Learning to write for the third time
Dom Smith is a writer – it’s just that his full-time job gets in the way. He is also the first to join the Considered Words community as a contributor, and is brave enough to want to start with a Writing Failure.
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Flaws, pride and rejection
I wrote a book.
It was a good book, I thought. Many of my friends told me the same. I knew it had flaws, and my friends and family saw them too. An agent read it and gave me feedback. It was great feedback, it was useful feedback, it was constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the feedback was ‘we can’t sell this, and here’s the reasons why….’
C’est la vie.
So, I composed myself, figured out what the positive spin of the conversation and repeated it ad nauseum to everyone who asked the unknowingly crushing question, ‘How did your meeting with the agent go?’
‘Well, the good news is,’ I’d say, ‘I’ve learnt how to write. But this one’s not going to be published.’
And that’s been my line ever since. I’ve not been idle. I’ve a brand new plot, laid out in detail, avoiding all the mistakes and flaws of the last one. It’s got great characters, a rapid plot, a set-up for a series, and most importantly, it stabs a bloody harpoon deep into the blubber of the zeitgeist whale and rides with it like crazed Captain Ahab. This book is now. It’s commercial. It’s a winner!
Kickass. Ok, great. Let’s rock. Find a clear weekend, dedicated to The New Book. The path’s laid out. The plot is clear. The tension… well… tense?
Six hours and 6000 words later I come to a hideous conclusion. I need to learn how to write again.
Repeatedly running into a brick wall
Ok, so here are the blindingly obvious, read-in-every-writer’s-book, first time author’s mistakes I made:
- I took seven years to finish it.
- My characters were not sufficiently sympathetic to a wide enough audience.
- I wrote it in the first person.
Yeah, yeah, I know. If you are reading this, you are probably a writer, and you know that this set of flaws are so well highlighted in enough other blogs/books/classes. But, being constructive, let’s look at each one in turn:
1) It took seven years to finish it. I have a job. I work long hours. I like to go out. I have a band. I play computer games. I fall into Wiki holes when I should be writing. I once read (and bought) and entire copy of ‘Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1991’ to check a single fact about a ship in the Vietnamese Navy, which, to be fair, I actually already knew. I like researching. It’s fun.
However, I know these things now, and I won’t make this mistake again. No way. No.
2) Insufficiently sympathetic lead characters. Schoolboy error. What’s painful, and tragic, is that I knew this was a killer issue and I spent five of those seven years with this thought at the forefront of my mind, making sure I didn’t make this mistake! And then I did. What I learnt was: my basis of how much of an arse a character of mine can be, is some way off the market’s, and that means I have to adjust if I want to sell.
No problem. Done.
3) First person perspective. I liked first person. It felt immediate. It meant I could play with perception, rather than fixed, brutal reality. I could show everything I wanted to about the lead character, his pride, his lust, his redemption.
Basically, I thought I could get away with it. Yeah, very few good books are written in first person. Yeah, the monologue can be exhausting. But I thought I was so good that I could dodge all of that. I read my words over and believed that ‘Yes, it’s good. It doesn’t need to change. It’s good. I’ve read way worse…. It could be published…’
I learnt to write the first time, because my mum taught me. Every day, for one hour after school, bribed with Asterix and Tintin books”
Third time lucky
I was once a scientist, so I like words like ‘zeroth’. It’s like the one step before ‘first’. It shows where ‘first’ came from, while also recognizing that it’s not a real step. The zeroth time I learn to write, I was five. I was at school. I (poorly) repeated the lines, circles and kicks of infant handwriting and still didn’t get it. Talking, I was good at. Remembering stuff, great. Maths, excellent. Making things, wicked. Writing, shocking.
I learnt to write the first time, because my mum taught me. Every day, for one hour after school, bribed with Asterix and Tintin books, for God-knows-how-many years, my mum made me literate. By age 11, I could write a sheet of A4. The spelling was abysmal. The grammar, weak. The handwriting, poor. But the thoughts were there, expressed, readable (just). Enough to do education, just in time for secondary school.
Then I fixed on science for ten years. From 12 to 22 I focused on maths, physics, and electronics, as well as music, for blessed relief. Then at 22, two weeks before my final year exams, I started writing my first book, and wrote in the first person. I learnt how to write for the second time.
New book, new horizons
Now I’m 29 and trying to write a book that I enjoy, and I can sell. I am learning to write for the third time, in third person. I’m struggling. It’s tough. But learning valuable things always is.