Embracing the Mess

46, 731. I still can’t believe I’ve written that many words for my first novel! This draft is sort of starting to resemble an actual book!

As exciting as it is to see measurable progress, starting out as a writer is a humbling process. I’m one of those people who naturally excels at most tasks--A’s came easily in school, and I’m a wicked-fast learner. But friends, there is nothing fast or easy about the writing process. There are no shortcuts, no “Ten Steps to Success,” no magic spell for an agent-worthy draft. Yes, there are tools for writing well. But truly learning and understanding how to write well is a two-step, marathon dance of practice and patience.

I’m not a patient person. When I was growing up, my mom would say, “Hannah doesn’t cue well.” I was that kid in line at Kings Island, bursting with energy, and groaning about the wait. “But I want to ride this roller coaster SO MUCH MORE than everyone else here! Why can’t I go NOW?”

Nope. Not patient at all.

Practice is also something I’m relatively allergic to. I took piano lessons as a child, and practice was a laughable waste of minutes. I mean, how many better options are there for a kid with free time? I walked into my lessons each week, cowered under the teacher’s raised eyebrow, and nodded violently: “Yes of COURSE I practiced! Yes, 30 minutes every single day!” As a result, I got pretty good at sight-reading my music, but I never really excelled in fingering technique, or the subtler nuances of tone and dynamics.

Practice? Pah. I’d rather be playing outside with my friends, exploring the jungle of my backyard.

Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve realized how ironic it is that I landed in the writing profession; writing is dependent upon two of my greatest flaws. You don’t see results overnight, and nothing is ever really complete. You write, you edit, you delete, scream, and rewrite. You listen to a podcast, and realize that you completely ruined Chapters 7-9 because you ignored your main character’s motivation in favor of plot advancement.

Yet there is some surprisingly good news on that front! I’m impatient and allergic to practicing for most tasks, but not with writing.

I love what I do, and the way I get to spend my time every day. I wrestle with the elusive, ideal wording, curse my own mistakes, and violently abuse my backspace key. But it is a joy to embrace the mess of writing. There is satisfaction in the moments that are captured, the characters who are brought to life in exactly (or sometimes just sort of) the way I imagined them to be.

I’m not anywhere near an agent-worthy draft yet, and I don’t expect that I will be for a long, long time. You don’t get to Carnegie Hall by half-assing it. You don’t win the Super Bowl by skipping team drills and hanging out with your friends instead.

We excel when we commit the time and effort to our craft, to that one, magic activity that we love so much, it keeps us up at night thinking about it. We are made to grow, and to learn. Not for the fame, the success, or even for the paycheck (you may need a reality check if you’re writing with these goals in mind!), but for the joy of the experience, for the revelations that come at every step along the way. For the satisfaction of telling an interesting story, and telling it well.

Today, I listened to a podcast on structure, and the follow-up exercise was to reverse-engineer a plot from an existing work published by someone else. I grabbed my worn copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, opened a new Google doc, and expected it to be a quick, mindless “review” assignment.

NEWSFLASH: Harry Potter is mind-bogglingly complex. I always loved the Harry Potter books growing up, but holy cow. That story, even the very first book, is gushing with purpose in every single sentence: foreshadowing, character development, tone, promises to the reader, world-building, relationship development, conflict, and on and on and on. Every piece is intentional, every word placed to propel you further, deeper into the wizarding world and into Harry’s story. Waste simply isn’t there.

Don’t believe me? Try this exercise for yourself:

  • Grab one of your favorite stories--any story will do. For beginners, maybe start with something simple, like a fairy tale.

  • Outline each scene, reverse-engineering the plot outline from the existing/expanded story.

  • Answer the following questions:

    • What is each scene? Where are the breaks?

    • What is the function of that scene?

    • What promises are being made to the reader?

    • What questions are being asked?

    • Okay, you’ve identified the main plot. What about secondary plot lines?

    • What is happening in terms of character conflict?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll get to the end of this exercise with wide eyes, sprint back to your work in progress, and see your mistakes as massive, bumbling errors. And you know what? That’s GREAT! We’re learning how to be better writers, and in order to grow, we have to identify what we’re doing wrong, and how we can improve.

My invitation for you today is to embrace the mess, and enter fully into the process. You will not be impressed by your writing early on, but every day that you practice, you get better. Every crappy sentence or erratic plot line is another step toward a better sentence, or a more character-focused plot.

As a writer, you take great personal risks, and that alone is something to celebrate -- you are courageous. Be brave today. Find your weak points, swallow your pride, and do the hard stuff that will make your writing shine.