Why we shovel sand

Here’s a fun party story: Over the course of my life, I’ve written five novels.

Despite this, it took me a long time until I found the nerve to start calling myself “a writer.” This was largely because for the majority of my writing life, I was unrepresented and unpublished and yaddayaddayadda I overvalued the validation of other people.

Now? I’m not unpublished anymore. But I am still unrepresented.

So when strangers ask me what I do and I say, “I’m a writer,” I know I’m about to face the inevitable follow-up question, which has nothing to do with The Craft or my artistic sentiments re: the state of humanity (I know, right???). Nah bro, strangers just want to know whether they can find any of my books on a shelf in a Barnes & Noble.

Strangers, I want to sigh, why don’t you understand how long the road is to publication? Why don’t you ask me complex questions about the nature of my work and the deeper implications of my ponderings I mean really.

What strangers don’t realize is that writers are crazy people.

Recently, I had lunch with another writer friend of mine. He has also written many books. He is also unrepresented and uninterested (for now) in self-publishing. As I listened to him tell me how many rejection letters he’d received that week, I reached down deep into the depths of my optimistic soul and was like, “But hey, it’s amazing that you’ve written ____ books, though, right?”

And he just stared at me.

You know that time at the end of your college career, when everyone starts asking you, “What do you want to do after you graduate? What’s your plan?” You know how you devise clever responses that allow you to avoid actually answering the question?


Surprise, surprise, this happens when you’re a writer, too. The What’s-Your-Plan. Except it’s not just happening at the end of your career.

It’s at the beginning. It’s in the middle. It’s on the days when you’re feeling like a bad writer because you slept in instead of getting up to jot down those ideas that have been sticking to your brain for a week. It’s on the days when you just received another form rejection email from an agent you really liked and your heart is shrinking, like, posthaste.

It’s on the days when your full-time job is sucking your soul and you’re too tired to even read somebody else’s book, forget your own. It’s on the days when you run fresh out of ideas and despair about having maxed out your capacity for decent storytelling.

And it doesn’t take long before, “Well, at least I’ve written [insert number here] novels,” feels less like an accomplishment than it does an embarrassment.

Because things are not going according to plan.

Guys, I’m so not operating under some illusion that everything I write is brilliant. By now, I’ve accepted that most of my manuscripts will probably never, ever see the light of day (and some never should). But honestly, yeah, a good handful of them were projects I thought would be “the one” that would catapult my career.

It was like that with Novel #3, which I wrote at the end of high school in between volleyball practices and physics tests.

It was like that with Novel #4, which I wrote at the beginning of college, serialized on the Internet, like a madwoman.

So when I tell you that Novel #5 is buried somewhere in the underbelly of my laptop files, maybe you’ll sort of get why I’m afraid to give Novel #5 the heavy-duty revision it deserves.

And dude, I’m even more afraid of writing Novel #6.

What if I do it and it’s not “the one”? Again?

What if I write Novel #6 and #10 and #20 and I’m still sitting on a pile of old manuscripts, making up stories for my own amusement?

What if the next time I tell someone I’m a writer and they respond with the inevitable, “Cool! So have you written, like, a whole book?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve actually written five/six/ten/*sobs*,” I can’t handle the confusion on their faces when I say no to the Barnes & Noble question?

Oh. Here’s the word I’m looking for:

It’s shame.

This will sound ridiculous to non-writers, but sometimes I do feel ashamed. Of having written so many books that are now just sitting there on my hard drive, silently. Of having to quietly archive the rejections in my inbox. I’m embarrassed from constantly defending Young Adult fiction or even explaining what it is to people I don’t even know, and I’m frustrated with myself for feeling embarrassed. And you guys, it’s making me afraid to do the work.

No. It’s making me question whether doing the work is worth it. 

Shannon Hale once said, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Anakin Skywalker once said, “I hate sand.”

Sage. I have always hated sand. There are baby pictures of me on the beach looking downright disgusted by the grit on my hands.

Processed with VSCO with m3 preset

I do not like it, Sam I am.

But like it or not, right now, I’m still shoveling sand, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing it for a while. This metaphor is not just for first drafts. It’s for life. This is my sand-shoveling time. This is where my hands get dirty and I choose to bare them for all to see.

Maybe the time between shoveling sand and building sandcastles, this place of survival… maybe this is how we learn to keep going. To do the work. To tell the party story shamelessly. To embrace the grit and say, “Here. Look at my hands,” in the hope that maybe someone else is shoveling, too.

