So… I did a thing.
(Good going, Sarah, nice way to start off vague.)
You know my book? That thing I’ve been writing — and rewriting — for more than three years now? That thing with emotional train-wrecks for main characters? And plot-twists that are even worse in the train-wrecky department? That thing I generally don’t say much about because I’m terrified it’s lousy and can’t bear to share my inadequacy as a writer with the world?
Yeah. That book.
Well, I did a thing. Otherwise known as I actually let my sister read it. Finally. And with many, many excuses, explanations, “I-know-it’s-terrible’s”, and quiet nervous breakdowns as I curled into a tiny ball under my covers and cringed.
If you know me well, you know that this isn’t a terribly uncommon occurrence (ESPECIALLY when I finally deign to share my work), but in this case things were a tad different. See, I’m 67,000 words into my third (and hopefully, last) rewrite of Aeterna, which sounds all well and good until you realize that I have zero plan for how it ends.
This, folks, is called pantsting in the extreme, and is NOT recommended. I thoroughly advise you not start a book until you also know how to finish said book. I don’t even have an outline; I’m writing on the fly, trusting that the next scene will come to me as I go.
Needless to say, this method hasn’t instilled a great deal of confidence in me about my book, and despite the fact that there’s a very good reason I’m doing things this way, I still have trouble getting past the insecure fear that I’m writing a dead-end story that will make even less sense than the Star Wars prequels.
Why, then, have I chosen the path of a Panster instead of a Plotter? Three words for ya: Outlining was worse.
Back when I was in the planning stages of Rewrite #3, my out-of-control perfectionism began to micromanage my life. It insisted that if I didn’t figure out every single teeny-weeny little detail before I wrote it, the book would flop. That kind of outlining would be a freakish feat, even for writers who know what they’re doing, and certainly impossible for one who’s still in the learning stages. That dumb outline gave me so much stress that suddenly, one day, God had to hit me over the head with a spiritual frying pan and remind me that if I really do trust Him with my book, I’m not allowed to worry about having all my ducks in a row.
If He wants to say something through my writing, He’ll say it, whether or not I know where I’m going or what I’m doing or how the stupid book will end.
I try not to ignore the spiritual frying pans. So I decided to start my rewrite, and leave the rest of the book in His (very capable) hands. And yes, it wouldn’t be truthful if I omitted all the parts where I buried myself in the corner of our sofa and agonized over my various plot-holes and character fails, leaving my poor confused mother even more certain that she’d birthed a mentally unstable child who couldn’t speak English properly.
The problem was, I thought that leaving my story in God’s hands would make the struggle easier. In reality, it only made things worse.
If it took me an hour to write a paragraph before, now it took me two hours. Words were rebellious, slipping through my fingers like wet glue, sticking to everything and anything, but refusing to hold the story together. I couldn’t relate to my characters anymore. I couldn’t tell how much emotion I was channeling into them, if I was going overboard or not giving them enough, if they were likable or otherwise, if they felt real. Self-doubt was a constant, crippling reality.
Some people might call this writers’ block; I prefer to think of it as slogging through mostly-dry concrete with two broken legs and a punctured lung.
Being myself, I took this to mean that 1.) God wasn’t helping me, and 2.) God not helping me must be a direct result of me doing something wrong. If He was channeling His words through me, then obviously I would feel it. Some sense of peace, some strange composure. Words would work.
And so I suffered, and everything about my book felt completely wrong. But even in the midst of my soggy-concrete marathon, I managed to keep a small semblance of my faith. I may be a terrible writer, and my book an atomic disaster, but at least it was God’s disaster, not mine. To remind myself of this and keep my focus on track, I used one of Scrivener’s many helpful features and made a note to myself in every single scene I wrote:
Just a little reminder, just in case.
Fast forward to now, when finally, after two years of her begging, I let Anna read what I have written so far: The raw, unedited tangle of 65k words — a mammoth in my record book, considering I haven’t even reached the midpoint yet, but still, in my eyes, a disaster of an endeavor.
And yes, as I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t let it go without at least a dozen instances of kicking myself for my stupidity and warning her what a rocky road she was in for. When she finally returned, a dazed look in her eyes as she declared five fateful words, “I finished the first chapter,” I really thought I was in for it.
I was not, however, prepared for her next line: “Hey Sarah? You’re crazy.”
Long story short, she likes it.
