This is a guest sermon I gave at Nichols-Bethel United Methodist Church yesterday, discussing the importance of perseverance in writing and in other aspects of my life. Even if you’re not religious, I hope you’ll listen to this message and that it touches a base with and inspires you. Perseverance is vital to life, and for me, praying to God has helped me to keep persevering.
Check out this guest post I did for the Go Dog Go Cafe! Many thanks to Stephen and his associates for this opportunity!
Writers must read and conduct research to build their stories. No matter the genre, writers need to build plot and characters to create something that will appeal to readers, and there are many books offering tips and insights into these elements. I will discuss those titles I have listed for my own recommended resources and why I think they’re helpful.
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of the most well-known and influential books in the world. It draws upon many myths, identifying common characteristics and story elements to form what we know as the hero’s journey. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Campbell’s influence is with George Lucas when he created Star Wars. There’s a reason why this book is helpful to writers: the hero’s journey appeals to people. It’s been depicted in many different ways, and stories do deviate at certain points (Frodo…
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Any writer who takes their craft seriously will have edited their work many times over. I can pretty much guarantee that any bestselling novel or literary classic you take off the shelf is not in its first draft. Novels go through several drafts before they are published. It can be said of any form of creative writing too, really. It can even feel at times while you write that you are editing too, and the editing takes over the writing process. Some say to not edit at all with the first draft, to just write it and get it done. Also, others will say that you eventually have to stop editing and move on, otherwise you never will. Both of those sentiments make total sense, but editing is still a vital stage of the writing process.
Perhaps you remember from writing school papers the concept of rough drafts and final copies. Editing enables you to polish a rough draft so that you have a final copy. It is the same with novels. So what chance does a work have without being edited, or without at least one other pair of eyes not your own offering critical feedback? Taking feedback is never easy, but it should be constructive, so you can see it as a way to ask yourself what can be done better.
Going beyond grammar and spelling, the book itself goes through many drafts. Plot points are altered. New ones come in. Old ones are eliminated. It’s same with characters, names, and the elements and rules of world-building. Plot holes are identified, along with anything that does not fit. The problem is tackled, usually more than once. It might be necessary to start over from scratch, using the old draft for reference. Format can change too: chapter titles come and go, length can be altered, and the format of chapter numbers (word numbers, Roman numerals, number numbers) can change.
With Mystical Greenwood, I’ve learned the power and importance of editing. It’s always beneficial to have another pair of eyes look at what you wrote, so you might see what potential readers might say. Whether they’re beta readers, critique group members, or professional editors, their opinions will go a long way. At a time when I thought Mystical Greenwood was good and the plot solid, an insightful and encouraging critique from author John DeDakis showed me that more work still needed to be done. To quote Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer, I came to think of it as a case where “all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” Some scenes were moved around and rewoven together as a result.
Originally I had around half as many chapters that were twice as long, but then I started to wonder if they were too long. I’ve read books with really long chapters and found it to be frustrating finding a place to stop before bed. So about two thirds through a draft, I split those I had in two (excepting the prologue). I also switched from word numbers to number numbers. I once had chapter titles, but grew to dislike them, and after failing to think of new ones, I discarded them altogether. I felt they had become unnecessary.
The main reason I approached Mockingbird Lane Press was its founder, Regina Riney-Williams, has a great reputation as an editor. Over the course of two rounds of editing, I have found her insights and opinions invaluable. She has been constructive and encouraging, and I’m very grateful for her feedback as much as her willingness to take my book on. I’ve learned not only that so much can change through editing, but as a writer to never stop with one draft. To be a good writer, one must seek and accept feedback, subsequently editing, revising, and often rewriting, which must continue with every novel to come.
Writing an entire book is a challenge, but one I have overcome with Mystical Greenwood. It isn’t finished yet technically as it’s still in the editing phase. But with Mockingbird Lane Press publishing it, it’s more apparent to me than ever that the day will come where I’ll have officially moved on from this one book I’ve worked on for so long. But that means I’m going face a new challenge, which may prove even greater: writing another book. Knowing I’ll have to move on to this next step, I’m already feeling the pressure.
It almost feels as if I’ve never written a novel before. I’ve noticed a similar situation in college: whenever a new semester starts, it feels like I’m back to square one. But in truth, I realize it’s only natural to feel this way, because every semester, like every book to come, will be different. Each new novel will be its own unique experience and journey, but I’ll have to remember the experiences and challenges will be, to a certain degree, similar to those I’ve endured before. I have to tell myself I did it before, and can do it again. On the other hand, it may be necessary as well as only natural to feel nervous. I cannot become overconfident or complacent with myself. That fear of failure is what enables me to keep striving try hard, and be conscientious.
However, I find Mystical Greenwood as it is now – almost complete – in the back of my mind. As a result, I keep thinking about it, which isn’t a fair comparison because newer projects will be in their earliest, rough drafts. Sometimes I feel people, when reading a novel, don’t consider the earlier drafts it must’ve gone through. Speaking for myself as a writer, I see a similar problem when starting a new novel after finishing the last one. It’s easy to look at a book complete or nearly complete, and fear your next one won’t be as good or well-written. On the other hand, that last book was rough once. What I mean to say is, Mystical Greenwood‘s near-publication should motivate me to write more, but I can’t compare it to other novels as I begin writing them. The books to come will also take more than a few drafts. A well-polished book doesn’t come instantly.
As I have said before, Mystical Greenwood is intended to be the first book in a trilogy. The next book certainly is one of those up front I need to work on. I have some ideas already forming of what I want to include in the second book, including how I want to end it, but it won’t conclude the story, thereby giving me an early purpose for the third book. At the same time, I want to expand beyond this fantasy realm into other genres.
As a matter of fact, I wrote a manuscript for a high-level creative writing class during my last semester at St. Mary’s College. The class was a “novella” class, but others felt the story I came up was more novel-length, which I felt too. Unlike Mystical Greenwood, it was set in the real world, and was about pets that are neglected and abused. It was definitely a first draft that needs rewriting and I want to work on it. We’ll see what happens. I don’t want to overstretch myself by working on way too many projects at the same time, but there are several other ideas I could expand on eventually. I won’t reveal too much just yet, except there is hope. The day will come soon where I’ll be moving on to the next step. I cannot stop at only a single novel. I must write more, again and again.
I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.
Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?
Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.
Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.
So what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.
Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials, and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.
I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.