I spent the last four days recording more than 15 hours of video lessons with my colleague and friend, Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. We intended to put in four-hour days doing the recordings, but they ended up being more like nnine-hour days – so for four days straight, for nine hours each, we sat in front of a camera and broke down the process of writing a story that will engage the reader’s brain.
This is not the first time we have done this work. We were re-recording the lessons that we use to teach our 10-week Story Genius course, so that the lessons can be more concise, more impactful, and of better sound quality. The video lessons are, in turn, based on Lisa’s books, which I had the honor of coaching her through – and in the pages of Story Genius, she coaches me on a novel that the reader gets to watch come to life as I develop it from zero according to her method. In other words, we both know this material cold.
Two things struck me as we worked through the process this time.
1.) What a complex, complicated thing a novel is. There are so many moving parts to it, so many elements that must be mastered if you want to capture and keep your reader’s attention. This is self-evident to anyone who is engaged in the process of writing a novel, or a memoir, or non-fiction narrative – anyone, in other words, who is reading, and writing and studying and striving to write well (which is you, who is reading this) -- but I constantly hear non-writers explain that the thing that’s holding them back from writing a book is a simple lack of time.
“Oh, you’re a book coach?” they say, “I have a book I’m dying to write – if only I had more time.”
That’s like my saying that I’m dying to swim in the Olympics if only I had more time.
Or I’m dying to perform a tonsillectomy if only I had more time.
Writing well is not, for 99.9% of us, a function of time. It’s a function of years of reading, and years of paying very close attention to what makes people tick, and years of putting words on the page, over and over and over again, until we figure out how to get it right – or maybe not. You never know if what you are writing is going to work – if it’s going to match the vision in your mind, if it’s going to find its way into the hands of readers, if it’s going to impact them in any way.
And meanwhile, you have to figure out how to develop a believable character, how to give her a three-dimensional inner life, how to put her in a situation where something is at stake, how to make the reader care about what happens to her, how to build a world for her to move around in, how to give voice to her desires and fears.
It is, as I said, a complex thing. That truth brought me to my second realization of this long week of talking about writing.
2.) Striving is beautiful. I adopted that phrase from my daughter’s high school cross country coach, who used to tell her that when it was clear that she was never going to win a race, or even, on many days, make it to the finish line. I loved it the moment I heard it, and love it still, because it perfectly describes why anyone would bother to do something like writing a novel – something that is so solitary, so difficult, so confounding, and so unlikely to pay off in any measurable way.
One of my newsletter readers requested that I write about what it takes to make a living as a writer, and I have hesitated from doing so because the truth is so very harsh. Most writers don’t. Most writers never come close. But that’s not really why any of us are doing it. We’re doing it because striving to do this difficult thing we love is indeed beautiful.
I spent my week expertly analyzing the how-to of writing a novel, even as I am inching along, very slowly, in writing the novel that I began in the pages of Lisa’s book. I have a busycoaching practice, and I am in charge of a book coaching company that is also booming so I don’t have a lot of time for my own creative work.
But I am not telling myself or anyone else that I would write a novel if only I had the time.
I am, instead, doing it – slowly, but surely. I have been writing by hand, with cheap pens in a paper journal with a red cover. It is the speed that feels right to me right now.
This is a novel about a woman who finds her creative voice. It’s what I always write about, because it’s what most interests me – how anyone manages to do this work that is so hard to do, that makes so little sense, but that can't be ignored.
The writing is not going exceptionally well or fast. This novel might not ever work, or come to light, or get into the hands of as many readers as I might dream about.
But like you, I am doing this hard thing – the complex thing that so many people only talk about doing. And at the start of the new year, that feelsright to me right now, too.