Some stories just need to be told

hand drawn the big treeAbout ten years ago, I was in much the same predicament as Maggie, the narrator of my novel, The Moment of Everything. I’d just been laid off from yet another Silicon Valley tech start-up. I was a little lost and wondering what my next step was going to be. So I of course decided to write a novel.

I say “of course” but there wasn’t anything “of course”-y about it. Yes, OK, I had a degree in English, but I wasn’t a WRITER. I’d been a technical writer for part of my career in high tech, but there’s a big difference between “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “To save the file, click File > Save.” But there’s nothing like the enthusiasm of the uninformed. So put my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard and typed out “Chapter 1.”

A couple of weeks later, I had about three chapters written. I also had a cast of thousands with nothing to do for the other 75% of the novel. A lifetime of reading novels had in no way prepared me to write a novel.

I’m not really sure why beginning writers nearly always want to start with a large project like a novel. You don’t really see this anywhere else. Beginner composers don’t start with a symphony. Beginner golfers don’t expect to play on the PGA/WPGA tour. Yet beginner writers dream of a novel and “best selling author” in front of their names.

And all that can come. But it’s a lot of hard work. There are no words for how hard it is. I must have thrown away 98% of what I’ve written over the last ten years. I took a step back and learned the mechanics of story-telling with short stories. I took A LOT of classes. I used my vacation time to go to workshops and retreats. I’ve rewritten and rewritten the pages of my novel until I had to read it like it were the first time just to remember what’s actually in there. I spent hours on a keyboard or with a pen in my hand when everyone else is outside enjoying their BBQs. I could have stopped. I could have put that novel in a drawer and gotten on with my life. There’s no shame in that. Lots of people have an unfinished novel on their hard drives. But I couldn’t. Some stories just need to be told. And when you feel that way about your work, nothing should get in your way.

Sure, I'll wear a tiara. What weapons does it have?So here I am on the Debutante Ball, three days after the launch of that novel I started so long ago, tiara on my head and jetpack on my back. It’s a surreal feeling knowing that my book is on bookstore shelves and in the hands of loved ones and strangers. These characters who have been only in my head for so long are now wandering in and out of other people’s imaginations. There is nothing like this. It was all worth it.

A lot has happened in the ten years since I wrote that first draft of The Moment of Everything for NaNoWriMo. I’ve had numerous jobs. I’ve befriended so many wonderful writers. I adopted a cat. I took care of my brother as he died. I met and married the love of my life. I became a debutante in my 40s. And I wrote a story that needed to be told.

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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This article has 15 Comments

  1. So much of this rings true for me as well, Shelly — like the time spent toiling away with words while others did, well, other things. And the statement about how a lifetime of reading novels in no way prepares you to WRITE a novel — yes! Glad we get to celebrate together being debutantes in our forties 😉

  2. “I’m not really sure why beginning writers nearly always want to start with a large project like a novel.”

    I’ve always thought that it was because, on some level, they (or we, because I’m one) realize that short stories are actually harder.

    With novels, you can just write and write and write, figuring that at some point you’ll reach an ending. With short stories, you get to the end of the first draft pretty quick, and then you need to figure out how to rewrite. Then you suddenly need craft. That’s the scary part, but novels mean you can postpone that scary moment for a long time.

    1. That’s so interesting. I never thought of that. To me, short stories always felt like something manageable while a novel felt so unwieldy. Thanks for that perspective. You may have unlocked my motivation problem for novel #2!

      1. Roger Ebert used to compare it to running. Different distances aren’t “easier” or “harder” — it’s all according to what you’re trained for. He was trained for newspaper columns — that was his distance — and even when he wrote a book it ended up being like a series of newspaper columns.

        Even when I set out to write a series of short stories, they sent out little feelers to each other and linked up to form themselves into a novel. I guess that’s the distance I’m trained for.

  3. I think so many people jump in with “I’m going to write a novel,” because somehow in our culture we’ve made this seem like an easy feat. But then you start and realize how hard it is! But you did it! Can’t wait to celebrate your huge accomplishment!

  4. “To save the file, click File>Save.”
    I’ve been there. Over and over, I’ve been there. *fist bump to tech writers* Loved your story and I greatly admire your persistence! 10 years is impressive. So excited to dive into your book this weekend!

  5. Hello, new Friday girl! Have to admit, yesterday I has a moment there–aren’t I supposed to be writing a blog post?–but it passed. 🙂

    The third-to-the-last paragraph struck a cord with me. Every vacation was (still is!) a writing vacation, whether a research trip to Ireland, workshop, conference, or my own private writing retreats on the coast. I’d spend hours in coffee houses working rather than hanging out with my friends. I’d hole up with printed manuscripts, marking them up while around me happy hour goers chatted. (Thankfully, I can get certain work done in bars, hehe.)

    I don’t know what my life would be like without the writing, even when I’m lying fallow — it’s still there.

    1. Yes, writers never really get a day off. Every little scrap of time we have is precious. Which is why I’m secretly glad the new Sims 4 isn’t available on Mac yet and hopefully won’t until I finish this draft of Novel #2!

  6. I love this, Shelly, as you are so right. Many people have novels in their drawer or hard drive and they are fine with that, but when you have that story you just have to tell, that burns in your soul, it is that drive that keeps us going.
    Good for you that you kept at it, and I love the photo. Please sign me up for a tiara too if it has weapons! 😉

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