Writing a novel is like running a marathon
When I tell people that I have written a novel, the response is usually positive. I like to compare the general reaction to that of telling someone you’ve ran a marathon. This is a fair comparison, because no one really cares about how well you ran a marathon, just the fact that you completed the task seems impressive. It is the length of a novel that seems to draw the positive attention, and like running a marathon, most people don’t seem to care how well my novel is written, they are simply impressed that I completed the task. I certainly get a far more reserved reaction when I say I wrote a poem, after all.
Then some people tell me they would like to write a novel. When I ask why they haven’t, the first thing they say (after saying they don’t have the time) is that they don’t have an idea that’s good enough to be a bestseller. This is a common fear and misconception about writing. Waiting to write your first novel until you have an idea that is sure to be a bestseller is akin to only playing the lottery when the jackpot is ten digits long. Like any form of writing, being a novelist requires practice, mistakes, learning, and endurance.
I’ve written a bad book, and I’m proud of it.
It is the endurance portion that usually trips people up. I only became a novelist and considered myself a writer after I finished my first novel. And let me tell you, no one will read that story all the way through. It’s about 56,000 words of disorganized thought and underdeveloped everything. I wrote it, and then I moved on after I realized I couldn’t bring myself to finish reading it.
But I still have it. It’s a stack of pages sitting on the very top of my desk. It is a reminder that I can finish. If that novel is my first marathon, then it is the one I ran in seven hours. But I love that book. That book taught me that I can dedicate myself to write and finish a complete story.
Despite its poor quality, my first novel put me into a brand new category: a novelist. I’ve even told people that I wrote a terrible novel. They usually laugh and ask why I finished writing it, unable to grasp the concept of “wasting” that much time.
Let’s go back to the marathon metaphor. If I were running my first marathon (maybe I will some day) and it wasn’t going well (maybe I’m very tired, sore, overheated, undertrained), what would make me feel the best? Should I just exit the course and return home? Or should I finish the race, even if I have to drag myself to the finish line in last place? It is always best to finish what you’ve started, even if it ends up being a terrible version of what you envisioned.
You learn from your mistakes, but you also learn what you are capable of by seeing things through to the end, good or bad.
Don’t punish yourself for bad writing.
Inevitably, I wrote another novel after I finished my first terrible one. Because I already had one novel under my belt, my second novel was more organized, more exciting, and of much better quality overall. My confidence was soaring as I wrote. The pressure of “will I actually finish this book” disappeared, because I knew that I could definitely finish this book, no matter what. Now, I write every day, fearless of mistakes.
Good or bad, accomplishment and following through on a project makes the next project better. You learn from your mistakes and improve. And if you are interested in writing a novel, just know that all great writers write the occasional bad book. Stephen King wrote “The Tommyknockers,” after all (not being too harsh, he panned the book himself).
And if you haven’t read “Across the River and Into the Trees,” there’s a reason for that. It’s a book by Ernest Hemingway that was panned by everyone, including his own wife. But guess what he did after it was released? He wrote “The Old Man and the Sea.”
So get out there and write. And don’t forget to finish what you start. It could make or break your next novel.