How Finishing a Novel Changed My Writing

I finished and submitted the draft of my first novel a few weeks ago.

Since then, I’ve written several blog posts, about a dozen letters of various kinds, and my usual 20,000 words a week of paid freelance writing.  I’m currently working on a chapter for the upcoming Monstrosity and Disability anthology (Palgrave, sometime next year?).  And my understanding of writing has changed completely.

1. I only have one job.

For years, I’ve described my work to people as three or four separate jobs.  I’m a freelance copywriter.  I’m a marketing writer for an independent (actually, an Autonomous) press.  I’m an academic. I’m an author and an occasional poet.  I’ve always thought of these as separate spheres.

They’re not.  They’re different tasks I do in my one job, which is to put funny little marks on paper (or pixels) in ways that change actual human behavior.  That’s what I do.  I sit here, rattle my keyboard for a few hours every day, and actual things come to exist in the world that change what y’all do.



2.  I have no idea what counts as a “short” assignment anymore.  Or a “long” one.

A confession: this chapter draft I’m currently working on is due in two weeks.  I had more than a year to write it.  I started writing yesterday.

Another confession: my word limit for this chapter draft is around 10k to 12k words.  I have 8000 after two days of writing.

Before I finished the novel draft, 10,000 words on a single topic was dang near insurmountable.  In grad school I counted on coming in 20 percent short on every paper.  Professor wanted five pages?  I had four.  Ten pages?  My final draft would be eight.  Twenty pages?  Sorry, I’ve got sixteen.  And on and on.  This didn’t actually hurt me – in fact, I got praised for being able to say so much concisely – but it was a constant struggle.

I’m still that concise.  I can just be that concise for a lot longer.  Having once sustained a narrative arc through 70,000 words, I have absolutely no trouble thinking in a manuscript of that size – in any genre.  My problem with this chapter draft, actually, is keeping myself down to 10,000 or 12,000 words.  I could go on forever, but I’m not allowed to.  (Also I would be repeating a lot of what’s already been written, which is emphatically not the point of this piece.)

3.  I needed all that writing time.

I have nothing but bemusement now for the kind of folks who sit at their perfect desk in the perfect corner of their perfect room, sharpen their perfect pencil, open their perfect journal, and wait for Inspiration to stream in on a beam of perfect sunlight and turn them into authors.  I have the same bemusement for people who sit in Starbucks wearing their smugness hats (excuse me, “fedoras”) and announce to anyone who will listen, “I’m writing a screenplay.

Cool.  What are your rates?

Seven years of writing for a living, thirty years of journaling, nine years of post-high-school writing-intensive education, teaching writing, communicating primarily by writing: none of it was wasted.  All of it got me to the point where sustaining a narrative arc for 70,000 words was something I could do.

Until I actually finished my first novel draft, I didn’t know that.  I really believed that all that other writing was a “waste.”  Sure, it earned me degrees or made me money or whatever, but it didn’t matter because it wasn’t The Novel.  *heavens open, angels sing*

[cat hairball noise]

It’s all writing.  Sure, only writing on your novel draft will result in a finished novel.  But banging out 10,000 words a day of copy, ranting in my teenage journals, producing massive briefs detailing every one of the 26 ways in which the plaintiff does not have a case?  It all made writing that novel draft possible.  It’s all valuable.  The only way to write regularly, consistently, and cleanly is to do it all the damn time.

4.  Writing now involves zero anxiety.

Well, near-zero.  I still have moments in which I get stuck, or I realize I should have made a point three paragraphs earlier, or that I shouldn’t make a point until three paragraphs later.

But it’s no longer a mountain.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind now that when I sit down in front of the keyboard, something related to my intended topic is going to fall out and that something is going to be workable.  It won’t be a polished final draft; it rarely is, unless we’re talking about a sample of the most basic type of copy I’ve written every day for seven years.  But it’ll be something I can use.  Something relevant.  Sometimes, it’ll even be something that surprises me.

tl;dr I am Alexander Hamilton.  Just you wait.