Turd By Turd: Bird By Bird’s Sequel and a Warning For New Novelists

About a year and a half ago, I decided to write a book. For “fun.”  Now, I am 104,000 words in and mired down in the mess of it all.  Frankly, I am peeved at all of you.  I was clearly not in my right mind when I embarked on this little hobby.  You could have warned me.  Would it have been that hard to leave a few breadcrumbs of reality in the comments section?

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Fine. It’s not your fault, but I am my charming, blaming mood, and Jeff’s out of town so there is nowhere for the rage to go.

Because I am a good, kind, and decent person, I am sending up the warnings.  Just in case YOU, wonderful, idealistic, ready-to-pen-your-story YOU, are thinking “Hey, I’m going to start my book,” let me tell you the five things I wished I would have known in advance.

  1. Lots of drafts suck, not just the first.  Every writer loves to quote Anne Lamott who famously urged writers to commit to writing those “sh*tty first drafts.” I clung to that advice as I slogged through draft numero uno.  Looks like I’m going to have to write the sequel to Lamott’s Bird By Bird— it’s going to be called Turd By Turd: Write Dozens of Sh*tty Drafts.  Because I am two drafts in and it still smells like a sewer when I open my document.
  2. It gets harder not easier.  In addition to thinking why didn’t I dive into knitting or fracking, I spend a lot of time thinking how the process gets harder.  Because of gems like this that roll through my noggin: You’ve been at this for 18 months and it still sucks.
  3. Not everyone has a story to tell.  Not everyone has a symphony in her, right?  It’s possible I may not have a story to tell.   I may just have a random collection of scenes that mean something to me, but don’t come together as a story that someone else would actually want to read.
  4. I can’t do it OR maybe I don’t want to do it.  In the dark nights when we are out of ice cream and my soul aches for artistic solace, I think I cannot do it. I squirm in my chair and consider ditching the whole thing to watch a Sanford & Son marathon.  It’s entirely possible that I lack the stamina and discipline and passion to carry this book thing to the finish line of official publication.  But also? I am not sure I want to.  Eight more years of this?  Twelve? Twenty?  Maybe I want to spend my evenings laying on the bed watching the moon through the clouds. Maybe I want to watch YouTube videos.  Maybe, just maybe, I don’t want to write a book.
  5. It’s OK to let go.  I know I haven’t given myself permission to just let this go– you know, to let it be something I worked on for almost two years and learned a lot and then moved on. Moving on feels like failure, but then I open the document and see those 104,000 words staring at me and I think I am deeply confused about the definition of failure.

Confidential to Ms. Lamott: I adore your work and think we could really make a go of Turd by Turd.

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76 thoughts on “Turd By Turd: Bird By Bird’s Sequel and a Warning For New Novelists

  1. first, i really thought anne had done a sequel. clearly, need more brain power this morning. besides that, I have a feeling you’re really hard on yourself. I’ve written a few manuscripts and have always thought, this is fine, but i can do better. this last effort of mine I like, but i have a hard time saying it’s good. I’ll say, it’s entertaining. It’s a good beach read… i don’t know, at some point, you have to say, this is good. obviously, i haven’t read yours, but knowing you, you’re a perfectionist and being a writer is all about doubting yourself. it’s hard to move forward. all 104,000 words can’t be wrong. chin up, mouth open, eat ice cream. 🙂

  2. Maybe it’s time to take a break and work on something else for a month or so, just to get some distance from your draft. Then you can look at it with (somewhat) fresh eyes and truly evaluate whether fracking would be a better use of your time.

    I vote for not giving up just yet 🙂

  3. Preach it – especially #4. It’s what I struggle with when I struggle with writing. Of course when I read this I thought something stupid and trivial and unfair — if YOU don’t have the stamina and the discipline, no one in this world does. Now it’s true that you have copious amounts of stamina and discipline that I am utterly in awe of, but 1-they may not be for this book (which is a side note to #5 – I recently read a story about a woman who came back to her first written novel and published it as her 4th book) and 2- it’s defeatest for me to say if you can’t do it then I can’t either.

    Now I’m rambling. I’m in a ragey shamey mood. But I love you and think you are great. That’s got to be with a turd or two, right?

  4. Or, maybe you should just give up?

    Haha, no, don’t do that. That sounds like a lot of words, how the hell many words is in a fairly standard novel? If you need anyone to read a chapter or two who doesn’t mind telling you that it rules or sort of blows chunks and I wish you’d never been born, I’m always a willing helper. I think Crazy Icescreamlady is right though, I’m sure you’re WAY too hard on (giggity) yourself and maybe need another opinion.

