In Which Emmie Discovers An Ugly Baby

Now, allow me to preface this post with the fact that someone of my acquaintance first used the “ugly baby” metaphor, and at the moment I can’t recall who. If you read this, let me know if it was your idea so I can bestow the Trophy of Wisdom upon you.

That said, allow me to apply the metaphor like the ointment for my soul that it is.

I started working on The Silver Thorn Chronicles in 2005. I finished the first book in 2008 and the second one in 2011, and the third one is about halfway done. I spent about eight months last year trying to polish up the first book and attempting to fix a myriad of structural issues to some avail. If you’d asked me four years ago, I would have said this trilogy would be my opus, the crowning glory of my achievement.

It also happens to be my first completed writing project, so glean from that what you will. (Feel free to pahaha at my expense — I am.)

To me, this project looked something like this:

A baby so beautiful, they gave her a wee award for it. Ah, Earth. Reinforcing superficiality right out of the womb. Photo from

I was under the impression that great works of writing birthed themselves from hours of labor and descended fully formed into the world. And as I’d birthed that one, I thought it was utterly lovely. I thought it would be a hit. I thought it would poof my career into existence with some crappy smoke effects and a 25 cent sparkler.

Like many budding writers, I missed a Really Big Point.

Writing isn’t like pregnancy. Not really. You might feel like it is, but you have a lot less control over what happens to the fruit of your loins than you do over what comes out on paper. I’ve always been a die-hard pantser, writing and writing without being that great at planning or plotting. Some pantsers succeed marvelously — but most of those only do so after many failed attempts.

I’ve realized in the past year that my beautiful baby looks instead something like this:

Wait. Gimme my rose-colored glasses back. GIMME! (Image via

Writing well involves study. Even the greatest writers don’t simply poof into existence holding a sparkler and a fog machine. Want to place any bets on how much crumpled paper littered Shakespeare’s floor before he got that balcony scene right? Very seldom will you find a writer who manages to shite out pure gold, and if that happens, it usually is only lauded as such posthumously.

I do not shite gold, and you probably don’t either. More’s the pity.

The good thing about this is that writing is a learned skill. Some of it you can learn by strapping books to your head while you sleep reading heaps within your genre (and other genres). You can learn more of it by reading books on the craft and yes, by reading crappy books that somehow got published (or someone self-published without so much as a cursory edit).

You can learn a lot by reading, but the rest you have to learn by writing. You have to try it and see what works. Before, the only way you knew if something worked was if it got published. Now with the dawn of self-publishing, you can put it out there yourself and see what it does.

For me, what all of this meant was that when my rosy glasses fell off and got trod upon, I found that my opus more resembled something on the bottom of Mary Shelley‘s shoe, and that I’d given birth to an ugly baby because I thought that’s what writing was. I thought writing meant you were stuck with whatever came soaring out of you, and that’s not at all the case.

(I think most women can agree that the birthing process would be much easier if babies indeed came soaring out of us.)

So what I have now is approximately a quarter million words of an ugly baby. “Daaaaamn, girl,” you might be saying. “That’s one ugly baby.”

You’d be right. However, she isn’t all bad. She’s got pretty eyes and nice skin tone. She might, under the right tutelage and prodding, turn out rather lovely. But I don’t have it in me right now to start from scratch, and I also don’t  have it in me to take that metaphor to the next step of cutting off the ugly baby’s nice parts and sewing them up with replacements.

No. I’m going to scrap the baby metaphor entirely now.

I’ve started an entirely new project, into which I got about 5,000 words before MS Word decided to fangoriously devour a third of it, along with the two hours of my life I spent attempting to recover the file. This project is fun. To an extent I’m pantsing, but I’m writing with the mindset of mutability. This project’s DNA is not set in stone from conception. It doesn’t dictate a certain flow or end goal; as the writer, I can orchestrate where it goes and make sure it goes where it should. I have control over its skeleton and musculature, flesh and adornments.

When it’s done, it won’t be a baby at all. It’ll be a sculpture.

Writing is an art form, but it’s also a skill. It’s one learned through effort and error, tears, recrimination, and fictional (I hope) murder of darlings. This book will not take me three years to write. You can hold me to that, gentle viewers.

That said, I will keep you updated on my progress. I might even break the rule of posting fiction and give you a sample chapter to read, if you would be interested. This has been a lesson in humility for me, but it’s also been somewhat liberating. There is a lot of pressure in thinking that something has to come out right or the world will end in a shower of sparklers and fog machines. Once you recognize that you can grow a skill and have the patience to do so, it frees you from the burden of having to create ex nihilo. 

There’s a lot coming soon on the Emmie front, and a lot of it feels rather exciting. Stay tuned, gentle viewers. Stay tuned.

What hard lessons have your career taught you? When have you found you had to shift down a new path? When have you had to go outside your comfort zone?


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on May 20, 2012, in Sunday My Prints Will Come, writing process, writing progress and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Great writing takes practice. The more you write the better you get. That said, structure is a different beast, Some people intuitively know what works and others have to learn. I’m the 2nd kind. I rewrote my first novel three times and still couldn’t figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. Then I chanced across a screenwriter who could explain structure in a way that made sense to me. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! helped me to structure my current WIP. I still have lots to learn about improving my craft, but now I know my storyline is solid.

