If I have painted one (and only one) picture, should I think of myself as a “painter” and assume that I must be gallery ready? Tens, yea, hundreds of thousands of words (ideally) should be thrown away before an editor reads anything of yours. Ideas do not a novel make. You can have the characters and the story in your head, but getting them convincingly into words on a page (paint on a canvas) is the hard part. Of course, I’m perfectly willing to admit that you might be exceptional. (I’m not.) Maybe the first draft of your first book is going to support you and your children and your children’s children till the sun falls and the world fades. But if you’re like me, take a hard look at that first attempt, identify your mistakes, learn from them, and get to work on the next project.
That paragraph right there changed my entire perspective on writing. Since writing is such a huge part of my life, I guess you could even say that those words were life changing. I’m sure that N.D. Wilson didn’t know what an impact it would have when he wrote it. (By the way, hands-down the best writing advice I’ve ever read is not in a book on writing – it’s on N.D. Wilson’s blog. [See “Blogroll”] I especially recommend the “So You Wanna Be a Writer…” series of posts.) But when I read that metaphor of the paintings, I felt as if a huge load rolled off my back.
I have so far written four novels. My first one was Valley, written when I was fifteen. Then came The Princess and the Prince, written a year and a half after Valley. The Beautiful Pursuit of Happiness was next and now, nearly two years after that one was completed, I’ve just finished a new novel (title still under construction). There was always a sense of extreme accomplishment when those final words of a story were typed. But for me, almost as soon as I would type those words, I would look back at previous works with disgust. I had just learned so much more about story-telling by completing a new story; how could I bear to look at all the disgraceful mistakes in my older books?
The more I grew as a writer, the more intolerant I became of my older novels. I’d look down my nose at Valley or The Princess and the Prince, wondering how on earth I could have thought such-and-such a sentence was decent. Didn’t I know how clichéd that sounded? Didn’t I know how flat that character was? Frustrated, I’d go back and try to re-write offending passages. I thought that a book of mine wasn’t worth reading if it didn’t measure up to my present writing skills.
N.D. Wilson’s analogy of a painter changed all of that. It made me realize two things. 1) No books of mine are ever going to be perfect, and 2) Everything I write is practice that helps me on to the next level of excellence. I shouldn’t get frustrated with my past mistakes. I should learn from them and move on. A painter is never going to become good if she continually is painting over old pictures, trying to improve them. And that’s exactly what I was doing. True editing is a necessary part of the writing process. Continual re-writing of stories, trying to get them up to date with your present level of competence is not.
Instead of being frustrated with my older books, now I realize that I’m on the right track. I’m an aspiring painter with four pieces of artwork in the attic. They’re not quite gallery-ready yet, and maybe some of them may never be. But each time I pick up my paintbrush, I’m getting better. Every time I sit down to write, I’m practicing (whether it’s a blog post or The England Chronicles or a creative writing exercise). I shouldn’t be ashamed of my earliest pieces, and I shouldn’t demand that they look like a Tolkien, or a Wilson, or a Conan Doyle. It will take dozens of paintings before an artist even begins to resemble one of the masters. But practice makes perfect.
In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis (then 17) said, “…you have plenty of imagination, and what you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least in my view) at our age so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on…” And this is coming from one of the best writers who ever lived. The whole world has enjoyed the benefit’s of Lewis’s “practice, practice, practice.”
At the moment, I’m editing Valley, hoping that it will soon be ready for a publishing house. It’s tempting to look back at mistakes and become discouraged. Instead, I remind myself that each sentence I edit, or re-structure is practice. I’m just dusting off my first painting. I have three more pieces in the attic, and each one of them looks better than the one before. This is a continuous process that I’ll be in until the day I die. I’ll keep studying the masters, keep practicing, and hopefully some day I’ll see one of my paintings in a gallery.
Who says blogs can’t be life-changing? 🙂