  5. When you first started writing a little on what your book was about, my very first thought was, “I’d buy that, and actually can’t wait to read it.” I think that you’re wrong when you say that you may not have a story to tell. I think that you do without question. When we get so deep into something, it can be hard to keep perspective about it. But know that I am looking forward to the day that I can buy your book and read your story, and if you need a proofreader, or a story-reader in the meantime, I would be thrilled to do it.

  6. I have a great friend who began writing a book.She posted a piece of it on a critique website and it caught my eye. I knew the second I read it that she was destined to be published. Fast forward two years and dozens of shitty drafts later and not only does she have an agent, but she published that book. There’s only been one other person I’ve come in contact with that I’ve read and thought, “Wow, that person is destined to be published.” That person was you, my dear.

    So do what you need to do to take care of you. Take a break, put it down and come back to it after the holidays. Bury it in the back yard for a couple of months. Burn it in effigy if you must. But don’t give up.

  7. I’m going to agree with the advice given by others here: take a break from it. I also finished a first draft not too long ago, and one of the things I’m struggling with, now that I”m in draft two, is feeling lost at sea. I feel like I’m groping around a dark room for a light switch, and I just can’t find one. I gave in to pressure to jump into my second draft immediately after finishing the first, and I think now that it was the wrong advice. Our brains need time. So take a break. Think of the way you need to process emotional events, or the way we need to consider difficult questions more carefully before answering; then multiply that by 104,000 words. Your brain needs time to process. And then, who knows? You may come to a point where the story excites you again.

  8. I’m with everyone else on this. I don’t know what it’s about but coming from you? I would definitely read. Since I read a lot (no such a thing as too much I tell my hubby) and have a decent palate for books (IMO), I’d offer the same as Sam. Not from an editing standpoint, of course, but purely from a story standpoint.

    Keep after it. I want to be in the front row of your book event when the tour lands in Chicago!!!

  9. So, Mama, I can see your problem from here. How’s that for arrogance?

    You have a story to tell. I’ll bet your road block is your fear to actually let yourself know what it is. Obviously you can write. All this blogging you do demonstrates that. That means if you’re stuck, there’s something you haven’t identified on a conscious level. I’ll bet if you could decide the point of your story, you would bang out that novel like many writers, in a year.

    Once you own whatever that truth inside you that you’re hiding from yourself, you can be more open and less demeaning to yourself.

    nd feel free to disregard any of this you think is bullshit.

  10. Shit. 18,000 words into mine, and I’m discouraged. I can’t imagine how you must feel at 104k. I want to encourage you, but afraid it would sound trite…
    In any case, I know you have a story to tell. You’ve told so many here, that I know it for a fact. 🙂

    • WEll of course YOU SHOULD KEEP going! 18,000 words…you have such a substantial amount going. It’s so hard, in such a gut wrenching way. But when it works, we are going to be over the moon. When. Not If. When.

      On Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 10:59 AM, Outlaw Mama

  11. Just joining the chorus here encouraging you to stick with it, but maybe give yourself some time away for some perspective. And if that time away involves “Sanford and Son” or “US Weekly,” all the better. I get into these cycles with my writing, too, and the time away – especially if you can do it without beating yourself up about it – almost always helps. Oh, and put me on the list for a front row seat during your book tour!

  12. Reading this was a bit depressing but also made me laugh. I was hoping it DOES get better. Silly me! I just started my novel this month after NaNoWriMo kicked me in the pants and guilt-ed me into it. Hoping to get to 20K by this weekend. Good luck with yours, I hope you don’t scratch it but follow your gut. Maybe there is a different story to tell?

  13. Your post caught my attention as I am just now reading her first book. I have a manuscript that is 40,000 words long and it is geting unwieldy. One thing I did was break it into several different files. That has helpful. We’ll see what happens when/if I have to put it all back together at some point.

  14. Agree with the masses – breaks are usually a good thing. But I do appreciate the honesty of the post because in the bowels of my brain I occasionally flirt with the idea of trying to write a book, but I have a hunch I would feel all of this times 1000. Turd by Turd will be a bestseller.

  15. I would buy Turd by Turd. I definitely would. Oh, I feel this pain. WTF were we thinking? Hang in there and press on. I’m certain nothing you’ve ever written smells like sewage.

      • Whenever I feel that I can.

        It’s raw stuff. It’s not typical fantasy fare. I don’t know if you’ve read R.A. Salvatore, and his books about the drow elf Drizzt Do’Urden, but it’s in that vein– stories about social issues.