    • I need to get that book. We’ve been so broke lately that I haven’t been able to buy it, but it’s been sitting in my cart on Amazon for two months now.

    • I have a pretty decent sense for structure on a basic level, but I still have a lot to learn about maximizing structure in an efficient and powerful way.

  2. Just like our writing, we too are works in progress. It just never ends. I’m excited for your excitement and already know how much more satisfying and energizing your new work is going to be. Emmie, please e-mail me at psands dot stories at gmail dot com. There’s a good reason! Thanks!

  3. jodileastewart

    Some people don’t like the “writing is rewriting” phrase, but I live that phrase so I’m going to share it with you and that nothing I write comes out right the first time. It’s about the tenth time. I’ve learned to accept that and embrace it. My daughter is a good writer. Someday, she might be a great writer, if she will learn patience and that great writing does not just spill out of you (as you mention above). In school, she had the idea that when she sat down and spilled her writing on the paper, that was it. She always wanted me to read her papers. When I’d offer suggestions, she’d say, “Oh, I’m not rewriting it. I just wanted to know what you thought of it.” That used to amaze me. She had a good “product” that could have been a “great product.” What’s to decide? For her, it was the easy way out.

    Don’t despair, Emmie. I will recommend that you not only read craft books, but that you also take some courses along the way. Several great fiction courses are given by the Institute of Children’s Literature. I am a graduate of their magazine fiction-writing course, which, at the end, taught me how to pre-plan my novel by writing a chapter summary before starting to write. It has been the backbone of my writing ever since. It’s very hard to do it, but when you finish, you have your plot, your subplots, your basic road map and the cast of characters. That’s not to say that you cannot be wildly creative during the actual writing. You can. It’s just that you have that wonderful road map to bring you back on the asphalt when you’ve taken a lap or two off the beaten path. And…most importantly to me, I always know that the novel will “work.” It’s not going to fail because the plot won’t work. No. I already worked that out before I started writing.

    Hope this helps! My best to you!

    • I would definitely love to take some of Margie Lawson’s courses — there’s also a Storymasters conference I would LOVE to go to in October in Seattle, but unfortunately finances tend to be the issue with a lot of that stuff. Even $100 can be a lot when you’re squeaking by each month.

      Thanks for the advice! I’ve started plotting out rough outlines if nothing else, just to make sure I have a sense of what’s happening (especially when it’s an idea I don’t have time to take the plunge into yet), and it’s amazing how much that helps.

  4. I was at this stage less than a year ago. I thought I was going to abandon that first effort, and I did. But I went back to it.

    I hired a writing coach. I re-plotted the thing – a complete re-visioning of the story but same characters (more or less). And I re-wrote the whole damn thing. From scratch. 90k words later, I finished the rough draft. Yesterday, in fact.

    It is still a pile of shite. But it’s better than the last one. I’ll re-write this one. And the next one. And the next one after that until one day, I won’t recognize it, but you all will. I’ll look like a novel.

    Working on something new will re-start your engine. Just keep writing, Emmie! We’ll get there…eventually…

    FYI – I’ve been following Hugh Howey’s career. He hangs out over on, that’s where I first met him (super nice guy). He’s written a handful of novels, but early this year a short story series of his went viral. It’s on the Amazon Science Fiction best seller’s list – at the top. And he just sold the film rights to Ridley Scott (yes, that one – Scott Free). Random House in the UK has picked up the series but he kept the rights to continue to SELF-PUBLISH here in the U.S.

    Here’s the thing: he wrote SEVEN books before Wool went wild. Seven.

    Keep writing.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Nila. It made me think and made me feel a bit better.

      I’ve definitely paid attention to your posts regarding your own writing process, and I think your wrestling matches with your work have helped show me that I can do the same. My goal for this year is to get something DONE, meaning polished, pretty, and…erm…peddle-able. 🙂

  5. Thanks. I was just thinking about a new story and I guess I am really a “pantser,” but I really need to get my head around the fact that I can (and should) just write, and if I want to cut and paste (drastically even) later, then I can.

  6. Emmie, it takes so long to learn and polish. Keep writing. That’s where you get the experience. My crit partner said my third book’s opening was the best of my three. Lol. It gets better. 🙂 and once you’ve learned, you go back to that old manuscript and revision it. Sometimes the time away is a year but what you learned in that year helps you revise in2-3 months. 🙂

  7. Emmie – your story very much resembles mine. Except, I wrote three vastly different drafts of the ‘same’ novel before I decided a year ago that it was fundamentally broken. I didn’t have the heart then to go back and write a fourth time, but I suspect I will one day, because I so love my characters and the premise and the world I created. And yes, those drafts took me about 3 years each. I’m now working on a new (albeit related) project, and my goal was to write a first draft in a year. Hmm. That’s not going so well either. I’m definitely someone who has to learn how to write. It doesn’t come at all naturally. Makes me wonder often why I keep persevering. But I do.

  8. Great post, Emmie. I laughed out loud and always appreciate your honesty.

  9. Hi Emmie. I’ve been there; spent years working on a novel, putting it aside for a few months then editing it and changing it. That novel was started ten years ago after I finished high school but I’m still reluctant to let go of it, even now.

  10. Wiser words haven’t been spoken, Emmie! My first novel is safely tucked away where they’re only visible to the dust bunnies that live in my house. 😀

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