What Paul Learned from his First Novel
My friend Paul just finished his first novel. He has no publisher yet. He’s still got a long way to go. But he finished that sucker. He’s done. He did it.
It’s been really interesting for me to watch Paul walk through the fire. Because it is true that, for a grizzled old vet like me, the ordeal of writing does get easier over time. You forget what hell it is in the beginning.
Now here’s Paul struggling through sieges of despair and self-loathing; enduring bouts of mental and emotional paralysis; undergoing his seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth nervous breakdowns, not to mention suffering through every other conceivable form of Resistance—and yet somehow he has stumbled and bumbled his way through.
I’m immensely proud of him. He has done what millions of people talk about, but damn few actually do. And it has changed him. It’s changed who he is and how he sees himself. It’s changed how friends and family react to him. It has changed how he views his past and how he imagines his future.
Paul is not the same person that he was eighteen months ago. On the one hand, he’s grounded as he has never been before. He’s no longer dependent emotionally on the externals (women, friends, money) that had held him in thrall before. He has found his center. He has a little nuclear reactor in his pocket that only he has access to, and it feels great to him.
On the other hand, he has now become a conscript to a sterner and more demanding way of life. His eyes are open. He knows he can’t fake it any more. The old dodges will not work for him. He sees through them and he sees through himself.
He’s screwed really, just like you and just like me. He’s gotta do it now. There’s no going back to the way it was before.
I asked him a couple of days ago, “Paul, now that you’ve got one book under your belt, what will you do differently when you tackle the second one? What’s the primary takeaway from this tunnel you’ve just emerged from?”
Paul answered without hesitation:
I won’t beat myself up like I did before. You know how I’d have those days, weeks even, months when I’d read over what I’d done and I’d hate it so much, and hate myself so much because what I’d written was so bad, that I absolutely paralyzed myself? I won’t do that the next time. It’s Resistance. You’re driving yourself crazy. The shit is gonna be ugly the first time through. That’s all there is to it.
We talked about the “Bad on Tuesday, Great on Thursday” phenomenon: how the same page that you hated forty-eight hours ago suddenly looks amazingly good to you.
What changed? Nothing. You wrote a great page but you couldn’t see it. You’re so ready to judge yourself—and judge yourself harshly—that you lose all objectivity and perspective.
I’m not going to let that happen on the next one. I’m not gonna censor myself. I’m not gonna judge my stuff. I’m gonna write pages and I’m gonna keep writing pages.
We talked about first drafts and the imperative to keep moving.
It’s like blitzkrieg. You cross the border and you start rolling. You can’t look right and you can’t look left. Don’t worry about protecting your flanks. Just keep moving.
On this first book I’d get bogged down on one page and write it over and over. The more I’d rewrite it, the more I hated it, and the more I got lost. You tell yourself you’re working to “make it better.” But in fact you’re running away from the only thing that’s important, which is finishing the damn thing, getting it done.
“It’s like a mash when they’re making whisky,” Paul said. “That’s what a first draft is. It’s not whisky yet. You can’t drink it. It needs to sit, it needs to ferment. You can’t taste it and judge it prematurely. You have to be patient, you have to forgive.”
The enemy in a first draft is not poor syntax or sloppy scene construction. Those you’ll deal with in Draft Six or Draft Ten. The enemy is Resistance. The enemy is any form of self-sabotage that will stop you from getting from Page One to The End.
The other thing about self-criticism and self-censorship is they’re an insult to the Muse. She just gave you stuff. A great gift, straight from the Quantum Soup. There it is on the page. It came out of you, but from her. So you’re gonna do what? Look at it and tell her it sucks? Tell yourself that you suck because you followed your muse?
“That’s the other big thing I’ve learned,” Paul said. “Something comes out of you—a scene, say, or even just a phrase or an exchange of dialogue—and you think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t fit. I don’t know where to put it.’ And you’re tempted to throw it away.
“But it does fit. You just haven’t figured out where. The unconscious is a hundred times smarter than we are. We’re just taking dictation.
“I gotta remember that. I gotta remember that next time.”