In the beginning, there was an idea.
That’s the easy part. The fun part.
Coming up with an idea might very well be my favorite part of the novel-writing process. It’s easy and it feels good. You’ve got this lightning-bolt idea for characters or a premise. It sounds like absolute magic. It feels like absolute magic. You feel like a goddamn rock star.
“So this book, it’s like TFIOS, but also a road book novel, and all the characters are fan of a Tolkien Professor-knockoff, and they’re going to Mythmoot in Southern California! It’s all about friendship. And geekery. And love and the dignity of life and death. And found families. And community. This is going to be uh-maz-ing!”
That story actually exists. It’s called The Cannula Girls. I’ve written thousands of words of supporting material, but haven’t actually written the novel. I may never start writing the novel.
Because writing the novel is hard work. And, the second you make yourself start doing it, seriously, it kinda stops being fun.
Fun is a tricky word. As is hard.
Obviously, writing will never be a labor-intensive job. It’s not like digging coal or working construction in 110-degree heat. Writers are much less likely to throw out their backs on the job. To get black lung. To die in horrible-workplace accidents that don’t involve drowning in coffee and Twinkies.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be sunshine, rainbows, and joy.
It’s work. And the fact that it’s something you are choosing to do, something that is usually completely voluntary, doesn’t change the fact that it’s actually . . . ya know, work.
One of my favorite podcasts is called Ditch Diggers. The entire premise behind the name is that being a working writer is like going out to dig a ditch. You have to sit down every day and treat writing like it’s digging a ditch.
If your job is to go out and dig ditches, the ditch needs to be dug. If you don’t dig the ditch, you’re not doing your job. Same thing as a writer. Your job is to write words. If the words aren’t written, you aren’t doing your job.
The amazing thing about this philosophy is that it works. It gets the words written and the pages edited.
In an ideal world, stories would grow like flowers. You plant the idea into the ground somewhere, and it would do the work of growing into a perfect little plant, beautiful and unique on its own. You did the work of generating the seed, and then you left it on its own.
Writing a novel — or any kind of story, really — is more like making a plant sculpture. You’ve got to work the medium. You’ve got to make the crude outline, you’ve got to shape the rough cut, and then you have to do all of the detail work. It’s hands-on, the tools in your hands.
It’s that easy. And it’s that hard.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer, and the former query intern for Pam Andersen at D4EO literary. Follow along on his adventure, and receive his Query Letter, Deconstructed.