Living With Uncertainty While Writing a Book

One of the terrific life-enhancing challenges (effing growth experiences!) of writing a book is that it creates a long-term and continuous state of uncertainty in the writer’s psyche. While you write the first couple of drafts, the following questions are always present:
• Is it worth writing?
• Can I write it?
• Can I write it well enough that someone will love reading it?

These are not small questions. It’s as if a cook wondered, with every onion he chopped:
• Is it worth chopping?
• Can I chop it?
• Can I prepare the meal well enough that someone will love eating it?

The problem with this analogy is that nobody needs to read a book, whereas people do need to eat.

But those of us who read books to sustain our mental lives—which some people sustain via TV, for example, or through solving basic survival issues—have more books on the “to read” shelf than we can swallow in a lifetime. Why add another one to the gigantic library of books out there? Why go through the intensive work of writing a readable book? Or as writer Annie Dillard puts it,

Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?

Given the number of books in the world, many unread by anyone except the author and her immediate family, it becomes clear that this first question is absolutely legitimate. It’s also completely fruitless. If you are writing a book that you intend to submit for publication, or publish yourself, you often need to write your way to the end of the first draft before you can tell whether it was worth writing. (Then revision allows you to make it worth writing—keeping in mind that, as Larry Brooks writes, sometimes revision is just another word for ‘starting over.’)

In that prolonged period of uncertainty, almost any reason to write the book is good enough. Your own emotional catharsis? Fine. Your wish to prove to yourself that you can handle a gigantic project? Great. An urgent need for money? No.

So you ignore question one while you write the first draft. The real question in that phase is “Can I write it?” This question hovers for months, even years. Writers live with this uncertainty as part of their natural state, while they go about their civilian lives and work their day jobs. They might look all right, but inside they are often flailing (or bobbing rigidly) in the frigid Sea of Despair. This is when craft books (those you’d find under “Writing” in the bookstore or library) can send out a lifeline.

The craft books that can help at this drafting stage are the generative kind: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, or Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction. These books tell you that it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. They reassure and inspire. They are helpful because this is the stage that separates the sheep from the lambs (or, if we’re going to be vulgar, the men from the sheep). They can help get you to the end of a draft.

Once you have gotten to THE END at least once, and have a complete manuscript to show for it, the third question comes into play: “Can I write it well enough that someone will love reading it?” Hovering over this question is the first question (it never went away; you just ignored it for a while): “Is it worth writing?” Because really, for a serious writer, the test of whether a book is worth writing is whether someone you’ve never met will love reading it. And in the end, that becomes whether they will pay to read it.

[If that smells too commercial, look at it this way: agents and editors must love it, and they pay with their time. Readers must love it, and they pay with cash. I’m not saying writers must write for money, I’m saying that at some point, and in some fashion, the reader pays to read your work.]

So, even after getting to THE END once or twice, the uncertainty is not over. The writer will read that first or second draft, and realize it’s not where s/he wants it to be. This is when a different set of craft books can send out a lifeline: ones like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, Larry Brooks’ Story Fix, or Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer. They help you take apart what you wrote and unearth everything that is stopping the reader from fully engaging with your book.

At this stage, two other lifelines will help: beta readers and great novels.

Beta readers help because they react specifically to your manuscript, and will tell you what works and what doesn’t work for them. Instead of wading through a craft book and applying its tests to your pages, you have a personal reaction from a real reader (if you are very lucky, this person will also be a writer). I suspect most great novelists have these trusted readers (in some cases it might be their editor at the publishing house, but many also have novelist friends who react to their first readable draft). One beta reader is worth a thousand hours of studying craft books, but craft books are still needed, because they will offer many ways to address a problem, while beta readers excel at identifying the problem to begin with.

The third lifeline—published novels you love—is also crucial at this stage, because you can take these books apart to see how they achieve a particular effect. If you want to write a good fight scene, I recommend Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, of all books, or Ben Percy’s Refresh, Refresh—each has a disturbing fight scene that will show you how specific detail must be in this type of close physical encounter. Or if you want to write a good opening, read a hundred openings, then take another run at yours. Solve your problems on the page by looking at how great writers have solved theirs. It won’t make your work derivative; it will show you how a better solution might be found.

As writers, we live with uncertainty for long periods. But if you can handle life in this state of ‘not knowing,’ at some point you will have a book worth reading, that you wrote, that other people will pay to read. Because the answer to the three questions—Is it worth writing? Can I write it? Can I write it well enough that other people will pay to read it?—is always “yes.” The challenge (effing growth experience!) is to give yourself the tools and encouragement to proceed.

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