Then you have a second draft. This has creativity of a different kind. Your first draft had flaws. Now, you have to puzzle out how to keep the good of your novel while keeping out the bad. You wind up chopping whole chapters, writing new scenes, completely reworking characters. You discover that events seen from one point of view character have more tension if you recount them with a different point of view. You still have to employ creativity, but there’s also an element of detective work as you sleuth your way deeper into your understanding of the book. You put your best puzzle-solving skills to work rearranging the flow of scenes and lines to make your story flow.
Then you have a third draft, where most of the story has been hammered out, and now you’re focused on more tedious details. I do a lot of fact checking in this stage. There’s a great deal of line editing, chopping out words, fixing typos. You start finding artifacts of the first two drafts that contradict each other. In chapter three of the second draft, your character loses his sword. But in chapter ten left over from the first draft, he’s using his sword to cut the damsel’s bonds. Or, in one draft your character had blue eyes, and later you remembered them as brown, so now you have to find every reference and get it straight.
Then… you do it again in a fourth draft. You’re still fixing a lot of small mistakes, but now you’re main focus is polishing the prose until it sparkles so you can show your agent or editor.
Then a sixth draft, and maybe a seventh. By this stage, there’s no creativity involved. You might insert a clever line here or there, but for the most part you’re engaged in the drudgery of discovering once again just how careless you’ve been in previous drafts. Writing has ceased to be fun. It’s turned into… work.
Of course, all of this is rewarding work, once you get a copy of your book in your hands. People who aren’t related to you write reviews, you discover a strange new respect from people who thought you’d never accomplish anything, and, if you’re lucky, you earn a little money. But, all the rewards come late in the process. Suppose I offered you a job that was going to take up to a year of your life to finish. Up front, I’ll tell you that you won’t get paid a dime until you finish the job. But not immediately after finishing the job, maybe six months after, or maybe six years. Oh, and I won’t tell you how much you’ll get paid. Maybe a lot. More likely a little, with a very real chance of nothing. Would you take the job?
Of course, people do take such jobs. Some people devote all their time and energy to starting a business. Others throw themselves into missionary work, or labor hard for a political cause, or devote themselves to caring for the elderly or the ill. They work not for the promise of a steady paycheck, but because the work itself is its own reward.
Not everyone is cut out for missionary work. Taking yourself away from your family and friends, putting yourself in potentially dangerous situations, working not only without the hope of reward, but with the foreknowledge that your work might actually impoverish you. You have to really believe in your cause to endure such hardships.
If you just want to be a writer for the sake of writing, you’ll likely find that other things have much higher priority in your time allotment. Family, obviously, comes first. You also need to devote time to your health, both physical and mental. Unless you’re extremely fortunately financially, you have to devote a certain amount of hours each week to doing stuff that other people value so you can pay your bills. If you own a house, you know that a certain portion of your life is going to be spent maintaining it. The same is true of owning a car, or having a pet, or, heck, even just having clothes. There are a hundred things I could come up with that are way more important uses of your time that writing.
But, what if your writing is your missionary work? Then it’s no longer trivial. There are times you will have to go away from your family. Fortunately, you don’t need to travel to Borneo for five years at a time. Two hours in the evening locked in your office is plenty of time to get stuff done. You don’t have to spend money on a plane ticket… you just might have to pass up a promotion at work that you worry is going to demand too much of your time and energy to allow you to keep writing. You might not be in danger of catching cholera sitting in your office, but sitting and writing does involve a certain physical and mental strain. You can hurt your back, your eyes, and your hands if you aren’t careful. But… some things are worth paying for with your back, your eyes, and your hands.
The secret to putting in the hours isn’t finding your passion. It’s finding your mission. My own mission in writing is to try to point out deep, fundamental truths about life on our planet that, somehow, I feel like other people just aren’t seeing. Or, perhaps they do see them, but don’t have care to deal with the ramifications. In Witchbreaker, my protagonist Sorrow is called crazy about a dozen times in the course of the book because she’s basically fighting the whole world. He hates the dominant church and views its practices as immoral. She hates the political structures. She even hates the family structures (which, in her world, are far more patriarchal than what most Americans encounter). She’s constantly being told that some things are too big to fight, that her cause is doomed, and that wanting to tear down the existing order is wicked if she has nothing better to put into its place. But in a later chapter, she’s talking to a ship’s captain named Gale Romer. Gale is the mother of seven and, for the most part, a voice of wisdom and sanity in tough situations. When she and Sorrow wind up alone, Sorrow expects to hear Gale tell her to pick her battles, to not let the world get under her skin. Instead, Gale tells Sorrow how much she admires her anger and her stubbornness. Sorrow, expressing shock, says that most people tell her she’s insane. Gale responds, “I sometimes think that what the world accepts as sanity is merely the capacity to grow numb to outrage.”
Part of my mission is never to grow numb to outrage. But, I don’t only write from a place of anger. I also see great beauty in the world. There is magnificence in nature, poetry in human lives, and the fact that the universe is vast, that time is infinite, and that we are mere blips in time, only specs of dust… I find this stark and beautiful. I want to show people beauty in places where they expect to find only fear. I want to show them truths that keep them awake at night.
Do I succeed? I haven’t a clue. I do sometimes get letters from readers that have found something thought-provoking in my work. Occasionally, I’ll read a review where the reader seems to really be wrestling with the larger ideas I’ve presented. But a lot of my readers seem to skim over the philosophy I put into my books, or else reject it outright. And, there’s no bigger critic of my own philosophical statements than myself. I’m constantly wondering aloud on paper if, possibly, the reason no one seems to see the same truths I do is that I’ve somehow grasped hold of obvious falsehoods that everyone else sees right through. I often wonder if truth exists at all, and frequently address this in my novels. Perhaps this makes my books seem thoughtful. Perhaps I just come across as confused.
I’m pleased to have been on this planet for over five decades and still not be sure of anything. If I were 100% certain in my own views, I have no idea what I’d do with my brain. If I ever felt like, this time, I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say, and there was nothing more to add…. I’d be done for. I’d never write another book.
For now, I have my mission. I’m going to use my novels as a tool for grappling with the biggest, most important questions that haunt me. I do so in the hope that I might cause others to wrestle with the same questions. Yes, I wrap these struggles in fast moving plots with larger than life characters that seem outlandish, even cartoonish. But, sometimes cartoons capture a large truth better than an entire encyclopedia. (Kids, as your parents what an encyclopedia was if you’re not sure.)
Writing is tedious, and any rational person would understand that there are other lines of work to pursue that would bring more rewards. A mission, however, is a structure you can build your life around. It might never amount to anything. You understand that you work without hope of reward. But maybe, just maybe, you can win over one person to your understanding of the universe and feel like you’ve genuinely made a difference. Who knows? One day, you just might change the world.