Here’s my confession: A few months ago I realized that oops, I might have written Novel #5’s entire first draft from the wrong point of view. A few. Months. Ago. Guess what I’ve been doing since then? (If you guessed “moping,” that would be correct.)

Ugh. Look at my hands.

And yeah, it’s crossed my mind once or twice while writing this post that maybe I’m whining for no reason. Maybe I just need to suck it up and do the freaking work. Maybe I just need to confront the fear that if I revise Novel #5, it might still not work. And I might kill it. And I might still not be Barnes & Noble shelf material. And I still might not have very good party stories.

But even if I pour myself into this forever, and I never get to hold my debut and open the front cover and thumb through its pages… won’t that be okay? Won’t be okay?

I think everything I’m trying clumsily to say comes down to this question:

What am I expecting from this life?

Of course I want more than to shovel sand all my life. Of course I want the castle. It’s okay to want the castle. But it’s not my time yet. And learning to live in the grit and invite you into my grit is breaking down the illusion that writing is only about the final product. The shiny cover and Barnes & Noble shelves are not why I’m doing this, and it’s never been why I’m doing this.

Because the reality is, most of the time, writing is less like building castles than it is like shoveling sand.

So I’ll keep shoveling. And one day, it might be my turn to build the castle, but until then… here. Look at my hands.

Samantha Chaffin

(…but if anyone comments about how so-and-so wrote FIFTY books before THEY ever got published and omg look at them now, I will punch you through this screen, I tell you, RIGHT through this screen.) 


13 thoughts on “Why we shovel sand

  1. E.R. Warren says:

    I second all of this. I second all of this 100% except we are rounding up for the little differences because I don’t live your life and I did not have lunch with this man who you had lunch with. But yes. I probably won’t be able to call myself a writer until I get paid for it in some way, and that probably says more about me and my need for validation… But if that’s just it, I’m at peace with that.
    Also, don’t change perspective. I can say with assurance because of science that changing the first/third person perspective of a novel is the fastest way to hate it. Also, don’t change anything to third because apparently YA is addicted to first.
    This is all true though otherwise, every word.
    And I laughed so hard at “I hate sand.”

    • deshipley says:

      Respectful but firm disagreement to the advice above:
      Third person is entirely valid. Tell the story however the story demands. And if that means changing the perspective from one draft to another, go with what you believe to be in the story’s best interest.
      An author does well to resist becoming a slave to The Market, Science, or Fear.

    • samchaffin says:

      Haha thanks, girl. This post has been a long time brewin’, I think… Also LOL “because of science.” I love this. I haven’t quite made up my mind about whether I’m going to attempt a POV switch in the new draft… will keep you posted. O.O

  2. lewisjphillips says:

    It’s tricky, I get it. I’m only on novel #2 and after reading this I’ve started to quiver. But I can quickly stand up straight again. Writing, for me, is more of a therapy. It’s like leaving a tap running in a basin – eventually you’re going to have to let it drain. Whether or not what I’m writing is publishable, or any good, I don’t know. But I find dwelling too much in the potential future distracts me from doing what I love, which is writing.

    Writing a novel is like panning for gold, and not everyone likes gold – some like silver, others don’t wear jewellery at all. I suppose I view publishing as a train that may or may not arrive at the station – all I know is that I can’t catch it if I’m not there waiting with my bags.

    • samchaffin says:

      Ahh, I totally get that. Writing has always been therapy for me, too, though in recent years, novel-writing has become less so than blogging. I think that transition started to happen when I started to think of myself as “A Writer” (as in, career) in college, and I’m only just figuring out how to put words to that feeling. Didn’t mean to freak you out! Please, please write Novel #2 full speed ahead!

      I love the idea of publishing being like a train you wait for with all your bags at the ready. Thank you for the encouragement and for reading. Hope we both end up catching the right trains.

  3. Olivia Michelle says:

    Between Shannon Hale and Anakin Skywalker, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head for me, too. I don’t have much to add, because you pretty much covered it all… but I’m currently re-writing my fourth or fifth (is it bad that I’ve lost track??) and I feel this. I feel it.

    • samchaffin says:

      Thank you so much for the empathy, girl. ❤ And yes! Totally get what it feels like to lose track, haha. I mean, if you count the half-finished, malformed manuscripts I've abandoned in my life, I've probably written more like 8 or 9 books butwedon'ttalkaboutthosekthxbye.

  4. Katie says:

    I feel you. I’ve started a first draft of a novel and in between all the other things going on in my life, I’ve been too scared to touch it. I haven’t even edited my last NaNoWriMo. It’s been rough, man.

    Thank you for sharing this, friend. ❤ I needed it today.

