I’ve been thinking a lot about babies and storytelling since my recent post, “Real Men Change Diapers.” I applauded my son-in-law David for his hands-on approach to our new grandson and noted that babies are messy little things. Well, so are books.
Likewise, in my extensive study of pregnant elephants over the years, I have found that they too have some similarities to book writing. An elephant pregnancy entails a very long gestation period, and when the baby finally arrives, you hope nobody notices that it has long, floppy ears. Books (at least the kind of fiction I write) take a good while to bring to fruition, and when I finally finish, I hope readers and reviewers will largely ignore the long-floppy-ears aspects of the story.
A case in point is my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, published last year by John F. Blair Publishers. The story took ten years to finish. About six or seven drafts; I lost count. Readers and reviewers tell me it’s a page-turner, my best yarn yet, so they’re apparently willing to forgive the occasionally floppy ear.
One reason novels can take a long time to write is that you’re trying to get it right. Maybe you’ve got your central character pretty much in mind, and you have some notion of where the plot might be headed. So you start writing. And then you stop and look over what you’ve written and say, “Nah, that’s not how I imagined it.” So you re-write, and hopefully you make it better. What you have to avoid is trying so hard to get the words right that you get in the way of the story. You try to describe everyone and everything exactly, and you just weigh the whole thing down with words until the story disappears in a sea of verbiage.
The trick, I’ve learned over the course of finishing five novels, is to not try to get it exactly right. Instead, I’ve learned to trust my readers. If I put down a few well-chosen words, I’ll engage my readers’ imaginations, and they will complete the picture. Each reader’s imagination is different, so each reading experience is different. So if I write a book and a thousand people read it, I’ve really written a thousand different books. It’s the trust thing that’s important.
What took me so long to finish The Governor’s Lady? In this case, it wasn’t trying to get it exactly right. Instead, I violated my own principle of maintaining momentum. I became a playwright during the ten years – seven plays produced and published and now being performed by theatres across the country. But writing a play and nurturing it through the production process takes a lot of time and energy. I kept putting the book aside, and when I’d get back to it, I would have to get it re-booted. I’ve vowed not to make that mistake again.
A far worse mistake a writer can make is surrendering to failure. I hear frequently from folks who say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book, but when I sit down to write, it’s so awful I give up.” Lots of folks never get through that first daunting experience. They never get to the re-writing-and-making-it-better stage. There are lots of folks with a great story and an ability to put meaningful words on paper, but only a few who will face that initial failure head-on and spit in its eye.
To get back to the elephant thing, the end result of the writing will have some long, floppy ears. But if you’ve stayed faithfully with the work, dealt honestly with your characters, and trusted your readers to fill in the blanks, the floppy ears won’t matter much.
And to get back to the baby thing, the story-writing process involves a lot of feeding, burping, nurturing, and diaper-changing. Nobody ever said parenthood was easy.