Aspiring writers often ask me, “What the most important piece of writing wisdom you wish you knew when you were just starting out as a writer?” My answer is never what they expect. It’s not the tried-and-true “show, don’t tell” or “kill your darlings” advice we’ve all heard time and time again. It’s something much simpler. And in my opinion, something that would have saved me years of frustration, self-doubt, and self-judgment.
My most important piece of writing wisdom:
Writing is messy.
When I was a writer, just starting out, I had a very clear picture in my head of what “being a real writer” looked like. You were inspired by a brilliant story idea. You sat down and mapped out the story, from beginning to end, sketching out characters and a rough story arc. If things were really rolling, maybe you even wrote out chapter summaries. Then, every day on schedule, you sat down and wrote each chapter according to your outline, in chronological order, of course. When you finished the first draft, you set it aside for a period of time (just like Stephen King says you should) and you went off and happily did something else.
Then the revision process started. Once again, you sat down every day on schedule and went through the manuscript in an orderly fashion, revising page by page. You revised a few times and then you sent the book off to beta readers, all of who made helpful suggestions and gave you constructive criticism. Then you revised again, gave it a final spit-and-polish and embarked on the querying process.
My idea of what the writing process would look like was rational, reasonable, and totally attainable. Or, so I thought.
But then, I wrote my first book. And the writing process—my personal, real-life writing process—broke me on the wheel.
I couldn’t come up with an outline, for one thing. And every time I tried, I creatively shut down. A strong, insistent voice that came from deep within my gut told me that an outline wasn’t for me and if I tried to use one I would probably bungle the whole thing. So, I gave up on that.
Then I started writing, and nothing came out in order. Random, incomplete, vague pieces seemed to burst out of my head without warning, and without the slightest consideration for helping me to figure out where they might go. Some of the pieces were good, but others were just awful, and I felt like I could never predict what kind of writing day I might have.
Finally, I stitched all the pieces together and what I was left with resembled Frankenstein’s monster. My manuscript was ugly, misshapen, garbled, and confusing. I had no idea where to even begin revisions.
This was over ten years ago, and because I had never written a book before, the whole time I was going through this experience I assumed I was doing something seriously wrong. I didn’t have that much contact with other writers so I also assumed that their writing processes were probably smooth and problem-free. I blamed myself and chalked my struggles up to a lack of talent and me being somehow vaguely “stupid” in a way that was impossible to define but that showed evidence of itself all over the page.
Fast forward, ten years later. I’ve now written seven books and published two of them. I’ve experienced a first draft that took me six weeks to write and one that took over four years. I’ve spent probably a thousand hours cutting and pasting and rearranging and revising. I’ve thought I was “done” with a book only to be proven embarrassingly wrong at least a dozen times. I’ve proofread until it felt like my eyes were going to bleed, knowing all the while I was still missing typos and errors and I would need to do yet another round of copyediting.
After ten years, I get it. I finally get it.
Writing is messy. In fact, “messy” doesn’t really cover it. Writing is messy, bloody, outrageous, impossible to predict, crazy-making, and soul-sucking. It’s also deeply fulfilling, joyful, sexy, exciting, and soul-nourishing. It is all of these things and nothing that can be contained on a schedule or within an outline.
When I first started out as a writer, I assumed that good writers were the master and writing itself was the servant. Now, after ten years of hard experience, I know that it’s the other way around.
So, if you’re working with a manuscript and you’re confused, frustrated, or in despair about it, know that you’re on the right track. If you’re still in the stages with a story where you’re chiseling a little piece out here and there, or painstakingly sewing together pieces that you pray to God will somehow fit, know that you are doing it right. There is no perfect, smooth, problem-free way to write. It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, it’s just that you’re caught up in the natural, organic process of creating something beautiful and deeply meaningful to your soul.
It’s bound to be messy.
Embrace the mess. Have a party with it. You can always clean everything up later.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.