So, the title of this post is another bit of received wisdom, another oft-quoted catchphrase, another Writer Koan.
But what does it mean?
I first heard it as attributed to Gene Wolfe by way of Neil Gaiman: "You never learn how to write novels. You learn how to write this novel." I have no idea if that attribution is correct.
But the advice is sound.
Undertow is my fifteenth novel. Of those, seven are sold, four in print, four on submittal (two of those written with truepenny: do we each get to claim a whole book for those, or is it half a book apiece? Collaborations are more fun than writing a book by yourself, but not, I must say, appreciably less work.), one waiting its turn to go out in the world (it's fifth in a series), and three are awaiting revision and submittal.
Before I finished the first novel I finished, there were several false starts (No More Than a Star, a bad vampire police procedural kindly trunked, though the best characters--Don, Jewels, Geoff, Daniel--got swiped for the Promethean Age universe; Belladonna, a really, really juvenile spy novel; Seabird, a plot coupon quest fantasy. Word to the wise: some of those early ideas are salvageable in an adult career [The Promethean Age and the Edda of Burdens setting are ideas I've had since college; Jenny dates back to 1994 or so]. The rest are not: pick out what's cool, and let go of the trunk novels. You will do better with new ideas.)
The first finished book was All the Windwracked Stars. And as skzbrust said to me then, when you finish a draft, it doesn't matter if it sucks. You have done something that 99% of the people who set out to write a novel will never do.
What matters is not if it's good; what matters is that it's done. Because chances are, the first one won't be any good.
But if you finish one, you can finish two. And the second one is likely to suck less than the first. (There you go; more received wisdom. Two for the prica.)
But didn't I just say that you don't learn how to write novels, just this novel?
...well, I said it was a koan.
So anyway, when I finished that novel, I was thirty years old. I had started it in mumble-ninety-four. And gotten about fifty pages in, and gotten stuck. You know, like you do. But it was as if finishing it, pushing through that dreaded 35-K wall (most incomplete novels end at around 150 pages. Why? Because that's where it turns into work.) had uncorked something in my head.
I knew how to write a book! And at the time, I thought it was a pretty good book. (It's not; it's a pretty terrible book. But I can rebuild it, make it better, faster, stronger... watch this space.)
And I was unemployed.
So I wrote another book.
And the funny thing was, this one wasn't any easier. It was, in point of fact, both harder and differently hard. It required whole new skill sets, in development as I wrote it, and finding new ways to do things, and it taught me some more mature ways to handle problems I'd either ducked or kicked leaves over in the first book.
And, fortified by earlier success, I finished that one too. It made me cry. Both in frustration and catharsis. It was the very best book I would write at the time, and I was sure it was brilliant.
...it's not. But I can rebuild that one too. It's The Sea thy Mistress, which is entirely devoid of sailing in any form. I would have called it On the Waterfront, but that was taken.
Anyway, that book gave me the idea for a third book, a prequel and a sequel to the first two.
So I wrote it. And at the time I didn't like that one very much--first book I wrote that I wasn't on fire with. I kind of hated it, though I wrote the whole thing in a month. It was in my head, and I just sat down in the morning and put it on the page until my hands hurt too much to go on. That was By the Mountain Bound.
Looking back, it's the least ambitious but also the most successful of the three. That one, just needs its sentence-level fixed, mostly. Because I write better than that now. So that can be patched up too.
The fourth book was Hammered. Which about drove me into a nervous breakdown. And I would do a lot of things about it differently now. (See Carnival, when it comes out, for a more mature handling of some of the same technical challenges. I'm not scared of exposition any more, for one thing. Although it still has a (&*^%(&^ dream sequence.)
...and Hammered I am stuck with for the rest of my life. Which is okay; it's not by any means a bad book, and it's ridiculous to hold 30-year-old me to 35-year-old me's standards of craftsmanship. Not that that stops me: I am in many ways my own worst critic, and one of the reasons I'm taking this week off is to get my head on straight about Undertow, because of course I'm holding myself to an impossible standard on that one, too.
I am the disapproving adult that I can never be good enough to please. It's kind of a daunting thing to learn about one's self.
You would think, as you got older, you would eventually run out of unpleasant things about yourself to labor under the denial of, but that stuff does all the way to the bottom.
Books are broken. It's the way they are. That's not an excuse. But, on the other hand, it's a pretty good reason to cut one's self a little slack, and remember that you can only give the best effort that is in you to give. At the time I wrote it, Stars was the best book I had it in me to write. I sweated every word and every plot decision.
And it taught me skills that I used in Sea, which taught me skills that I used in Bound, which taught me skills that I used in Hammered, which taught me skills that--
...you get the idea.
So now, I have to learn how to write Undertow. Which will be flawed, perhaps badly.
And then, whatever I learn writing this book, I will have to use in Dust and the revision of All the Windwracked Stars, and whatever I learn there will go into Patience & Fortitude.
--novels, novels, novels, all the way down.
Because if I'm not falling off, I'm not riding hard enough. And if I'm not using all the muscles, I'm not really dancing.
Which is why you are always learning to write the current novel. What you learned writing the last one is the foundation for this one; but you have to build another tier, lay another course of stone. And this is why writing is hard, and why it never gets any easier. Because the more you know, the more you are trying to do all at once.
A juggler on a unicycle balancing on top of a pole on a beach ball makes a heck of a more spectacular wipeout than a guy blowing a cartwheel.