Every writer has a story of his or her journey. Mine began way back when I was a silent and sad teenager. Mom worked to make ends meet. She hardly had time to listen to our coming-of-age worries. We grew up making mistakes a little more than our friends, learning lessons a little harder than them.
I was reserved and looked like a nerd, (bespectacled, braced teeth, you know the drill). I had thoughts I wouldn’t (dare) tell anybody. And with time, it piled up. My face was buried in books, reading or studying and eventually, writing. I related to Jo in Alcott’s Little Women.
I started journaling in notebooks — printed diaries were not enough for me. One page a day was not my style. I had to detail it all, conversations that pick at me, incidents that happened which were slightly alarming for a teenage girl who thought herself to be unattractive. And I wrote eleven notebooks, cover to cover, and sometimes even the margins. I used to call my diary ‘Rose’.
…. and everything that happened a day, including dialogues.
My face was buried in books, reading or studying and eventually, writing. I related to Jo in Alcott’s Little Women.
I talked about books, school, friends, hurts, family, crushes and what not. Perhaps that was my beginning as a storyteller, and in the midst of that, at 14, I wrote my first novel titled Kith and Kin, obviously a High school YA drama with English names. As typical, cheesy and stupid as it was, I was also stupid enough to send it to a publisher as a handwritten manuscript. The postman, no doubt, delivered it to the trash bin of the publisher.
I started on my next book. Left it halfway. I took to heavy reading. An average of three novels a week. Like I was hungry. I was writing poetry, too, and winning contests, rising as the poet of the school. I had great support from my teachers for English. In the last year of high school, I started my next novel. It tapered and tapered and wouldn’t end and finally when I reached in college, I tore it up and trashed it. That is now a concept for a future work I have in my writing folder on my laptop. Saved for a day when I will tell stories in a better voice.
I took to heavy reading. An average of three novels a week. Like I was hungry.
Finally, at the end of the first year in medical school, I was home for vacation. I sat at the desktop, opened a word document and started typing the book that I later titled Sandcastles. My debut novel. I wrote the novel in newsprint papers from college, during classes, lunch hours, nights. And when I would come home, I would type it all up into my document. Half the novel was written that way. I was also working on compiling my first poetry collection which was published in February 2011.
When I finished writing Sandcastles in 2012 in the third year of medical school, it was a humongous 250,000 words-long first draft. I was foolish enough to not research before querying with that manuscript to publishers and agents but I was also young and unguided. I was rejected without a second glance, or maybe not even the first. Much later, I realized that was really epic long.
I started editing which mostly comprised of ‘killing the darlings’ as editors call it. The editing saga went on for six years, queries, rejections and dubious-acceptance happening in the meantime. The word count went from 250K to 140K to 110K to 91K to 89K to 87K, finally getting published traditionally at a third of the raw draft’s size, after sixteen rounds of furious editing in collaboration with my mentor.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King
My debut novel ‘Sandcastles’ (image at the end of the article) took 6 years to be published — I waited until a traditional publisher picked it up. But it went on to being shortlisted for a literary award shortly after publication in 2018. The journey was no less tiring, but made me all the more stubborn about being an author. This taught me a few things, to say the least, including how to write better.
The Two Leaps
A writer takes two leaps. One is the famous, proverbial Leap of Faith. The other is the prolific Leap of Confidence.
How good is the Leap of Faith?
Good enough to get you started. When we write our first work, it is mostly based on dreams and passion. We take a leap of faith when we send the finished work out to the not-so-kind world. Rejections and criticism are part of the journey. Few make up the rickety ladders with faith. Some border the lines. Some slump back.
Some keep going at it until it breaks open for them. I did that.
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” — Stephen King
Up your game. Be ready to give it harsh training. A good piece of work is the only equipment you need to take the leap of confidence. The key to writing better is to keep writing. Lots.
“Quantity produces quality.” — Ray Bradbury
Observe, spill, experiment and change. The passion you instill into the story while writing it will be palpable to the reader. Learn the art of living a story out on paper. Or screen. Whatever works for you.
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” — Stephen King
If you live in it, they will love it. That is, if you want it out there on the shelves.
Prepping for the Leap of Confidence
We are at the cliff, at the crux of the matter. In my experience as a writer, here are a few from a zillion things I would extend to you to start seeing your writing in print the best way.
1. Fall in love while writing the first draft
This will ensure your passion is paramount, that you live the story you want to tell, feel the emotions and spill it all out in one beautiful flow. Let the story take you to ‘The End’. Let it go. Let it spill. Let it be long. Let it be bad. You can always make it better.
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2. Fall out of love while editing
Fact is, you cannot edit from the shoes of the writer. No, a mother finds it hard to see faults in her offspring. A subjective eye will only make you think your work is great. Your work is good. You completed it. But it can be better and that needs an objective eye. So take a break (break up) of at least two weeks to one month from your manuscript and start editing after you have detached from it emotionally.
3. Find honest and good beta readers
Those who read a lot, those who will tell you what your book makes them feel, those who will give you constructive feedback and sometimes be brutal enough to destroy illusions like a work of art must not be edited. Avoid negative, toxic people who do not know the art of constructive criticism and trust your gut when it comes to dealing with them. Beware of those who are all praises, too — you wouldn’t need a beta reader if your work was perfect already and that’s not the case.
4. Edit. Edit. Edit.
Until there is no more. Get feedback after every time, so that you know when to stop.
5. Do your homework
Research about the industry. Be educated enough to not be fooled. Read advice and experiences from prolific authors. Know the ocean you are going to swim in.
6. Read — a lot
The art of storytelling is constantly changing. You need to see the roads being taken, the roads not taken. You need to be updated about what is outdated. And you need to be swag as well as unique. Read enough to form your own voice. Read enough to know what not to write. Read as a writer.
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7. Stop calling yourself ‘an aspiring writer’
‘Aspiring’ is a petty excuse of a self-introduction if you are in this for real. Get back to your work and get it done. The adjective ‘aspiring’ will undermine your growth, confidence and process, even when you don’t know it. Show the guts to call yourself a writer. It is very difficult to know when to stop calling yourself ‘aspiring’ and the idea is to never start in the first place.
A writer’s journey never ends, nor does his or her learning curve. It is always a work-in-progress no matter how many books you write. I believe that the desire to learn is just as important as the desire to write, as a writer. Make not the mistake of thinking that reading can take a sidewalk while writing takes the main road. They have to share the road in this journey.
So, roll up your sleeves and brace yourself to put forth those beautiful words and string stories out of them, while you learn from other writers and plan your own author journey.