This summer, I published my first novel, The Yochni’s Eye. As one can imagine, it was a big opportunity for me to grow, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect back on a couple of lessons learned.
The crap sandwich
After Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, she wrote another book about her creative process called Big Magic. I haven’t read it, but Tim Grahl of Story Grid has talked about her analogy of crap sandwiches (more strongly worded in her book), and it’s an idea that’s stuck with me. Basically, in every job, there is going to be a task that you hate, the sort of horrible, pound-of-flesh entry fee you have to put up with to get in the door. She calls these crap sandwiches because in order to do said job, you have to eat them. In the journey to find your ideal life and profession, you must therefore decide which sandwiches you will and will not eat.
In publishing a book, I found that I have several, some of which I am willing to swallow, others that I am not. The process of developmental editing? Yes, of course. Defending my writing time even when other activities sound more fun and interesting? Naturally. Sitting for 13+ hours a day at a computer to do hours of copyediting immediately after working my day job, making myself miserable over futzy little word choices that ultimately don’t matter, and working from a place of dread, slog, and hopelessness? No thank you. It took me three years to get Yochni out the door. And while I’m so glad and happy I did and that I took the time to learn how to do all of this well, I’d really, really like to not take so long on all of my future books. Oh, and I definitely will not set a publishing deadline before the book is fully edited from a story perspective. Not another bite on that one.
The importance of active characters
Moving to a more writing focused lesson, one of the most important discoveries I made is how soft a spot I have for passive characters. I love reluctant heroes who get swept into things they’re unprepared for, people who want to avoid the plot, and anyone who, in the midst of absolute chaos, wants to just get on with it, avoid the craziness, and live a gosh darn normal life. This, in itself, isn’t bad. Where the trouble comes in is when those same characters get too passive.
This was the problem I had with Kraven, the begrudgingly hopeful skeptic that serves as the team medic in The Yochni’s Eye. When I first wrote the book, he was a pushover who only went on his journey because his family more or less kicked him out. He didn’t really want anything other than keeping everyone alive (for no good or apparent reason) and because he didn’t want anything, he didn’t do anything, falling rapidly to the wayside as soon as the larger crew was assembled. My apparent knack for these characters is so crippling I even had to set aside a project I was recently hoping to dust off because the main character was so insufferably passive that his main goal of avenging his murdered family couldn’t make him take the reins.
All that being said, I think there’s a fine line to be drawn here: While I’ll always love the people that would rather shrug off their adventurous responsibilities to stay home and snuggle in, the difference between characters with passive, avoidant, or lazy personalities and characters who are functionally passive is that the former still wants something, even if their main goal is just to find a dark, quiet room where they can finally be left alone. Effective characters want their goal badly enough to act on it. Anyone else is going to be flat, inactive, or straight up disappear.
The importance of planning
So, I’ll admit, this last one is still a work in progress, but what it comes down to is this: For the first five novels I wrote (of which only one is published), I took a pretty blasé approach to planning, relying mostly on the beginning and ends of my books to guide the writing process. I was young, I was inspired, and who was anyone else to tell me the rules?
Well, fast forward a decade and I can tell you I probably should have listened. I spent a lot of time trying to dig myself out of graves I’d dug myself, and in going through the editing process, I’ve learned just how helpful a little pre-work can be (insert Honest Abe line about sharpening the axe), be that in world-building, character work, or plot. And that’s not to say these elements can’t change over time, but putting in a little effort earlier would have saved me a lot of lost hours in workarounds and deep character/plot/world work later. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Anyway, while there are countless other ways that I’ve grown through this process, since that last one is still in progress, I’ll cut off here and turn the tables on you. Have you learned any important lessons in your creative work? Have any aspects of writing you’d like me to cover? Let me know in the comments and make sure to subscribe to my newsletter for more writing updates, craft nuggets, and stories.