We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

01 Sep

“I could write a book.”

How many times have you heard someone say that? Remember the first time you thought the same thing, back when it was just an idea, before you realized what all it entailed?

I spent over a year writing the first draft of my manuscript. I was a panter in those days, and when I’d get stuck, I’d wait for the solution to come to me. Sometimes it took days. Sometimes weeks. Eventually I completed the manuscript. Instead of reading it immediately, I set it aside for a few weeks to let my brain clear.

Then the day came, and I pulled out the paper copy, removed the rubber band, and settled in to read my masterpiece. The one that agents would race to sign. The one that would trigger bidding wars.

I began to read. Somewhere around chapter two or three, I realized this was not the page-turner I’d envisioned. It was BORING. Painfully dull. What had happened to my best seller? All the funny characters were present. They were still funny. Yet the story was flat. I’d never read anything so awful. How could I have not realized this while I was typing?

I registered for a fiction class at the university where a group of twenty students exchanged work to be critiqued. I brought chapter one of my manuscript for them to admire. The manuscript may have been a dud, but chapter one was a winner. It really was good. Really.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so good. They told me the internalization was strong, but there was no story. It was more of a character study of a woman in a single moment.

This is when I realized you need to be masochistic to be a writer.

From there, I joined the local chapter of Romance Writers of America, took another class at BSU, periodically participated in workshops, joined a critique group, and read countless books on the craft.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

  • Thou shalt only include scenes that push the story forward. I was convinced the person who told me this was wrong, or just didn’t understand, because the scene she wanted me to cut was so fun.
  • Thou shalt not head hop…which begged the question “what is a head hop, exactly?”
  • Thou shalt have a plot. Apparently I didn’t have one.
  • Thou shalt write tension and conflict into every page. “Every page? Are you kidding me?”

The first time we tell ourselves or others that we could write a book, we don’t know all the things we don’t know. In my case, it was a lot, but I learned. So, when I hear someone else make that claim, I know that with several years of studying the craft, writing and re-writing followed by editing and more editing, they might be right.


Posted by on September 1, 2011 in books, plotting, POV, writers, writing


Tags: , , ,

30 responses to “We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

  1. Johanna Harness

    September 1, 2011 at 5:56 AM

    Writing well is an endless pursuit. For many years, I found it painful to read any of my past writing. Seeing all the things I did wrong made me feel stupid, like I should have known better before I started putting stories together. Now I realize that I should be seeing the areas where past writing can be improved because it means I am growing and learning. No matter how many times we hear a particular piece of advice, we often don’t understand what it means until we put it into practice. It takes time.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 5:24 PM

      Thanks, Johanna. I’m still learning every day.

  2. Neeks

    September 1, 2011 at 6:42 AM

    I enjoyed your post, and learned from it too. I just do short stories and now I realize that they have no plot at all. None. Hmmm, thanks for this, I have a lot to consider.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 5:23 PM

      That’s been my biggest struggle too. Thanks for reading the blog.

  3. Janis McCurry

    September 1, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    I remember my arrogance only too well. I’d read yet another book where the heroine was TSTL (too stupid to live) and just knew I could do better. LOL. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted, including school, career, etc. It happens to all of us, I believe. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 5:27 PM

      It is a humbling experience.

  4. Meredith Conner

    September 1, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    Oh so true! It’s really a good thing that we don’t know all the things we don’t know when we sit down to write – especially that very first draft. I’m not sure how many books would actually get written if we knew how hard it would be.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 7:59 PM

      I think you’re right, Meredith. It’s best we don’t know.

  5. Kyrsten

    September 1, 2011 at 7:39 AM


    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:01 PM

      Thanks for joining the blog today, Kyrsten.

  6. Clarissa Southwick

    September 1, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    That’s great advice whether you’re just starting out or have been writing for years. Thanks, Carley 🙂

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:00 PM

      Thanks, Clarissa.

  7. Sally McBride

    September 1, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    Well said, Carley. I have a couple of manuscripts that will never be allowed out of their drawer. The best way to learn is to read the really good stuff. It will be so fun and easy to read you’ll be lead to think “gee, I can do this too”. But if we slow down enough to be analytical we can start to learn a bit of the magic for ourselves.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:02 PM

      So, write. The great writers do make it seem so easy and beautiful.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    September 1, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    There is so much to learn and remember. Great advice. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:02 PM

      Thanks, Peggy.

  9. Liz Fredericks

    September 1, 2011 at 8:49 AM

    Kindred souls, Carley! You echoed almost word for word some of the first feedback I received through the End Results Critique program through the Coeur du Bois chapter of Romance Writers of America. This is a good reminder – thanks!

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:04 PM

      Thanks, Liz. I’ve received some of the best advise from my RWA sisters.

  10. Patricia Yager Delagrange

    September 1, 2011 at 10:09 AM

    Thank you for this post. It was spot on. I revised my book so many times I lost count. It began at over 100,000 words and that was 2 years ago. It is now about 79,000 words. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I joined RWA and RWA/Women’s Fiction online Yahoo Group and read about craft, took classes, etc. It’s a learning curve and I think we should all be proud of ourselves that we are following our passion and endeavoring to be better at it every single day.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:07 PM

      Thanks, Patricia. It is certainly a big investment.

  11. Neeks

    September 1, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    TSTL? BAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That’s too funny!

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:07 PM

      I like that too, and I remember a few characters like that.

  12. Mary Vine

    September 1, 2011 at 4:19 PM

    It’s like my carpenter, brother-in-law told me, “There is no comparison to the kind of work I did at the beginning compared to what I can do now.” The same with our stories. Practice makes perfect, so to speak. My first manuscript is hidden, and shalt not be uncovered. Yet, I will probably not ever love a story as much as I did while writing that manuscript.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:09 PM

      I love my first too. I say it’s done, but I keep tweaking and tweaking…I just can’t let go.

  13. Amity Grays

    September 1, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    Hi Carley, Loved the piece. I always compare it to the tryouts for American Idol. Those people really think they can sing, and they can–badly.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:10 PM

      Excellent example, Amity. I suspect a few of them know they’re bad…they have to…don’t they?

  14. lynn mapp

    September 1, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    Carley, so true. We really don’t know what we don’t know. Writing is work. Lots and lots and lots of work.

    • Carley Ash

      September 1, 2011 at 8:10 PM

      …and lots and lots and lots. You are so right, Lynn.

  15. P. L. Parker

    September 2, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    Great post and I love the “thou shalts.”

    P. L. Parker

    • Carley Ash

      September 2, 2011 at 9:10 PM

      Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: