I am writing my book again. This is the third time I have written it and the third year of working with it. In draft one, the story went in one direction, took a turn toward another in draft two, and now seems to be going back to the original idea with some tweaks.
Having spent some time now writing other stories, I’ve come to find that this is a pattern for me. Three drafts is what it always takes (so far) for me to get to the story I am sure I want to write. The first draft is always a mess of spewed words, snippets of images and conversation that won’t go away but don’t seem to have any purpose, all stitched together by sheer will of I MUST FINISH THIS THING. The second draft is always out of left field; I’ve read the first draft, confused myself and what I think I’m trying to say, so I write something that, using sound-ish logic, works plot-wise but reads like shit and leaves all the characters’ needs and wants aside. This one is stitched together by sheer will of I MUST MAKE THIS MAKE SENSE. And after reading it, it never makes sense, ever.
So then we get to the third draft. I have usually let a gulf of time pass, not out of some smart reason of resting or allowing time to help things gel in my mind, but usually because the second draft is such a train wreck, it hurts to have to think about putting another draft back together again. There are always casualties in the third draft. Whole plot lines are re-worked, characters invented, scenes I liked before disappeared into the upside-down to happily never be retrieved again. I know this will happen and because I expect it, I dread it.
But another thing happens after I’ve read the second draft and absorbed the mortal blow of its exquisite shittiness on my level of confidence as a writer and human. The story begins to write itself. Once I get up the courage to actually sit down and do it, that is.
It’s an amazing feeling; one of those times that writers talk about when they say that the characters are telling them the story, that a “muse” is whispering into their ears, etc., etc. It really does feel like magic and it’s the whole point of doing the work because it’s as exhilarating as the feeling of publication or even a comment from a reader saying “I loved this.” It’s hit a nerve and it’s correct and you know it.
While I love the idea of magic and do bask in the feeling of mystical fairy dust when this happens, it’s, sadly, not magic. Or any kind of natural artistic talent finally rearing its head after all this goddamn time. It’s simply the fruits of labor. It’s the recognition of work.
I have spent years in critique groups with writers in various stages of their craft. I have seen heavy hitters come in with work that sings and watched them sweat as we peons flip through their pages. I’ve seen newbies come in excited and confident and seen the little flicker of hurt in their eyes when the critique really begins. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer ask an old timer, “But how do you do that?” As in, how do you weave in backstory so seamlessly? How do you come up with characters that read readers minds? How do you write a story that reads like a secret being shared only with you?
Hilariously and tragically, the newcomer always think they’re reading a first draft when they ask this question. It’s never a first draft. It might be a first draft of a complete rewrite but it’s not your typical “I woke up like this” draft. (And if it is, then they are in the presence of someone who either has been at the craft diligently for years and have learned to write a draft the way they flex a well-toned muscle OR that mother fucker really is magic.)
What they’re really asking is: How do I gain that level of authority in my work? How do I make it read like I actually know what I’m doing? Like I’m a goddamn literary force to be reckoned with?
Answer: You toil away until it does and you are.
Just like the story that finally reveals itself, gaining that level of authority in writing takes the kind of sweat and tears that must be suffered with time and diligence. It requires taking your dedication to the writing craft from a giddily stupid first draft stage, through that shitty second draft stage which will beg you to give it up, and into the third draft stage where you can come to your craft clear-eyed, seasoned, and ready to work.
And that’s just the overhaul we’re talking about. At this point, I can predict that it will take me three drafts to get a story in the right direction. But it takes god knows how many more to get it just right. And it never, ever feels just right. It feels right enough to send it out into the world.
There’s different tricks to getting the story right, getting the words on the page, discovering what exactly it is you’re trying to say, just as there are different paths in writing careers. One person toils longer than another before feeling validated in their craft. Another feels validated even if they weren’t seeking it. Others never feel validation, even when there are other literary heroes validating their work on a regular basis. And none of it matters anyway; while respect from peers is nice, none of us followed the rabbit trail of a story idea solely because we thought it might lead to someone we admire admiring us. We do it because it’s interesting and fun and we want to.
Waiting for the authority to write, for goddamn literary hero stardom to shine upon you, is like waiting for magic to happen. It might — but it’s faster to simply sit down, take a deep breath, and do the work over and over again. Instead of magic, it will feel like nothing at all. Just another day where you’ve written your words, submitted your stories, until you can look back and see the full breadth of a body of work, and how it ebbs and flows with practice. Maybe you’ll recognize your authority then. (Maybe, but unlikely.) You’re too busy doing the work.
Authority may come, but it will not announce itself. Rather, it will be a sudden awareness, much how a story’s ending is a conundrum one moment and finished the next. It won’t feel like you’ve arrived even when you already have. It will always take longer than you think.