Get It Written!

Copyright © 2007 Julie Elizabeth Leto

I wrote the following as a post to a list I belong to called the TARA Book Challenge list. TARA is my local RWA chapter and I’m the “oldest” member in that I’ve been around the longest. I joined when I was merely…oh…don’t make me do math…a graduate student. First year. You do the subtraction without a handy calculator.

This list was established because every year, the members of our chapter have the chance to put $10 in the pot and challenge themselves to finish a book in a year (actually, about 10 months.) At our Christmas party in December, the ones who succeeded (we lug our manuscripts to the Yacht Club) have their names in the drawing and the winner gets half the pot. It’s a nice chunk of change around Christmas time, believe me. Two years ago, an industrious member started a Yahoogroup for the Book Challengers and this group has become one of the most inspiring groups I’ve ever been on. We report in once a week with how many pages we’ve written and project our goals for the next. Some people, like me who have deadlines, report large outputs. Forty pages here, sixty pages there, etc. Some report one or two pages. A lot are in between. Some report nothing. We support each other, but we also dole out the tough love, which is where my post came from.

You see…too many new writers get stuck in a revision rut and they never finish the book. You can’t much get any where in this business without finishing a book at some point, so here is what I said. I’ve been told it was very helpful, so have at it. If it lights a fire under your butt to stop revising and start writing…to stop being intimidated and start writing…then I’ve done my job.

This morning, I was thinking back to my first book. It was written in 1987-88, the year that I started graduate school and was substitute teaching as well. As my students did whatever busywork their teacher provided, I wrote. Wrote and wrote and wrote. In long hand. I then went home at night and typed my pages into my Apple 2e with the monochrome green screen…never deleting any scenes, never stopping to revise more than a word or two. I’d joined Tara (then the Florida West Coast Romance Writers), but there was no Internet to speak of and our meetings, held in the small town of Ruskin, were relatively short with one speaker and no time to socialize except during the long carpool over. In other words, my process was MY process. I was on my own (except for my writing partner, who never matched my output, and our process was never the same anyway.)

Never once did I throw away a scene. Never once did I start and restart the same book. Never once did I question the plot, characterization, point of view, etc. I just wrote.

Yes, I had a plot outline…a rather detailed one. I didn’t vary from it much since I had a partner writing other scenes. I had a hard-sell book (two heroines—one Latina—and a historical setting in 1891 Florida.) I was so stupid, it never occurred to me to stop writing this unmarketable book and write something an editor would actually buy. It never crossed my mind that my writing wasn’t up to snuff, that my hook wasn’t as compelling as it could be or that my voice wasn’t strong enough — likely watered down since I was writing with a partner. (Voice, what voice?) I never even heard about Voice—and I had a degree in Creative Writing.

I had no doubts. I just wrote, wrote, wrote.

Thank GOD. Ignorance is bliss.

And I finished the book (over 500 pages…historical romances were meaty back then) in less than a year, including the three months of historical research I did (pre-Internet). I did this while working full time and going to graduate school and maintaining a 4.0 GPA and dating my eventual husband.

There was a HUGE lesson in finishing that book. Things I can’t even verbalize now that I learned from taking characters from beginning to end. From experiencing their growth. Their emotional arc. From developing a conflict and letting it snowball over my plot. From penning a black moment (two actually, since I had two heroines!) From taking every plot thread and knotting them into The End.

Will I ever sell that book? Not if there’s a God. It’s horrid. But the learning I did during that process has served me well ever since.

It makes me want to say to you first-timers: you need to just write the damned book. Stop questioning yourself. Stop worrying about SELLING. I will tell you that though my first book never sold, it went to every major publisher and my rejections were not all form, either. I had several editors express interest and agents, too. But that wasn’t the part that mattered—the writing mattered…the actual DOING mattered. And the contacts weren’t bad, in the long run. But that was all after the fact. I could never have gotten to that point unless I FINISHED THE BOOK.

I have absolutely no regrets that I never sold my first book. In fact, I think it was a blessing. Not selling that book gave me time to get savvy about the business, to make contacts, to learn about my craft in ways I never would have if that book had sold right out of the gate.

I wonder if RWA doesn’t put so much emphasis on selling that we squelch the learning process of the actual writing. The writing and the selling are two different things. Personally, I don’t think you should graduate to selling until you’ve finished writing at least one book.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…lots of writers sell their “first book” on proposal and go on to have fantabulous careers. My critique partner is one of them. Diana Peterfreund is another. Another friend, Marley Gibson, is another. But guess what? Those really weren’t their “first” books. Not at ALL. I believe my critique partner had written at least four manuscripts prior to selling her first published book on proposal. Same for Diana and Marley. I think they were finally ready when the time came…but then, this is just my opinion. Of course, editors agreed with me, didn’t they?

I do know of one writer who actually sold her first book—my Plotmonkey pal, Leslie Kelly. But she sold it on a finished manuscript…not on proposal. So there. (Finish the book!)

This is for the first timers out there who are struggling with the writing. Just get it written. Trust me, there is a lesson in there that you won’t get from any craft book, any workshop, any tape, any editor or agent appointment, any sale. You’re building a foundation that so many other wannabes will never have the material to maintain.

Think of that when you need some motivation, okay?