit, she asked my wife and me about our writing processes. (My superhuman wife not only works full-time and cooks gourmet meals but also writes young-adult novels.) We regaled her with many anecdotes, including a description of the differences between my wife’s writing method and mine. My wife writes quickly and barely pauses as she types. I stare at the screen, type a few words, then stare some more. I agonize over every word. For my wife, writing is a stroll through the woods on a cool summer afternoon. For me, it’s a day at the gym, sweating and grunting in the hope that something good will come from my labors.
Our friend listened with interest, but her expression went from fascination to horror when I told her that it’s not uncommon to write 20,000-25,000 words, decide that I’m headed in the wrong direction, and throw out a month’s worth of work and start over. I mentioned that the final version of my recently completed novel (I wrote five drafts) bears only a passing resemblance to the first draft. The premise is the same, as are two of the five main characters. Everything else is completely different.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “What do you do with all the stuff you cut?” Paste it into a separate Word file, I told her, and hang on to it in the unlikely event that I need it again.
She turned to my wife. “Do you do the same thing?” My wife nodded. “But doesn’t that take a long time?”
Yes, we said. It does. I spent a year and a half revising my manuscript to get it into its current shape.
“See, I could never do that,” she said. “I don’t think I could handle writing something and then having to throw it away if it didn’t work.”
This young woman is no slouch. She works full-time at my wife’s organization and is also an accomplished knitter. She follows intricate lace patterns because the traditional stockinet, ribbed, and cable stitches are too easy. Sometimes, lace work bores her, too, if the pattern is too simple. This is not a woman who shies away from creative challenges and hard work.
But our descriptions of the writing process, at least the process as it’s practiced in our household, floored her. The other day, she and my wife were chatting at work about the books they were reading. My wife mentioned in passing that she is in the process of rewriting her manuscript for the fourth time. “I have to tell you,” our friend said. “I’m so impressed with what you and Michael do. That’s a huge amount of work. I really admire you.”
My wife and I were touched by the compliment. Authors rarely receive praise and encouragement from people who don’t write—not these two authors, anyway. It’s nice to be reminded that we’re attempting something big. I bring up this story not to brag about our industriousness but to pass the reminder on to other writers. When the work isn’t going well—if you’re like me, it doesn’t go well about 50% of the time—remember that books are a huge amount of effort, and that it takes patience, determination, and a ruthless attitude toward your own writing to finish a novel. Cut beloved passages if they don’t work. Toss dull characters into the scrap heap and replace them with creations that are more interesting. If you have a bad writing day today, shrug it off and know that you’ll probably have a better one tomorrow. And never stop writing, even if you have to sweat and grunt your way through every word.