Friday, May 6, 2011

Unpublished Words

By Russel D McLean

At an event I attended recently, the author admitted it had been a while since his last book. He’d been working on something he thought “might sell better than my usual books” but found that the project struggled to get into gear. He spent 18 months working on something that got binned.

Now I know some of you might consider that wasted wordage, but the truth is I had the same situation. A book I was determined to make work but that couldn’t find its voice, a book that I knew wasn’t ready for consumption.

Yeah, don’t think that being published makes this gig any easier.

It was around 18 months of frustration for me, too. It wasn’t like so-called “writers block” because the problem was not the words. It was the feel. The atmosphere. Sometimes, you read something and you feel something that’s difficult to describe. Sometimes its called voice. But whatever it is, it’s the thing that makes the book feel convincing and real on its own terms.

And, I know that what I just said sounds airy-fairy, and I hate that. Because I strive to be as practical as I can about the writing process, but the truth us that for a book to work there has to be something more than just words on the page. There has to be an extra something that supervenes over the text, that becomes more than just the right words.

Whatever that was, this book didn’t have it.

And that killed me. Because I was fighting to find it. Kicking and screaming. I edited, re-edited, edited some more. I chopped and changed characters, merged plotlines and added new ones. I looked at plot, theme, everything I could and worked on motifs and other arty things that most of the time you don’t expect people to notice.

Nothing worked.

So 18 months was…


No, I don’t believe it was. And I don’t believe this other author – the one who had a similar experience – would think his time was wasted, either.

Sure, it was a pain in the arse and you know, it would have been nice to finish a book that we could have been paid for. But being professional writers, we were likely both supporting ourselves with other projects (I made some money from shorts and articles during those months) so there was that at least.

But in terms of the non-monetary side of the gig, writing this book honed my skills. Taught me a great deal. About how my mind works, the kind of stories that fascinate me, that I want to tell. Many of these lessons, I think, helped me when I came back to write the 3rd McNee novel (and there will be a third, certainly in the UK where it’s just been contracted). There were tricks and tips I picked up that are invaluable to me now.

Because the truth is, no writing experience is wasted.

Not if we learn from it.

I learned this coming up through the publishing industry, that even the bad books I wrote eventually taught me something, even if it was just what not to do. Those million words I wrote before being published were never regretted for that reason.

And I always say to new writers that they’re going to write a lot of shite before they get published. Because that’s how you learn in this gig.

I’m beginning to wonder if I should amend that to, “you’re also going to write a lot shite after publication, too. Because the truth is, in this gig, you never really stop learning.”


Unknown said...

Know the feeling well, Russell. Couldn't agree more. Sound advice, fella.

Al Tucher said...

One of the things I like about writing is the fact that no experience is wasted--not even the ones that most people avoid, like boredom and failure.

John McFetridge said...

I sure hope so, Al, or I've wasted a lot of time....