As a book comes to life, it flows through the stages of conception, growth, birth, being a demanding vomitus insufferable brat, and entering society as a mature individual with something to offer one and all.
At some point along the way, most writers want to give up, quit and kick their manuscripts to the curb, whether from hopeless despair, irresistible rage or insipid indifference.
For more than 25 years, I have helped authors through every stage in the writing cycle.
Therefore, I offer you three lessons for finding the light at the end of the tunnel when you're tired and frustrated with writing.
#1. Find the heart-stopping moment
A writer and dear friend – a PhD and professor at a prominent university – loved his humanitarian trips to Haiti and wanted to write a book about his experiences.
“Doc’s” goal was to inspire others to leave their comfort zones and help people in dire straits. He was a gifted writer who didn’t care about sales, profit or fame.
Doc sought my assistance.
We agreed that he would write down specific recollections of his previous trips and that he would keep a journal during his next visit.
Months later, Doc gave me four or five volumes of his handwritten journals filled with undated, illegible scribbling.
What words I could discern were repetitious comments, such as:
- This driver sure is taking a lot of chances on this horrible road.
- These people sure are poor.
- How do these people survive in these conditions?
- These people sure are resilient.
- I sure am hungry/hot/tired/dirty/overwhelmed.
All those thoughts are common among those who endure destitute foreign lands. Doc’s experiences were priceless to him and eminently life changing. However, after I transcribed dozens of pages of Doc’s journals, I came to the opinion that there was nothing therein that was “worthy” of a story line for a book.
Oddly, Doc agreed as I shared my opinion over a cup of coffee together. I asked about his latest trip. “Just like the rest,” he said, “Except….”
That’s what I was hoping to hear: some passionate nugget that would burst forth in conversation … and in print.
Finally, he found his heart-stopping moment:
- He was with friends.
- Nothing special happening.
- Just an ordinary day in an extraordinary place.
- “All of a sudden” something happened!
Doc related a moment in time when life paused, then changed forever.
Doc’s pivotal point will be different than yours, but yours could be:
- Good/bad medical reports
- Disturbing/good news about a friend
- Going on a date/an impending divorce
- New/bad neighbors
- Getting hacked
- An unexpected expense/gift
- Getting caught/rewarded for things done in secret
- A tick bite
- Family members arrested/honored
Again, your “moment in time” heart-stopper is what you make of it.
My friend’s background in education, psychology, counseling and caring caused him to see the incident from a unique perspective. He identified how others did or did not act or react. Then, he applied what he learned to the lives of his readers with tremendously vivid insights.
He had a story line. The fixin’s for a book.
Believe it or not, you can do that too. Just keep your eyes and your imagination open at all times for life’s heart-stopping moments.
#2. Find the courage to change
“Larry” wanted to put into print the beloved stories his grandparents told his mother, who told them to him, and that he was telling to his children.
Modifying the tales was sacrilege. After generations of perfection, the characters, points, plots, motives, lessons and applications could not be corrupted, at the risk of insulting tradition. That’s great when you’re telling your own kids a bedtime story made up by family members that everyone knows, trusts and loves. But you have to be sure they’re the boundaries you want in your writing.
Back in my childhood, my brother and I heard stories about kids who were spanked when they disobeyed. Write about that today and your children might be raised in a foster home after you end up in a prison cell with a brute who has the word “Anger” tattooed on his forehead.
When you are selling strangers books to read to little kids, for example, you must be willing to adapt the content. In Larry’s case, he had to modify situations that used to be pure and innocent:
- Little children knocking on doors of unknown neighbors
- Kids entering the homes of strangers without the knowledge of parents
- Spending significant amounts of money without parental permission
- Going on potentially dangerous adventures without parental assent
Times have changed. Opie and Mayberry are dead.
This is not about political correctness. Share whatever message you want. That’s your business and no one else’s.
My point is you must consider your audience and avoid language or situations that can be unintentionally misunderstood.
All I am saying is give your message a chance.
#3. Find the framework of the story
After writing for a year or two, a friend kept writing until he grew weary of a once-important project.
Then, “Columbus” hired a writer to perfect the manuscript. Both of them, however, had different “voices” and styles. It was easy to discern which person wrote various portions.
When that didn’t perfect the manuscript, it was passed around to well-meaning, erudite souls to make suggestions and edits.
When that didn’t perfect the manuscript, if I understand correctly, small committees made revisions.
When that didn’t perfect the manuscript, Columbus was just about ready to toss it into a fire and be done with it.
Four years after Columbus began the project, he asked me to “just take a look” at it … to “just see” … if the book was worthy of redemption.
In my humble opinion, the crux of the book – learning lessons from life’s adventures – was worth preservation. The applications drawn were astute.
The manuscript itself, however, was a bloated, convoluted monstrosity. There was a book inside to the same degree that there was a magnificent Michelangelo-ish statue inside a ragged hunk of untouched marble. (Sorry.)
Columbus hired me to take a few whacks at it, in conjunction with a talented writer on his team. We created a blueprint to follow – an outline – to keep us on track. Each chapter had a descriptive title, a goal and a nugget of wisdom for readers.
As with the restoration of a rare automobile, we stripped the book down to its essential parts. We replaced missing or faulty pieces and improvised when necessary. We scraped off the rust and oiled the joints. Then we carefully put it back together, piece by piece.
Would it have been easier to start from scratch? Maybe. But we had the original author’s perspective and passion … which could not be duplicated.
Are you at a place with a manuscript that reminds you of this mess? You’re sick of it and – like a wayward child – you resent what it’s turned out to be?
Relax. As long as you know:
- the central theme of your story
- how your story begins
- the nature of your characters
- how your story matures
- the impact of your story on your characters
- how your story resolves
- what impact you want your story to have on readers
you’ll be OK.
If you are lost in your story, however, what hope will your readers have?
Use a map – an outline – to extricate yourself from your wilderness and to lead you where you want your tale to wander, camp, overcome and blossom.
Don’t like your first few drafts? Who cares? Do it again and again until it’s the way you want it.
Remember: There are no great writers. There are only great rewriters.