        Although it’s fictional, what I write about is inspired by personal anguish, trauma, and suffering. It is very gut wrenching and difficult to write about, and actually… I guard it carefully. One of my counselors suggested that I was writing it in fragments to prevent anyone from easily reading it.

  16. Preaching to the choir. I had 120,000 at one point. I’ve cut the worse 30,000 and need to cut 30,000 more. And actually get some writing in there. And it has been 16 years, off and on. Probably 3 years total. And it’s TERRIBLE. It’ll get better but only with work.

    Have you ever read a really bad novel? Lots, right? Those authors worked really hard, too. But they stopped too early. Don’t have a bad novel. Push through.

  17. You get to take a break if you need one. You also can push through if you need that. It doesn’t matter. I have some first-hand knowledge that your novel is way better than you think it is. I think you’re just more focused on the imperfect parts than all the amazing, captivating writing that is already there, and it’s OK to give your brain a rest if it’s spinning about it too much.

  18. Doubt is essential. Only two draft? Goodness… that’s only the beginning. You have joined the great procession of writers who can’t stand what they’ve written. The only path is to move forward until you can stomach the prose, a little more each day. You are not alone. There simply must be that doubt. It is the fire that drives us. I often think my life would be easier if I just quit writing. I quit writing nearly every day. I quit writing already twice this morning and I’ll quit a few more times before noon. But then an image, a surge of sadness at the world’s temporary beauty, and I’m back at it again, even though I’m hating each word. I’ve written a lot, but last summer I had a joyful writing experience. JOYFUL. I was 47 and had written a hundred short stories and four novel manuscripts (all the novels unpublished) and was working on my fifth and it was the first time that I felt joy in the process. Go figure. But that’s enough from me. I’m quitting writing anyway. And I’ll probably quit again tomorrow. And the day after that.

    • I just swallowed my tongue because I read your blog like its a bible. In fact when I was semi suicidal about my opening chapter on Wednesday I turned to your post on how to do it. I read it 30 times. Basically you saved my life.

      >

  19. Well, it’s certainly nice to know that something I wrote made sense to another writer. We are together in the struggle. One of my first fiction teachers said: “Remember when you are doing the work that you are not in competition with the greats–Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Homer, Sappho–those people. In fact, not only are you not in competition with them, in a miraculous and practical way, you are in cahoots with them.” Another teacher once said, “The difference between me and my students is that I’m better at not knowing what I’m doing.” I tell my students this all the time. The only difference between my writing and their writing is that I’m better at not understanding the process. On my better days, I know it’s all about sitting down at the table and trying to get the words right. On my worse days, when I feel like burning all my work and deleting it from my harddrive and smashing all external drives–I still know that the only solution is getting to the table and doing the work. Once, in a conference, I heard the great Dorothy Allison speak. She said that she noticed all the “published” writers eating breakfast at one table and all the “student” or unpublished writers eating at another like there was some sort of dividing line between the two camps of writers. The thing I want to do the most, she said, was invite everyone to her table. All writers that have anything to say live in that terrified space, at least part of the time. I hope your daily work is good today. Small steps.

    • What’s helping me face my turdy document today is looking only at chapter 1. I puked out my first draft, then worked on a structural edit. Now I want to carefully and joyfully(?) go through chapter by chapter without a sense of urgency or pressure and get them one by one the way I like them. I don’t have to love them and want to marry them, but I want to like them enough to invite them over for a weekend. Two days; not three. Tom Perotta said that’s how he writes. He said he works on the first chapter until it’s perfect; then the second until it’s perfect; and, finally, he does that over and over until he has a book. Kind of hard to argue with that. Plus, if I only look at one chapter at a time (right now) it’s less overwhelming to play with 2,000 words than my beastly 104,000. If the chapter thing gets to be too much, I’ll go for one line at a time. Then one word. Letting go of timetables is my biggest struggle. If I didn’t have fixed notions about how long this should take I’d be happy as a donkey in [whatever donkeys like].

  20. I hear you. I’ve just started something new after working on a novel for 7 plus years. I’m a big fan of taking a break as others have said. Just put it away for a while till it feels less like each line’s your baby, and then you can cut/rewrite etc. Ugh it’s hard but it’s also rewarding. Even if no one else reads it I’m glad I did it. The love/hate of the process is the problem, esp when the hate’s winning!

      • Fracking, the process by which we obtain natural gas through exploding the earth’s crust and thereby poisoning all that is good… Is awful. But fraking, the word used by Battlestar Gallactica’s writers to get away with satin fucking on television, is awesome. Writing is fraking difficult. Fracking is a fraking environmental disaster.

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