It’s OK to Wait 20 Years Before Writing Your First Draft

You need to learn to listen and observe. It takes time.

I am typing this on my bed with my tiny laptop resting on my knees. Outside I can see the big dome of the nearby mosque. My Polish neighbors are setting up their Weber and their neighbors from Barbados are getting ready for an evening of a capella singing with friends. The smell of grilled meat will soon mix with the songs from far away islands.

We’re in the second week of the 2013 summer heat wave. I spent the last 12 weeks writing my first science-fiction novel and the process made me feel like a rookie again. I have never written long science-fiction stories before and that made me feel very insecure about my writing. Can I do it? Will my writing make someone care about what I wrote? Am I capable of making the reader feel something? Will he or she want to tell their friends about it?

The first time I tried to tell that story was in 1992-1993. I managed to write one chapter and then I got stuck for 21 years. Now, looking at over 300 pages of the first draft I wonder why it took me so long to sit down and write all of those pages?

The answer lies in the difference between wanting to be a writer and actually having something to say. It is not about talent, although that helps, but about experience and confidence.

If you want to be a writer you must be a good listener and observer. You must collect those gestures, behaviors. It took me over twenty years to build a collection of scenes, experiences, and characters that I can draw upon when I need to create my stories.

In 2013, I finally know enough to write what I wanted to write in 1993. When I sat down to write the first sentence I felt confident I could finish the first draft, but I was still feeling insecure. One day, as I was feeling sorry for myself for not being able to move the story forward I turned to YouTube to watch a series of interviews with popular authors. Not all of them made me feel better, but I eventually found the support I needed in Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech.

All I needed was a writer’s story I could relate to and three simple words: make good art… And then it clicked and everything fell into place.

Today, as I look at the 300 pages of the first draft I can say it was worth it. And I am not afraid anymore. Why should I be? I did everything I could to write that first draft. It took me 21 years of learning life to be able to write it, but that’s OK. Writers need time to learn how to tell a story. Don’t feel bad about it. Take your time. It does not matter how long it takes you as long as you make good art.