I didn’t really know what my book was about until I started writing it. As paradoxical as that sounds, it’s true. I had an idea of the main character (a retired Marine rifleman) and a setting (rural New Hampshire) and a rough theme (body image in America). And that’s pretty it besides my own memories of drunken summers spent in New England with friends and less-drunken ones spent with family.
Last week, I finished the third draft of the book. I learned some stuff. Here we go: it’s impossible to know what your book is about until you write it. And rewrite it. And rewrite it. You can have the most elaborate ideas ping-ponging around your head but they transform as soon as they meet paper. The story takes on life and starts writing itself. All you can do as the author is faithfully record what it tells you. Honestly, I thought it was a trite idea people liked to share on social media. It isn’t. Stories tell themselves. Books write themselves. Books decide for themselves what they’re going to be about. That doesn’t make it easy, no. Writing a book is still one of the most challenging, work-intensive things I’ve done.
This brings me back to one of my favorite writing mantras: you can’t revise a blank page. A book existing exclusively in your head has the illusion of growing. Sure, you can come up with solid ideas and characters but there’s no substantial progress. A story needs room to breathe. It needs to be out on paper in the open air. Let it out of your head! It’s suffocating up there.
My book never would’ve became what it is today if I’d kept the idea arrested in head for the past two and a half years. Since starting the project in earnest I’ve cut characters, destroyed friendships, added themes, retooled conversations, and more. A book is made up of thousands of tiny details. Those can only be effectively tweaked after they’ve lived on the page for multiple drafts.
I’m not a fan of outlining if you couldn’t tell. I used to think it was crazy to dive into a novel or screenplay or short story without knowing everything that was going to happen. I feared getting lost for days and muttering, what happens next? over and over again. But I’m a writer. I literally make this shit up as I go. I’d rather get my ass kicked while actually composing than get my ass kicked working through an outline that nobody is going to read.
Writing three drafts of a book has taught me a whole bunch about storytelling, process, and more. And yet, most of it leads back to the Holy Grail, the big kahuna, the Shangri-la of writing advice: JUST WRITE. Put your outline down. Forget the reams worth of worldbuilding. Cancel your Netflix subscription for three months.
It seems hard because it is. It’s not supposed to be easy. Work on your craft every day and good things will happen.