Learning to write all over again

Writing can feel really isolating: just you and your computer as you stare at the blinking cursor and wonder when the document is going to have the desired word count. How you get from 0 to that word count is pretty much up to you. If you’ve got a deadline, you just have to be faster and figuring it out.

It’s also one of those things where you don’t always realize what you know or how valuable your own struggles – uh, experiences – might be until you’re talking to another writer and someone says “OMG, me too!” in clear tones of relief.

In grad school, we didn’t really talk about the writing process. It was like everyone assumed we already knew how to write and just had to be told the assignment parameters. When I submitted for my first conference, I felt like I was winging it. Same for my first chapter. We didn’t talk about writing, and it didn’t seem acceptable to ask anyone about writing. It was just this weird taboo.

So it was hard to tell if my own experience actually related to anyone else’s, or if mine was somehow … subpar. Like I’d missed a bunch of key information that everyone else somehow magically knew.

Part of my intent with this blog is to share the things that get me the “OMG, me too!” responses so I don’t play into the secret-keeping aspects. I’m (somehow) at a point in my career where people look up to me and think I’m a real writer (imposter syndrome what?) and there are so many things I wish I’d heard from someone when those positions were reversed, so …

Starting a new project can feel like learning how to write again from scratch.

There. It’s out.

You’d think, or maybe hope, that after you write one book, you’ve got it down. You’ve managed to go from 0 to 80k or so, get it passed editors and proofreaders and through the printing process, and you’ve learned a bunch of lessons along the way. All of which can be applied to Book #2. Right?

Uh. Well.

To be fair, at first I thought maybe I was just making things harder for myself by not approaching a new book project the same way I’d gone about the first. Like I was just reinventing the wheel to keep my stress level high for the fun of it. Except each book project is different, so why should the process look exactly the same?

For me, Book #1 was about Jack the Ripper. Book #2 was about H. H. Holmes. Two nineteenth century serial killers, right? Well, yes. But …

Ripper’s Victims came out in 2018, but I’d started reading about the Ripper in 2007. I’d already racked up a respectable number of books by the time I signed the contract, and bought even more in the process of researching it. But it wasn’t like I’d only looked into the Ripper from the moment of signing the contract. I’d already had a better part of a decade not only reading about the Ripper, but writing a paper on the women for a graduate independent study course and then presenting that paper for my first conference. I had this whole history with the Ripper, and there was such a huge bibliography to make my way through.

Take a look at this:

I know you can’t read it, but the framed poster board at the bottom with all the neon sticky notes is my outline for Ripper’s Victims. I went through and wrote down the titles of books about the Ripper and organized them chronologically. Which worked quite well until the 1990s, which spilled over, and then for the 2000s I ended up parsing out different themes because yowza. The Ripper was popular and still gaining.

Holmes isn’t that popular. I’ve had people hear I do true crime and name Holmes as their sort of “gotcha” killer, because apparently we’re gatekeeping true crime now. (Also apparently Erik Larson’s book, despite selling so many copies, hasn’t made Holmes mainstream. Who knew? Maybe everybody reads it for the architecture.)

But already straight off you can see I couldn’t start the same way with Holmes as I had with the Ripper. I’d read I think three books about Holmes when my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing my own, and three compared to my Ripper history seemed kind of pitiful. Except … there aren’t over 100 books about Holmes. My bibliography didn’t stay at three, but it certainly didn’t explode like my Ripper posterboard.

That’s just one major difference. Another is the subjects themselves: the Ripper was never named, but Holmes was. He’d been identified, put on trial, and even wrote both an autobiography and a confession before his execution. You can’t approach them the same way. It makes no sense to try.

And still I thought maybe I was just trying to make life difficult for myself.

Is this a case of form following function? (That’s for you architecture fans out there.) Granted, the final form – a book – looks very much like any other book. There’s a different cover, but … sentences and chapters and pages.

I think the biggest takeaway here is flexibility.

When you’ve written a book, you’ve learned one way to write a book, but it’s not the only way for anyone to write a book … and it’s not even the only way for you to write a book. The tips and tricks you’ve amassed are certainly there in your toolbox to be used as often as you need them, but they’re not the only tips and tricks in the world. And they might not always work on a new project. (I’d try for another architecture metaphor, but I personally read Devil in the White City for the serial killer.)

I’ll revert to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey: he says that the hero has to find his own path into the woods. If the journey’s easy, then you’re on a path someone else has made, and you’re not going to be a hero.

Writers have to find their own path into the woods … for each book. Maybe you can make some headway on a path you’ve made before, but not always. Sometimes you have to reassess your approach and start hacking away in a different direction, because this book isn’t the same as the last one. You’re not looking to end up in exactly the same place, and you’re probably not starting from the same place, either.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep … and enormous. Starting a new book can feel like learning to write all over again, and that’s not a bad thing. It can be frustrating, but it can also be thrilling and rewarding.

What do you think? Do you find yourself still learning how to write, no matter how much you’ve written before?

8 thoughts on “Learning to write all over again”

  1. Heya Rebecca! I can totally relate with you. It does feel like learning to write all over again every time I start a new project or piece. Heck, some long articles are even like that. Thank you for this post and best of luck with your upcoming novels!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh yeah. I’ve written tons and I STILL feel like a total newbie every time I reacquaint myself with a brand new blank page. We all have to find our own paths, that’s for sure. Great stuff here. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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