So you’ve spend a lot of time writing and revising a story. You’re getting to a point where it’s in pretty good shape. Maybe you’ve had some beta readers look through all or part of it. Maybe you’ve workshopped it.
Before you release it upon the world (or upon literary agents), consider pausing for a sensitivity reading.
One of the things that’s been joyously freeing about my writing program is that we’re given permission to do something important: Write badly.
In order to create a sculpture, you have to start with a big block of clay, or a stone, or a chunk of wood. At first, you’re just hacking pieces away and getting it into the general shape. Over time, you add more details and then begin to polish it up.
In the beginning… Make a colossal, unapologetic mess. Write disconnected chunks of text and snippets of conversation. Let characters emerge without worrying too much about how they fit. Write cringe-inducing dialogue and scenes dripping with cliches. Just let the story emerge.
Once it’s emerged… Put it into some sort of order, know your characters and why they exist, but let the mistakes and gaps and bad dialogue and cliches stand. Just make a thing that has a beginning, middle, and end.
Then! Then you start cleaning it up. Then you start polishing. Then you pull out the sharper tools in your box and make your rough thing into something more artful.
For me, a first draft is an emergence. I have a pretty good grasp on my story, but it’s still revealing things to me. It’s still whispering its small confessions, and I’m still exploring all the different pieces of it.
Free yourself from expectations and pressures. Give yourself permission to be messy, and most importantly – write badly. Write badly as hard and painfully and truthfully as you can.
In my writing class, there’s a certain format to things. We read a bit of this, then reflect. Read another passage, discuss. A literary liturgy of sorts.
There’s something about this class that reminds me of Catholic masses, only without the standing and kneeling. (Though, I would say, our literary docent probably wouldn’t mind if we stood or knelt or did handstands – this isn’t a formal environment.)
If I’m honest, there is something prayerful about this process. If a prayer is, as the dictionary informs me, “a solemn request for help,” then I am a praying person. I may not direct that energy at an omniscient being, but I do constantly commune with my characters in my mind, pleading with them —
“Tell me what happened to you.” “How did you feel about that?” “Thank you, thank you for sharing yourself with me.” “I’m sorry, I’m really truly sorry I have to expose you like this. I’m sorry I have to make this hurt.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I will get better at this. I will write less, but say more. I will be ruthless and intentional. I will navigate the terrain of this story without fear. I will keep going, even when my devotion begins to crack and my faith in the thing starts to evaporate away. I will continue. I will persevere.
A little confession… Because I like to keep my identity private, I’m sometimes cagey about the details of my life, but I need to share this: The writing program I’m in is the Book Project through Lighthouse Writers in Denver. You don’t need to live in Denver to participate.
The Book Project isn’t an MFA program. You don’t get any sort of degree or certification. It’s a 2-year intensive that gives you the support you need to finish a book. There are classes, both in-person and online, three weekend intensives a year, an optional retreat, and an annual literary festival where you get to talk to agents. Through the process, you get a mentor who’s a published author who will work with you 1-1 and give you constructive feedback on your work-in-progress.
My mentor is the amazing New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Brown, best known for her book The Weird Sisters. The other mentors are equally distinguished and all awesome.
You don’t need to be an aspiring novelist, by the way – we’ve got people working on poetry, short story collections, and non-fiction. It’s a really nice variety.
Why this feels a bit like a confession? My name isn’t really Leah Kent. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. I decided to use a variation of my legal name for two reasons: 1. I have a day job, and likely always will even if I do get published, because most writers, even bestselling authors, have day jobs or side hustles, and… 2. What I’m writing could get me in a bit of trouble professionally and, you know, I like being able to pay my mortgage.
How would you get in trouble? My novel-in-progress explores several major issues in the United States that are very political. My job requires me to not be openly political. We’re actually told to politely excuse ourselves and walk away if anyone tries to engage us in a political conversation during one of our meetings or events.
If I publish a book that takes a strong stance on the particular issue that impacts the industry I work in, it would be a huge headache for my employer. Therefore, I blog and tweet and will (hopefully!) publish under a pen name.
A note on pen names… The Lighthouse has a former literary agent on staff, who is amazing and supportive and will answer all of your questions. I asked her about using pen names, and if that’s something that’s off-putting to agents. She says no, it’s not. It’s no big deal. So if anyone else out there is considering whether to pen name or not to pen name…I have it from someone with experience that it’s totally fine.
In fact, she said that the possibility of me getting in a bit of trouble professionally and using a pen name for that reason could be intriguing to potential agents.
