I grew up the child of two English teachers, one high school level and one college level. I imagine you can guess I wasn’t allowed to say “ain’t” and was expected to get the “and me/and I” distinction correct from about second grade. They edited my thank-you notes and Christmas list. I spent every free minute reading from the day I learned how to turn a page. I knew all the big words. I knew how to pronounce almost 75% of them. I knew everything.
And then I didn’t. Despite having achieved perfect grades in elementary school reading and spelling, I came in second in the middle school spelling bee. I didn’t know as much as I thought, or not, at least, as much as Christine Ecker did. I shook that off, though. I learned to spell the word I’d missed and moved on, recovering my confidence a little more every time somebody told me I was a good writer.
I’m here to tell you I knew nothing when I started writing fiction. Yes, I knew how to use quote marks and action verbs and to vary my sentence length and all the rest. It’s rare that I find a misspelled word in a manuscript, though I can tell you I did on Monday.
But I knew nothing about writing fiction. I thought I did, and I wrote two manuscripts before I realized it. Not surprisingly, the third one is better. I didn’t understand how to add depth to a character. I didn’t know how to write a riveting first sentence, first paragraph, or first page. I didn’t know how to keep a main character from veering too far into unlikable. I didn’t know how to walk the line between enough dialogue and enough narration. I didn’t know how much internal monologue is too much. I’d never thought about dialogue tags.
I had only the vaguest understanding of chapter structure, of narrative arc, of character journeys. I thought acts were only for plays. I didn’t see the problem when I added a character I needed at the 80% point. I assumed readers wouldn’t mind if I took a few pages to introduce the characters before I made anything happen to them. I didn’t understand that a main character has to have agency: she has to do things and not just watch things happen to her.
As if I needed any more icing on the clueless cake, I didn’t even know all the rules of mechanics I thought I did. I didn’t know to leave off the comma when a subject is the same in two clauses. I’d been fuzzier than I thought on when to use single quotes and when to use double ones. I used a lot fewer action verbs than I thought.
Keep learning. I’m only now beginning to understand all I don’t know. The universe of what I don’t know about writing shocks me with its enormity. The fact that I can see that now gives me hope that I’ve made progress.
Just keep writing.