    • samchaffin says:

      Ah, girl. I understand. ❤ Try not to guilt yourself too hard about this season – just take care of yourself. The words and the breathing space will come back with time.

  5. L says:

    This is such an on point articulation of what I’ve experienced and continue to feel/struggle with. I’ve been in what is basically a two-year slump, and people keep asking me “So, how’s your writing going?” And I feel this pressure like the top of my head is going to blow off — not with rage but like, “OH MY GOD I DON’T KNOW OK DO YOU WANT ME TO HAND IN MY WRITER CARD.”

    So reading this, and especially your elegant analogy to what it’s like, is really helping me where my head’s at right now!

    On a semi-related note, after finishing SIX OF CROWS, I read Leigh Bardugo’s post “The Big Idea”, which really spoke to me, too. I think if your gut/first instinct was to occupy this one POV and it carried you all the way through the first draft, that’s great! Test out the change of perspective in a short revision, like a chapter or two, and see if that’s truly what you want to stick with?

    • samchaffin says:

      ❤ Thank you so much for this. Selfishly, it helps me so much to know that I am not the only one feeling like the top of my head is going to blow off. 😉 I'm so glad that this helped you in any way, too.

      I love that post from Leigh Bardugo! And I have never really thought about the POV choice that way, in that it did carry me all the way through the first draft. Wow. Thank you for that, too.

  6. Brie says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve commented…but anyhoo. Hi!!! 🙂

    I don’t know if I mentioned this but I threw away an entire draft and all the associated notes etc. It was too close to something that had come up in my life, and I didn’t feel peace about it anymore. I learned a lot from writing it, but the story itself is in the dump somewhere in a million pieces. I am a little stronger as a writer after that. I also did some self publishing, mostly poetry. I hated it, but I might do it again as a small income-hobby thing. My focus is on traditional publishing for a lot of reasons. It’s what I feel is best for me and my stories. When I finally write something I feel solid about, I will query it.

    I have been focused on living a fuller life, hearing my heart, and learning from experience and books. I’ve written, but mostly journaling and emails…stuff like that…and poems. I’m going to try camp nano because I feel ready to write a story, but I just need the structure and stress of nano to help. I am mostly empty on ideas. I am working on a duology for my little sister, but it’s in an unfamilar genre (mystery-adventure kid’s novel) and also I haven’t seen her in a few months because of post traumatic divorce drama. My family has been going through it for years, but it’s at its worse. So yeah, I love writing kid’s lit, but mysteries make me think too much.

    Anyways, this Sarah Dessen post really continues to inspire and encourage me. Please no virtual punches. She does have a lot of unpublished books, but she has a lot of published ones too, 1 for 1. She might have taken the emotional post that went viral in the author community down :/ Anyways here is a post about her unpublished books http://sarahdessen.com/4021/blog/impressive-or-depressive-you-decide/
    Basically she forced herself through a book that didn’t feel right from the start and it nearly destroyed her. The following book was birthed from that experience, and was about intuition, family, difficult times, and love. I think it was her best written book so far. My favorite story is Dreamland, then Lock and Key, finally wpuld be Just Listen. I also like This Lullabye. I don’t feel like her books are 5 star-worthy, but she is my favorite author. Her books make me think about my life in a deeper way, and they make me laugh-cry-grow.

    I related to her doubts about being an author after a similar experience writing a novella that sucked the life out of me. I recovered though. I have so much peace after the story I wrote for my sister…it was my hallelujah moment. After finishing draft one and having her finish it in like a week…I knew I was born to write. I also took time off to learn what worked for me.

    Just to get your mind off your writer-woes…I started with my own. But I do want to encourage you personally. Learn to hear yourself, remember “who you are is enough”, and maybe take a step back from the writing to discover more about what makes a good story in your opinion. Think about your favorite books, characters, lessons, and genres, and let that show you where your center is. For me it’s always: love, relationships, home…and I like adventure. My favorite genre is contemporary, but I often force myself to write according to trends…and I need to stop. I love branching out, but only if it’s true to me. Take time to hear yourself. Be thankful for the lessons and experiences writing has given you. Keep smiling.

    Maybe you just can’t connect because there’s something more important God wants you to focus on first and it will be easier once that nudging issue is taken care of. Don’t let money, people, or time leave you frustrated. Like you said, focus on the art aspect of writing…telling a deep and powerful story. I know it is hard, best way is…listen to the positive encouraging words instead. Be subjective. Learn how to manage discouragement. Blogging about this was a wonderful idea.

    I would say more, but I will end this short.

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