I had the pleasure and honor of joining Tish McAllise Sjoberg’s “So You Wanna Write a Book” workshop over at Expressive Arts in San Diego tonight to talk about The Left Hand of Light and the process I went through to take it from a concept to a finished product.
My first thought upon meeting the wonderful people that make up this circle of blossoming writers and hearing their hopes and fears about the act of writing is that so many of us struggle with the same basic concern: How does one take a blank canvas of infinite possibility and turn it into a story that conveys exactly what we are trying to say?
Is it finding time and discipline to make it happen? It it about rituals or just grinding through it by locking yourself away in an empty room?
I suppose no one answer would suffice for all writers. I’m not even sure I have a worthy answer. But here’s what I did and it worked for me.
Just spill the ugly draft.
What do I mean, spill it? I mean to just get it out. No editing. No revising. No JUDGING. I don’t care if every sentence you write is a total cliche and neither should you. Or if every sentence is laughable with poor grammar and terrible metaphors. Just spill it out onto the page. Get it out as quickly as you possibly can!
Because a book is like a baby. Nothing you could write, no matter how grotesque, will compare to the euphoric feeling you will have by holding that ugly draft in your hand like it was your child and realizing that you just wrote a book. A bad book probably. An unreadable book, even. Other people may glare at your ugly child and shake their heads, but I promise to you it will be a thing of beauty. It will be done and it will be yours and no one or nothing can ever take that away from you.
But where do you start? Stories begin at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean they have to be written that way. The Left Hand of Light was just a short story concept until I realized I’d been holding back to write the climax scene. The one that I lived for and made me cry. But it was taking forever together there. I had no idea how I would get there because I had no idea where I was going. So what did I do? I wrote the ending first. I spilled all my passion, all my pain, all my rage and glory right there because that’s really why we’re writing isn’t it? It was a revelation for me that just because I read a story a certain way didn’t mean I had to write it the same way! Once I knew the ending, it was much easier (not easy, just easier!) to try to figure out and write all the things that led up to that climax. What happened before? What happened after? became my two favorite questions.
Once your ugly draft is born, that’s when the real work begins: Turning the ugly baby into a productive member of society. Now you can start editing, and revising, poking. Let the editor in you come out now to judge and remove the bad grammar and horrible cliches. Because you’re editing your book! You may discover that the climax you wrote in the beginning doesn’t quite work anymore. That’s totally okay! CHANGE IT! You have that power. It was just a starting place, like a destination on a map. You thought you wanted to go to Las Vegas and you set out on the road to get there, but after you began the journey, you realized the Grand Canyon was really what you wanted to see. Cool. So go there. But until you spill the ugly draft, you’ll never ever know.