Keep writing, all you writers who quietly follow me. Keep going.
As a writer, when you’re building a world and learning about your characters, you’re thinking about a lot of things. Do you ever think about how your characters perceive the world? How they process information?
I’ve been reading a book called The Error of Truth that discusses the difference between changing what one knows versus changing how one perceives the world. It takes a stroll through history, pointing out times when human perceptions massively shifted – such as when people shifted from being hunter-gatherers to planting seeds and staying in one place. It happened most recently when people began to quantify the world.
One of the stories the author tells is about the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, where a devastating earthquake was followed a few hours later by a large tidal wave. Instead of accepting it as a mysterious event beyond their control, they began to process the event using reason.
This change in how people process large-scale catastrophes didn’t come out of nowhere – it was influenced by the ‘Age of Reason’, that changed how people perceived and processed the world. (This could be an amazing novel – setting it during the Lisbon catastrophes of 1755, and the aftermath as people begin to process what happened in a different way. Anyone want to write it? I’d love to read it.)
I got into a two year intensive writing program for people writing books – fiction and non-fiction, though mine is fiction.
Emotions are high – I’m excited, I’m terrified, I’m confident, I’m plagued with self-doubt. The word of the week is vacillation.
I knew I wanted to do this, but I didn’t know how much I *needed* this until I got my acceptance. The need is similar to a compulsion, of which I have several – it’s that sort of feeling – like anxiety swirled with desire and sprinkled with just a tiny bit of queasiness. Looking at the first year’s curriculum is honestly terrifying – 9 classes and 3 weekend intensives.
I owe this to the 3-Day Novel Contest. It was last year during 3DN that I wrote the very first draft of my book– and it was one of those years that something magical happened. If the writing process in general is like driving through a traffic-burdened city, with lots of stops and starts and turns and merges, then 3DN is (if you do it right) like driving down a deserted desert highway in a convertible with the top down and your hair blowing everywhere.
In 2018, it paid off. I ended up with a story that…well, I have no idea where it came from. Characters just came to life, as if I swallowed inspiration and they all burst from my forehead. It was a strange experience, one I’ve had before but not for many years. It makes me understand the what the ancient poets meant when they said it was the Muses working through them. I felt as if I was merely taking dictation. The story wrote itself.
I had a feeling about that messy, complicated story that started to emerge. I worked at it months, developed a robust outline, turned in application and a writing sample…
And now, 1 year and 1 week after I began it, I will be formally beginning a writing program during which I will be doing a lot of skill-building and working toward having a complete first draft by next summer. Second year focuses on revising and editing.
I’m still a bit stunned. It feels so unreal – and I keep waiting for the universe to drop something bad on me to balance out the good. That’s how stories go, after all – the protagonist never follows a straight line. It’s obstacle after obstacle, it’s moments of doubt, it’s lots of questioning and sacrifice before they finally reach the end.
What challenges will come my way? Muses, gods, fates and faeries ~ be kind.
I had a day off, and spent it drafting an outline.
I’ve never been one who was able to write to an outline. My stories like to go off on little weekend retreats without telling me then come back and start ordering me around with the pride and swagger of a newly hatched adolescent. Mostly they have no idea what they’re talking about, and refuse to listen to reason.
But when I try to force them to go in a certain direction, I always end up watching the story collapse in on itself.
I found that an important part of the writing process is figuring out your writing process. You only do that by writing.
Let go of the idea that the first thing you write will be the first thing you publish. For many people, it takes a while to get into your stride – to find your voice, your style, and how you work best.
Take classes and seminars and talk to other writers.
Then go home, forget everything you were told, and just figure out what works for you.
What works for me is this: Free write a loose first draft. Do a quick first round edit, where a loose outline is made and the story is split into sections.
And then I use the loose draft as a template, and essentially write over it. I never, ever get attached.
Honestly, there’s no right or wrong way to write. There’s just your way. I had to listen to what other writers do and try on a lot of different methods before I found what works for me.
That’s part of why they say if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, then do it. There’s a self-discovery element to writing that tends to vacillate between exhilarating and “OMG I need therapy.”
Today, I had to do an outline, because I’m applying for something that requires submitting an outline. I’m pretty sure my story is going to rebel now. I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be missing, only to turn up again in a few more days with new haircut and a few tattoos, including one of a heart with an arrow through it that says “Outline this” in big, bold letters.
I went to the Botanical gardens a few weeks ago. Mainly I was there to get some work done, and the gardens are a nice place to read or write. But I remembered, while I was there, an assignment that a teacher once had us to called Word Gardens.