The Toughest Part of Writing — and How to Overcome It
Syd Field, the great screenwriting guru, said the most difficult part about writing was knowing what to write, and all these years, I’ve agreed with him. We’ve all hit that moment in a project where we just DO NOT KNOW what to do next, what happens next, or how to even GET to what happens next. We get frustrated and discouraged, and since writers are the world’s best procrastinators, often we tell ourselves we may not know how to fix it now, but tomorrow, we surely will. We put down the project with a sigh (of relief) and tell ourselves we’ll come back and nail it.
And then we don’t. Because tomorrow the wall looks even higher and more insurmountable. So we put it off again, telling ourselves that next time, we definitely will fix the problem. And the next time the wall looks even higher—and so on and so on. Ultimately that putting off and putting off might be the #1 reason why so many writers give up on a project they really, really wanted to finish: we just can’t find a way through the forest, and each time we try to come back to it, the wall looks higher and higher. First we were frustrated; now we’re completely intimidated. And the project languishes, sometimes forever.
For me, coming back to a project where I didn’t know how to fix the insurmountable problem was the most difficult part about writing. Just dragging myself to my desk to face it was almost more than I could deal with. It would get to the point on many projects where I so dreaded trying to deal with a problem I had already put off and put off that I would tell myself I really didn’t want to write that project anymore anyway; it was probably better to go on to the next one, which would surely be much better and go way faster.
And so the cycle would start again.
Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING, provides what I believe is the best possible remedy for this problem. Leave it to someone that prolific to give you that light in the forest.
King has an inflexible rule about writing, which by its very nature forces you to confront your issue and deal with it.
He says simply that YOU WRITE EVERY DAY.
And you get a certain number of words written every day, a number you yourself decide on. No discussion.
And you don’t get up from your desk until that number is completed. No excuses.
He explains that doing this keeps the one quality in our writing that keeps us coming back to our desk. It’s MOMENTUM. The more of it you build up, the easier it is to face a mountain in your path. If you’ve got a juggernaut behind you, with all those words you’ve already written, a mountain ahead looks like an anthill. You know you’re going to get through it, over it or around it. It’s just a matter of getting the words down without stopping.
That’s the principle on which Nanowrimo is built. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days leaves precious little time to procrastinate. Got a problem? Write on the other side of it. It’s a way to get through the morass, and what King and Nano both want for you is to KEEP WRITING, because sooner or later you’ll solve that creative problem. It’s the best answer I know. And forcing myself to stay with the problem — or write on the other side of it, so I’m building up my word count even when I have no idea how certain plot points will come together — has made it possible for me to finish projects I never thought I could finish.
There’s a famous story about Richard Harding Davis, who wrote serialized magazine stories many years ago. At one point in his latest story, his hero had fallen into a well (dry) and could not get out. No ladder, no one above to help him, smooth sides all around him; nothing to climb. What to do?
Then Davis got into a contract dispute with the magazine and refused to write more until they came to terms. His editors panicked. How would the guy get out of the well? They tried other writers; no one could solve it. They had to forge a new agreement with Davis, and they waited breathlessly for his next chapter. How would he get the guy out of the well?
The new chapter arrived from Davis and they ripped open the envelope. And here were his first words: “Once out of the well … ”
There’s always a way out of the well, even if you have to finesse it as Harding did. (That to me is the ultimate of a guy writing himself into a corner, and I try to remember it when I’ve done the same thing.) Just stay at your desk and keep pouring out the words. It’s your story, after all, and it’s a story that cries out to be finished, even when you have no idea how to get your hero out of the well.
You’ll find a way. Believe me. Just sitting at your desk can produce magical results.