You know, I think I’d better repeat that:
Anna, the person who couldn’t give a compliment if her life depended on it, the person who feels perfectly comfortable criticizing masters such as Dickens or Van Gogh — Anna, the person who takes one glance at my artwork and says things such as, “Gee, Sarah, that guys’ mouth looks like a puffer-fish,” despite the fact that EVERY OTHER LINE IN THE DRAWING IS PERFECT–
Anna says she likes my book.
I genuinely didn’t know how to handle such news.
Because if Anna likes it, well then, I must have done something right. Sure, she’s not the most well-informed literary critic, and a polished author could probably reduce me to a heap of ashes in minutes, but still. Anna likes it. She really, really does, and suddenly, the future didn’t seem so bleak anymore. Writing may be like slogging through concrete, but at least I don’t have to worry about that whole, “Am I good, am I bad?” thing anymore. It was a massive relief to my poor mind.
Monstrously pleased, I betook myself off to write the next chapter. And guys, let me tell you now: It was the easiest thing I’ve EVER written in my ENTIRE LIFE. It just… flowed. Every word fit together, the sentences forming like woven silk as I spun paragraph after paragraph after paragraph. The words obeyed me like they’ve never obeyed before. I gave the new chapter to Anna, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid of what she would say next.
I am a good writer.
With this in mind, you can imagine my confusion when she returned an hour later, another dazed look on her face as she stated (rather bluntly), “I hate it.”
She couldn’t really explain it (probably because she didn’t know herself) but something was missing — some spark of emotion, some level of depth, some connection to the characters, something. And despite my protests, she remained adamant: It was a bad, bad chapter.
To say that my newfound confidence died is an understatement. It took one bound over the edge of the towering cliff of my ego and was never heard from again.
That left me pondering life, the universe, and everything wrong with my book, as I once again settled into the jaws of despair. Were those beginning chapters a mere fluke? Was I really just a terrible writer, who’d somehow, by sheer accident, managed to write 65k words that were halfway decent? Or had I overdone it, and was now suffering from the letdown of burnout? Maybe I’d used up all my good words, and now the rest of the book would be horrible.
It was a terrifying thought. I idly scrolled through the various and sundry chapters of Aeterna, trying to find some clue to help me solve this discouraging mystery. What had I done different in the new chapter? Why were the old ones — the ones I’d agonized over — so good, while the one I’d actually enjoyed writing was terrible?
As I read through my old work, my gaze drifted to the side of the screen, and I noticed something: A little note I’d written to myself more times than I can remember.
This book belongs to You.
I flipped to the next chapter, and there it was again. Chapter after chapter, scene after scene, and there they were. Those five little words, so innocuous, yet representing a powerful promise.
And that, my friends, is when the sinking feeling entered my stomach. I flipped back to my newest chapter — the flubbed chapter — and looked at the notebox.
At that point, it was rather obvious what I’d done. Instead of giving the credit to God, I’d chalked it up to my own skill — which is ludicrous, considering this post has made it preeeetty obvious that I’m about as clueless as the next Joe Shmo on how to craft a book. If anything even halfway decent was written by my fingers, it’s both miraculous and a clear work of God. I couldn’t have done that myself.
But that brought me to my greatest source of confusion: Writing under God’s wing was a lousy experience.
I thought that if He were to take a bad author and write something good through her, she would at least know about it. Some strange feeling, some sense of peace. The words would come together like all the little cogs in a clock, ticking perfectly, in order, in beautiful symmetry as something wonderful was formed.
Instead, I struggled. I deleted more words than I probably wrote, and everything felt like a big jumble of disconnected thoughts and ideas. It took me three hours to grind out two paragraphs, and sometimes, I’d be working on a chapter for weeks before I’d ever manage to finish it.
Yet through it all, God still managed to write something halfway decent.
And it makes me wonder: What if the struggles we take to mean we’re far away from God are actually an indication that we’re close to Him? What if the struggle is just a sign that He’s trying to use our degenerate souls to do a perfect work?
It’s like when you try to load a complex, state-of-the-art program on a beat-up 2005 dell laptop; the program can work, but only with all the extra trouble that comes from forcing an intricate masterpiece to be supported by tech that is essentially incompatible.
So do you know what I think?
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Don’t be depressed when you struggle. You may just be the cruddy Dell laptop that Our Heavenly Father is loading a masterpiece program on.
And above all, please remember that whatever success you achieve, whatever triumphs you have — they’re only by the grace of God. We are imperfect and incompatible for His glorious plan, yet He uses us anyway.
Basically, take an object lesson from Sarah and don’t be like her.