Two weeks ago I attended a writing seminar in Colorado Springs (something I intend to write about in a separate post.) During the seminar, Kevin J. Anderson quoted Jerry Pournelle on the subject of writing and finishing books. Apparently they were on a panel with a third writer at some point, and when the other writer asked what either of them did about writer’s block, Jerry Pournelle said, “There is no such thing as writer’s block.”
“But what do you do if you get stuck?”
“You write a sentence. And then you write another sentence. And then you keep going till the novel is done.”
“But what if it’s not any good?”
“Then you fix it so that it is.”
There is a good deal of horse sense in the above exchange and a truth that any writer who had made – or even aspires to make – a living in this field has run up against. Sometimes, for various reasons – but often because you’re under contract and you are broke and need the money – you don’t write the best novel you could possibly write. You write the best novel you could possibly write at that moment.
There are people who have spent ten, twenty years plotting a novel in their heads and researching every little detail and who have yet to write the first line.
They are a more extreme version of my friend whom I met nineteen years ago, when she had just won a contest with the first finished draft of her fantasy novel. I took second place in this same contest, and did not resent it, because I was still groping for how to plot, while her novel was finished and functional in all its parts.
It’s been 19 years. I’ve had over twenty books published since that day, as well as over a hundred short stories. My friend, arguably the better writer, has rewritten her novel something like 23 times. At one time she had an editor interested. I don’t know where things have proceeded since then, except that I know her book is not published.
Now some of you will be saying this is justifiable if she’s writing a masterpiece.
Perhaps. There are authors who wrote only one book, and that one book is a masterpiece.
They are very few, though. More common are writers like Jane Austen who – for her time and the age at which she died – was relatively prolific and whose books run the gamut from meh to masterful. Had she only ever written Mansfield Park she would not be one of my favorite novelists. Whether her work would still merit critical acclaim I don’t know, but I know that almost every one of her fans is a fan of Pride and Prejudice first and foremost, giving the other books more or less weight according to personality and inclination. Had she only written one of the other books, she could only count on a small portion of her fandom.
Besides that, given how the market works nowadays and how difficult it is to get something widely distributed enough to be noticed – let alone remember – if you labor your entire life at a book and never consider it good enough to publish, there is a good chance your children won’t know what to do with it and will let it sit forever in its dusty drawer.