I have written a lot of books.
At the last count, the total stood at 21 completed first drafts, at least two that passed 50k but were never actually finished, and several more that never got that far. A number of those books were subsequently edited, going through there or five or nine drafts before I set them aside or moved on to another project. If I had to estimate how many words of fiction I’ve written in the past 12 years, it would be in the millions before we even got to the redrafts, and that’s excluding collaborations, short fiction, fanfic, poetry, or anything that doesn’t fall into the category of “solo novels”.
The book that went somewhere, that got me into Author Mentor Match and found me my agent, was — as far as I can work out when I’m not certain of all the chronology — my fifteenth novel. Drafted in 2014, nearly 5 years after completing my first novel. Possibly the first “good” book I wrote, even if took six years of editing to get it there.
Because, you see, many of these books were bad. Some are “not worth rereading let alone editing” bad. Some are “could be fixed but I don’t care enough to put the effort in” bad. Some are “has redeeming features but it would be years of effort to unearth them” bad.
I often say that I learned how to write by doing it wrong — a lot. I don’t have a creative writing degree and I’ve never done a novel-writing course. I’ve never even taken a creative writing class, unless you count when I used to help out with the after school club for year 7s and 8s while I was doing my Duke of Edinburgh award. I wrote a lot and I wrote badly as part of the process of figuring out how to do it better, and while it was a crucial part of that process, it also feels like it was… the most labour-intensive way of doing that.
And sometimes I get frustrated, thinking about how much time it took. I wrote literally millions of words as a teenager, and it still took me ten years to figure out that the motivations of secondary characters are a crucial part of making a plot hang together? I mean, I think on some level I knew that all along, but I definitely wasn’t acting on it. I treated characters, particularly antagonists, like chess pieces: they’d be where I wanted them to be for plot reasons, with no sense that there was much going on in their heads.
I’m grateful to every beta reader, critique partner, and mentor who said, “But why?” about certain scenes. Because it turns out, “Because he’s being an edgy bitch,” wasn’t enough of an answer. “For the drama” was not an answer. When a character is about to make an irreversible decision, we need to know why they’re doing it. For someone who spends so much time overanalysing their own thoughts and has never made a snap decision in their life, it sure took me a long time to figure that out.
I know the platitudes: “no work is ever wasted”, “every novel taught you something”, “it was part of the process”, “you have to make the trash words before you make the flash words” (thanks to my friend Menna for that last one). I know they’re true, even if it’s hard to believe it. But sometimes, when I encounter other writers who were agented with their first or second novel, who sold the first book they ever wrote, who seemed to streamline the whole process — I think, What were all those words for? Why did it take me so long to figure out what I was doing?
I can’t tell if it makes it better or worse that my early novels have different flaws. True, weak plotting and antagonists are a common theme, and true, my prose has been pretty solid from a reasonably early stage, although my third novel does contain the phrase, “All-consuming death spree” and somehow still takes itself seriously. But it’s not like I did the same thing wrong in every book, so I could be confident that by fixing that flaw, I would guarantee not to do it again. They just… failed. For different reasons.
Some of them I was invested in a final scene and twisted the end of the book to fit that scene, even when the plot had diverged and it no longer made sense. Some needed historical research and didn’t get it. Some ran out of plot halfway through and I just muddled through until I found my way back, sacrificing meaningful character arcs in the process. Some were derivative and owed too much to the YA paranormal romances that were popular c.2010 to ever stand alone as originals.
Some of them, the very premise was flawed. The book I mentioned last week was flawed because not only did I find the ideology of the group my characters joined abhorrent (not, in and of itself, a problem: writers =/= characters, morally speaking), but the other views and ideals my characters expressed meant that they would too. As a result, none of their actions made any sense. That flaw existed because I was fifteen and politically ignorant when I started it, and while I tried to address it in later drafts once I recognised the problem, it undermined the entire book on a level that didn’t seem fixable.
As I said last week, I think I figured out how I would rewrite it to keep some elements and characters I enjoyed, while transforming it into a new book where those ideological tensions are an asset, not a flaw. It’s a book that could be rescued, or at least, it’s a book I can dismantle brick by brick and use to build something new. So: not wasted work. I wrote the trash words, maybe one day I can write the flash words.
And yet — five or six drafts, a dozen or so queries sent, a new title, two printed copies of the draft to annotate while editing, numerous beta readers, a trip to the place where it’s set to research details, a bunch of research. Hundreds of thousands of words and hours of my life. Just to create something I might one day pull apart and rework. Was that worth it?
I don’t know.
But I know this: the majority of those novels I wrote as a teenager were the product of an unselfconscious writer who knew their books were bad and didn’t care because they were doing it for the sake of writing. Yes, sometimes I planned to “fix it in edits”, but sometimes I realised halfway through that I was going to shelve a book and I kept writing it anyway. Because I didn’t write them because I wanted to have written a book, I wrote them because I wanted to write.
I spent my lunchtimes in the school library writing; I took the early bus so I could write before school; I neglected homework so I could spend more hours hammering out books. Not so that I could Be A Writer, somebody who has completed a book, but because… I wanted to. Because I loved it. Because I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t writing. Because writing was fun.
I wrote books in half a dozen different genres not to figure out what it was that I wanted to do forever or find my “brand” as an author, but because it was fun. I wrote books in first person, third person, second person. Past tense. Present tense. Epistolary. (That one was a collaborative novel, written in the form of blog posts.) I wrote books with romance and books without. Books with tragic endings and books with — okay, I’d be pushed to say I’ve written many books with a happy ending, although I’m getting better at that as an adult. Teen me was a depressed emo kid who thought tragedy was the best genre, so most of them tended to be a huge bummer, or at least bittersweet.
It wasn’t wasted work. It was part of the process of learning to write, and the importance of that can’t be understated, but that’s also not why it mattered.
It mattered because I enjoyed it.
It mattered because writing was how I made friends on the internet. It mattered because it gave me an outlet for my teenage angst. It mattered because there was a huge sense of achievement in every completed NaNoWriMo and every The End on the final page of a document. It mattered because writing helped me explore who I was, often without realising I was doing it, and process those identity crises in a way that felt safe. It mattered because every book that I created was a part of creating myself.
Most of those first 14 books aren’t worth editing, and will never be read by anyone except me and the poor beta readers on whom I inflicted them. Some of the 7 after that might one day be Real Books. (One of them’s been shelved, and one’s dubious, but the other five I feel pretty positive about.) And yes, I hope that having written them means the next time I sit down to write a book, what comes out will be flash words.
But the trash words, in their own way, meant everything.
So here’s to A Sky Full of Stars. To Legacy and Memory and the middle book in that trilogy, which I never wrote. Here’s to Beneath the Branches, Figurehead, Weapons of Chaos, and Recall, all NaNoWriMo projects that will probably never see the sun. To Watching, Destroying and Returning, the larval stage of the Death and Fairies series, whose characters I’ve kept even while yeeting the books themselves. To Forget My Wings and A Single Soul, two thoroughly depressing products of my seventeen-year- old self, who in fairness, was having a really rough time of it. Here’s to The Knight Shift, which I might one day save, and to Bard and Lie Down Below, my (probably doomed) forays into sci-fi.
They bring us the survivors: the Moth trilogy with its plethora of working titles; D&F book 1, which has gone eight years and three drafts without a title; To Run With the Hound, my sad gay Táin retelling; and The Wolf and His King, a retelling of Bisclavret. And they bring us the incomplete novels and the outlines and the half-imagined books that exist only in notes on my phone and the books I haven’t yet even imagined. These books are built on foundations made of millions of bad words.
And, more importantly, so am I.
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