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.
Today’s blog is a re-posting of one I wrote for Nanowrimo participants as a pep talk in March 2012. It was published at http://www.nanowrimo.org. As I’m currently doing the (very last, I swear!) edits on STEALING FIRE before it goes to final production, this pep talk is perfect for my own state of mind. (The 1983 novel I mention in the blog is STEALING FIRE – and sadly, no, it WASN’T published last year. See what I mean?) Has this ever happened to you? Be honest:
For some of you, this year’s Nanowrimo is the first time you’ve sat down to write a sustained piece of fiction, and if so, my hands hurt from applauding your effort. I’m not sure anything in the world is harder than sitting in front of a blank computer screen (or piece of paper) and dragging something into creation that didn’t exist before. It takes all kinds of hard work, optimism and courage to put down one word, let alone 50,000 (or however many you’ve racked up). You deserve all the kudos in the world. Bravo.
For others, this is not the first time you’ve written fiction – or tried to write fiction. My hands hurt even more for you because you already KNOW what kind of effort is required – and in Nanowrimo, the take-no-prisoners approach to writing a novel, there’s no time to catch your breath and reflect. (Let’s be honest; there’s barely time to use the bathroom.) But you’ve written your words and now you may be facing an issue that could be the most difficult of all to overcome:
YOU’VE TOTALLY FALLEN IN LOVE WITH YOUR NOVEL.
This is partly a good thing – it’s kept you writing this long.
It’s also sometimes not so good – because it could lead to that desire to make it PERFECT – which is completely counter-productive to ever getting it finished. You won’t let it go until every phrase and every comma is touched by the hand of the divine (or at least a divine fingernail.) You’ll solicit endless opinions and rewrite endlessly. You owe it this kind of painstaking care; it’s your baby and given just a-little-more-time, you know you can make it perfect. But unless you can find it in you to LET IT GO, it can never really be a novel.
I know a little about this.
When I started writing books for hire years ago, I was always given a deadline, which I always met. Always. (I didn’t completely understand what `breach of contract’ meant and I was too scared to want to find out.) This meant that sometimes I wrote books badly or haphazardly or (once) hardly even knowing my subject (that was fun), but they got to an editor’s desk when they were supposed to.
How did I do it? Easy. I wasn’t emotionally invested in them. They were someone else’s idea and concept that I was hired to execute. So I thought of the job as sort of like writing a term paper: The deadline was always uppermost in my mind and getting it finished became the priority (like Nanowrimo). It might not be great, but hey, it would be done. (It helped that some of those books were published under a pseudonym, which meant if they were lousy, at least no one would know I was responsible.)
I go back to those books now and you know what? They’re okay. In fact, they’re usually better than okay. They tell a good story. They hold reader interest. I can be proud of them. And the mindset I used to write them was professional: GET IT DONE.
Then there are the novels that are all mine from start to (sort of) finish. I’m proud of those too – but what it takes to get THEM finished is nobody’s business. I started one novel in 1992 that wasn’t finished and published till 2003 – and that’s one of my success stories. I told everyone the research took years (and it did), but the real reason was that I procrastinated like crazy – couldn’t find the right beginning; couldn’t figure out the main character’s profession (usually this is self-evident; when it’s not, it can drive you crazy), couldn’t connect the dots of the mystery – and I had a collaborator! (If it had been just me, I’m not sure it would be finished yet.)
See, I like to write in pieces – have you done this? (I actually recommend it if you’re having trouble getting into your story.) Don’t try to write the novel from beginning to end. Usually when I start a novel, I have certain scenes (often not the first or most important ones) that pop out at me. A sentence forms itself in my mind. A description. A scene tells me what it’s about.
So I sit down and write it. A scene at the beginning, then maybe one in the middle. A little piece at the end. How about the epilogue? Those can be fun. In a strange way, it can keep you writing without getting crazy over being perfect, because you’re not really, you know, COMMITTED to this thing. You’re just writing scenes that may someday connect. You don’t know how yet – but you do know that when you finally write the tough parts, you’ll be more brilliant than you’ve ever been. Just not – you know – today. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day.
I started a novel in 1983 that I wrote this way. A scene here, a piece there. When I added up the pieces (they were all in separate files on the computer), I had 275 pages of an unfinished novel – too much of a good thing to let go.
But sooner or later you have to connect the dots in order to write a novel – and that’s where giving yourself an inflexible deadline (like Nano) is so good. I had such a deadline in 2007, when I finally faced taking those piles of disconnected pages and forming them into a novel. And I only had ONE WEEK to do it, because I was entering a big writing competition.
I had to stop loving my novel and toying endlessly with words and phrases. Now I had to get down in the trenches – deal with the story and character questions I’d always avoided before – and somehow finish it.
In that one week, I cut 100 pages of the manuscript, wrote dozens of new pages (the scenes I was going to write `someday’ – well, someday had arrived), wrote connections between scenes so it was (more or less) coherent, and sent it in with my fingers (and my eyes) crossed. It made the semi-finals, but more important, I had something that still needed revision but was really, finally, a novel, with a discernible beginning, middle and end. (I did this in October, just before starting a NEW novel for Nano in November. And that year’s Nano was a snap; after what I accomplished in ONE WEEK in October, 50,000 words in November was a yawn. Perspective is everything.)
That 1983 novel will FINALLY be published this year – almost 30 years after I started it. That’s way too long. I needed years to get it down, but I also needed to GET IT DONE – something I delayed because I was chasing perfection. What I’ve finally learned after all these years is: When it comes to finishing ANYTHING, perfection is your enemy. Getting it done and being perfect are two factors that in my experience do not co-exist. Perfection is something you daydream about; typing THE END (the two most beautiful words in the English language) is solid reality.
And reality is way better.
Nothing we write will ever be perfect. But if we aim for damn good, believe me, we can all get there, and writing helter-skelter in November really helps. And in getting there, we become what we want to be: An honest-to-God NOVELIST. One finished novel, published or not, makes you a novelist. A hundred unfinished novels don’t.
I have a lot of favorite novels that I re-read again and again, and each time, they give me great pleasure (and teach me a lot about writing). I never ask myself if they’re perfect; I just love them. (A lot like my kids.) You can write a novel that will be loved by many, many people that will still never be perfect – and that’s fine. If you think about it, every novelist you admire has faced the same struggle with perfection, and they’ve won: They’ve written THE END.
So my advice to anyone struggling to complete a novel is: Avoid loving it too much. Love it just enough to get it done. It takes love, along with sweat, sleepless nights, cursing and a lot of chocolate, to finish a novel. Don’t ever expect to make it perfect; you can’t. Don’t rewrite endlessly; have the courage to write THE END and mean it, and know that while you can always write a NEW novel, you can’t write this one ever again. It’s the price you pay for being a novelist.
When it’s done, let it fly on its own. It will. I promise. Like your kids, it has more of your best in it than you think.
And just a little bit of your best, believe me, is all your novel needs. It’s truly divine.
Wishing you inspiration, magical connections and easy access to chocolate –