If It Hurts, You’re Doing Something Right: 3 Ideas About the Pain of Writing

Yes, getting that first book published hurts—like I can’t even tell you. But the good news is that all the hurt is worth it; in fact, it’s invaluable. It’s the hurt that counts. And if you haven’t been through the pain, then save yourself the postage.

     


Guest column by Heath Gibson , whose debut
novel Gigged was released in May 2010 (Flux).
He
holds an MFA in Children’s Literature from
Hollins University and teaches English at a
high school in Atlanta.

 

1. THE GOAL IS NOT A GOOD STORY; IT’S A GREAT STORY

It’s all about getting a story ready to be looked at. In getting Gigged ready for an editor to see, it had been raked over and over. Sixty-five page chunks were hacked, the last thirty pages were rewritten six times. I agonized over lines, phrases, even single word choices. Chapters were shifted, characters reworked. I climbed into dark places that hit me so hard I took showers after writing certain chapters. But it was only afterward that I realized that what I was doing was getting the manuscript in the shape it needed to be in. While it was happening, I was simply in pursuit of authenticitya story that only I could tell and tell it in a way that only I could do it.

I never wanted Gigged to be just a good story. Lots of good stories are out there. I wanted it to be an experience that would stick with the reader like pine sap—even force them to reread it. I had to get past writing with agents and editors in mind. Doing that, quite frankly, blinded me from the genuineness of my character’s story.

2. A STORY CAN EASILY GET WATERED DOWN

In 2004, an editor at Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin imprint showed some serious interest in a manuscript of mine. She went over the whole thing, wrote notes and comments in the margins. She sent me a long letter with her ideas and suggestions along with the manuscript, expressing her excitement in seeing the revised draft. As you can imagine, I was on the verge of bursting into flames. So, I worked like a crazy person, even calling in sick a couple of days just to work on revisions. I faithfully took all her suggestions into consideration and did everything I thought I needed to do to give her what she wanted. And in the end, I killed the manuscript.

In the pursuit of publication, I had lost the edge and atmosphere you can almost rub between your fingers—those characteristics that make a story worthy, in my opinion. The editor at Aladdin rightly passed.

Yeah, it hurt. But it was an experience I needed to have. It made me a better writer. Without it, I wouldn’t have been ready to write Gigged.

Even before I let an editor see Gigged, the manuscript had been hacked, stripped, dressed-up, set on fire (not really), cleaned and dirtied all over again. I couldn’t care about editors and agents, yet. It had to be just between me and J.T. (the narrator).

I crawled through it all with him, consistently focused on presenting his story in a way that only I would think to do it. It was something in the back of mind on every line. If the line wasn’t accomplishing something, if it didn’t ring true, it got cut. Nothing mattered to me more than doing right by the characters and giving readers what they deserve.

3. WE MUST BELIEVE GOOD WORK WILL FIND A HOME

Do the research. Work on that query letter. Go to conferences. Do all those things you need to do to put yourself in the right position. But all of that will be futile if your story isn’t ready to be looked at. At the end of the first conversation I had with my editor about acquiring Gigged, he asked me if I had anything else he could see. I had a completed manuscript and about fifty pages of something new. I said I’d get back with him.

I read enough of the completed manuscript to know that it wasn’t even close to being in the kind of shape it need to be in. So I worked on the new story. I got to page 130 and decided I had to start over. Ouch. It was the right decision, though. At least I think it was. I’m waiting to hear what my editor thinks.

To emphasize my Southern origins a bit here: Sometimes to get through the door you have to drag yourself through a keyhole. It’s tough but necessary. Your manuscript will be better for it. Someone will notice.


Writing a novel? Literary agent Oscar Collier and
successful freelance writer Frances Spatz Leighton
team up to give you How to Write & Sell Your
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5 thoughts on “If It Hurts, You’re Doing Something Right: 3 Ideas About the Pain of Writing

  1. MaryWitzl

    I love that keyhole comment. I’ve got my head, most of my shoulders, and part of my trunk through.

    The hardest thing is learning to take good advice from others and keeping that advice from wrecking the nucleus of your story — the part that is inherently ‘you’. Wish I could say that I had that one figured out, but it’s definitely hurting, so I must be on the right track.

  2. Rhen Wilson

    Heath, you nailed it. I spent the last four months revising and editing my manuscript with a professor at my university. It was difficult at times. There were moments when I just wanted to snap the fingers from my professor to keep her from scratching out any more paragraphs from my manuscript. "No!" I thought. "You’re killing my baby!" But when I took a moment to step back and survey the edits objectively, I discovered that she wasn’t maiming my manuscript, she was helping to make it whole and sharper. I’m glad to know that this sort of anxiety still affects even professional writers. Ha! Thanks again!

  3. Erika Liodice

    What a timely post! I’m in the midst of making major revisions to my manuscript, a process which I’ve been writing about on my blog, Beyond The Gray (www.beyondthegray.wordpress.com). Heath’s words are a comforting reminder that "the pain" is requisite on the path to publication. Of course, it’s also nice to know I’m not alone.

    Erika

  4. Jane Makuch

    Heath, you are amazing. I’m going out to buy your book because I HAVE to read it now. Your advice is hitting home with me and I’m sure many others. Thank you.

    Chuck, I can’t wait to hear about your screenplay, and thanks for sending Heath’s advice.

    Jane

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