Should I Finish My Book?

Dear ‘Lena,

Answering either one of these questions would help me out a lot:

1) Is it a normal part of a writer’s life to be surrounded by a great deal of flammable material, or should I be worried? I have several tons of worthless drafts on paper, plus a mountain range of books by authors who actually can write, baffling research materials and what-not laying around.

2) Do you know of any writers whose death-by-spontaneous-combustion was linked to daily fears about mass humiliation? – Burning With Insecurity

Dear Burning With Insecurity,

It’s totally normal to feel intimidated by the greatness of other writers. A friend of mine once tried to escape from this feeling by turning all the books on her shelves around – so their well-chosen titles weren’t “taunting” her. Of course, all this did was create a creepy vibe.

So what can you do? Stop comparing your rough drafts to published work. It doesn’t make any sense because you’re comparing two different stages in a process. It’s like comparing lumpy, pasty batter to a triple-layer strawberry genoise.

That pile of “worthless” drafts you have? Far from being an embarrassment, it’s actually a sign you are a true writer. Most authors write dozens of drafts. I once went to a talk by famous children’s author Jack Gantos in which he claimed to write one hundred drafts of every book. Working your way through even fifteen drafts might seem challenging, but bear in mind that only a few of these drafts will be major rewrites. Many of them will just involve sentence-tweaking.

And don’t think that “real” writers always enjoys this process. Just as writing can give you amazing highs, it can also make you experience terrible lows. One very successful writer I know can only finish a book by plastering himself with nicotine patches and locking himself in a closet with his laptop. He usually has scratched off his eyebrows by the time he emerges with the final draft. My point? Your angst is totally normal.

So when you pull a book from your shelf, remind yourself that you’re actually reading the 100th draft of a novel that could have been turned into kindling early on. One of Steinbeck’s original titles for Of Mice and Men was Something That Happened. Before he chose The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald considered calling that book The High Bouncing Lover.

As for your fear of publication, the reason you feel afraid is that you’re imagining people reading your work as it is now. But remember that cake metaphor? I didn’t use it just because I’m obsessed with food. Writing a novel is much like baking: the end result often bears little resemblance to the beginning. Somehow a mass of bad writing, flat characters and clunky coincidences becomes a story with character arcs, resonant metaphors and thought-provoking themes. It might feel hard to believe now, when your raw ingredients are scattered around your work area. But when you do publish your book, you will have transformed these ingredients into something you are proud of. With any luck, you’ll still have your eyebrows too.