Lessons Learned From My First Crappy Book

About eighteen years ago, I had begun the practice of getting up in the morning and writing. It was an attempt to keep some balance in my life as a new lawyer. This is sort of like my origin story, like when Superman was put in a pod and blasted into space only this origin story does not include rippling muscles, x-ray vision, or an impressive square-dimpled chin.

My first crappy book, as well as my second crappy book, was never published. The physical printed copies were thrown into the recycling and hopefully made into toilet paper (something useful). The electronic copy lives somewhere on a hard drive of a computer that I no longer own and probably no longer functions. I’m sharing these lessons from my first crappy book as well as my second crappy book so that people understand that writing a coherent three hundred to four hundred page book is not easy. Even those “bad” books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries are actually quite remarkable. The fact that any human being can string together a semi-coherent story throughout hundreds of printed pages is pretty spectacular given that most people, including some elected officials, have difficulty stringing together a semi-coherent Tweet. I’m also sharing these lessons to encourage young/new writers out there to keep on writing. Maybe these “lessons” are ones that you have already learned, but you only learn by doing and, even now, I’m still learning.

So, in the beginning…

I’d always loved writing. I wrote a twenty-five-page story about kids lost in the Australian outback when I was in elementary school (sort of a Crocodile Dundee rip off, but not bad for a fifth grader). I loved working on my high school newspaper and yearbook (big nerd), and I had an English minor in college. At university, I gravitated toward the creative writing classes, and my professors tolerated my short stories even though they were far from high literature. I liked blowing things up rather than ruminating on the color of the sky.

Then life and law school got in the way after college. I stopped writing for several years, and eventually, the dream of writing a book was rekindled as my need to do something creative grew after starting a legal career. I read Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing,” and I took one of his pieces of advice to heart. King said to write something every day. It didn’t matter that you didn’t have the book outlined, just go. Don’t wait. Get something down on paper. So that was what I did, and I can safely say that my first “book” was a complete disaster.

Usually, the authors think that whatever they write is brilliant and going to sell one million copies. However, this first book was so bad that even I recognized what a perfect piece of you-know-what it was. The story was about two men who were imprisoned in Texas. The prison sort of resembled the one in the movie Shawshank redemption---big stone walls, but a lot hotter and located close to the Mexico border. The two men lived in a trailer on the edge of the exercise yard, because the prison was filled to capacity. There were pages and pages written about life in that prison. There were beautiful descriptions of the heat and horrid conditions as well as the mean warden (there’s always a mean warden). As the word count grew, I became pretty darn impressed with myself until there was a sad moment of realization. After writing more than two hundred pages, I stopped.

Why?

Because there was no plot. There was no journey. The characters were just living. The author Elmore Leonard said that the key to a good book is “leaving out all the parts that readers skip.” I had done just the opposite. I had written a book that was nothing but the parts that people skip. That was the lesson that I learned from my first crappy book. It was something that I instinctively knew but only learned by spending months of my life working on an utterly boring novel that was not fit for human consumption.

The first crappy book was discarded, and then I began work on my second crappy book. This one was going to be different, I told myself, this one was going to be non-stop action.

JD Trafford