As a budding writer, I was utterly dismayed by one of the first pieces of advice I received: write what you know.
Write what I know? Where’s the fun in that?
I wanted to write about England, which I’ve never been to but I’m in love with.
I wanted to write about portals to other worlds, like Narnia. Visions conjured from clouds and wind. Erupting, sentient volcanoes with agendas, and evil wizards disguised as noble leaders. None of which I knew.
Here’s what Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel, has to say:
“You don’t have to write what you know — you only have to write what you can GET to know. The chances are, if you’re interested in a subject, a place or an era, you can find out enough to convince a reader. “
That was good news. Research was important if I was going to write about a place I’d never visited and a time I’d never lived in. As for fantasy elements, I’d need to flesh out my settings with sensory details and backstory.
“Writers do this all the time…If you should stick only to what you know, we should worry about the thousands of authors who write about murder.”
This morning I read a post from a fellow blogger. It was succinct, engrossing, fairly long, and beautiful. I thought about it while struggling to write this post.
My thoughts don’t flow like this other author. His sentences are pithier, his images more vivid. He writes from the heart and pulls the reader in with emotional impact. And he does it quickly. He couldn’t have labored over the piece for days because it contains recent information. I picture him at his laptop, fingers flying, never looking up until the entire post is finished and published ten minutes later. And it’s brilliant.
This hurts a little. Why can’t I do that? I am exceedingly, excruciatingly, agonizingly slow.
Some will say, Don’t compare yourself to others. I know they mean well. And I get it: it’s hard to be grateful for your ’96 Dodge when your colleague drives a new Jaguar. And that two-bedroom apartment doesn’t seem as spiffy after you visit your relative’s mountainside mansion with the dolphin-shaped pool, guest house, and scenic view.
It’s hard to be proud of your own accomplishments when they seem
compared to others’.
But comparison isn’t the problem. Coveting is. And that’s a response I can choose to indulge or not.
Comparison is Not a Thief — It’s a Teacher
Ira Glass, producer and host of “This American Life,” expressed the struggles of creative people in a video a few years ago, and an excerpt of his talk shows up periodically on writing sites. He offers encouragement to writers whose work doesn’t live up to their aspirations. (He was speaking off the cuff, if this transcription seems jerky. Listen to it in his voice here.)
“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me…we get into it because we have good taste. But…THERE’S A GAP, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…It’s trying to be good, but it’s not quit that good. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is still good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…A lot of people never get past that phase. And a lot of people at that point, they QUIT. And the thing I would like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of YEARS where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short…
The most important possible thing you could do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month, you know you’re going to finish the story. BECAUSE IT’S ONLY BY ACTUALLY GOING THROUGH A VOLUME OF WORK THAT YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO CATCH UP AND CLOSE THAT GAP. AND THE WORK YOU’RE MAKING WILL BE AS GOOD AS YOUR AMBITIONS.”
And this is why comparison is a good thing, because it forms our taste. When I read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it raises my standard. It improves my taste. And if I will analyze his exquisite writing, I may see the mechanism behind his lyrical prose and learn how to lift my own writing to new heights.
If I can humble myself and shun covetous self-pity when I read better authors, I will make progress.
Maybe sometimes what we need is MORE comparison, not less.
I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.
I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote
Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr
it three times over the next five years.
During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.
I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.
To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.
I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…
Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.
In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.
I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.
I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!
I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.
The editor stood her ground.
It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.
Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.
Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.
2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.
3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.
Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…
I read a wonderful little book by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.
She says, “I spend most of my time in the craft workshops that I teach repairing damage done years, sometimes decades, earlier. That damage isn’t deliberately malicious. It comes from the assumption that perfect stories not only exist, but can be revised into existence.”
Hmm. I’m guilty of this faulty thinking — that if I revise a short story one more time, I’ll remove any weak dialogue or plot elements. My characters will shine with authenticity. My grammar and punctuation will be stellar without a comma out of place. The story will be practically perfect in every way.
I’m guilty of not showing anyone my manuscript (or blog post) because it might contain errors, those little gremlins that lurk unseen until you click “Publish.”
I’m guilty of not finishing a piece (or worse, not starting at all) because I’m afraid I can’t get it “right.” I become paralyzed by the fear of failure.
Of course my writing is far from perfect. It will always contain errors. It could always be better.
Here’s Rusch again:
“When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure.”
Producing an error-free story isn’t the goal.
I should aim to write a story that touches the reader and says something meaningful rather than one that follows all the rules at the expense of art. Like the pianist who plays Chopin with precision, every note spot-on, but his music lacks feeling. It is lifeless.
If I wait until a piece is flawless, I won’t put it out there at all. In fact, I’m tempted to spend more time on this post. If I worked on it for a few weeks, it might be almost perfect. I could make it funnier, clearer, deeper…
“Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit…Then release your book on an unsuspecting public. The book will never be perfect.”
Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.
I was stuck.
So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.
The muse was silent.
I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.
But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?
But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.
“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan
It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.
At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.
For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.
Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.
I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:
Information fasting.Limiting outside voices (podcasts, emails, blogs, articles, news).
“Brain-dumping” on 750words.com.When problems mount and anxiety overwhelms, it’s hard to concentrate. Pouring out my worries (often as prayers) helps unload these burdens.
Stay home. Take on fewer activities. Accept fewer invitations. Run fewer errands. Stilling my body stills my mind.
Solitude. This might mean waking early before anyone else (sometimes insomnia is a good thing). Or taking a long walk, which, yes, is not being still, but it feels like “cleansing movement.”
Knitting.More cleansing movement. When my hands are busy, my mind can rest.
Focusing on small things.
Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.
Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.
Photo by Daniel McLendon
I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.
In my last post, I talked about my dream of writing a novel and the greatest challenge I faced: finding the time to do it. To calculate how long it would take me, I used the equation
Story = Speed x Time.
I figured that if I wrote 500 words in an hour each day, it would take 160 days. But Time is only one variable in the equation—Speed is the other.
Five hundred words per hour is a lot for this tortoise writer. I deliberate over every word, then second-guess, strike out, and rewrite. (While I’ve been working on this post, I’ve deleted my beginning at least four times!) On some days, words drip one at a time, like a slow leak.
Speed is not about “fast and furious” writing that lacks cohesion, logic, and emotional impact. It’s about flow. A steady stream of words that spring up from a well of abundant ideas.
Finding the Flow
1. Prepare by brainstorming.
This fills the well. I think about plot, characters, and setting details in advance. Since my time is short, I usually hatch ideas while doing other things. (Most of my thoughts for this blog post came while I was driving, fixing sandwiches, and doing laundry.) I like to collect my ideas in a Word document separated by category using the “Headings” feature. The categories I use are Plot, Characters, Setting, Themes, Dialogue, and Humor.
2. Work from an outline.
Ugh! The pantser in me doesn’t want to plan. I want my fingers to dance unshackled across the keyboard as they serve the whims of inspiration.
A Pantser’s definition of outline
[out-lahyn] 1. an unnecessary restraint designed to crush your imagination and suck all life from your story.
Example of outline used in a sentence: “The editor’s eyes gleamed with evil pleasure as he said, “Your story lacks consistency because you did not use an outline.”
Outlining is akin to eating your vegetables before you get dessert. It helps if you have cheese sauce to pour over your broccoli, and the sauce that makes outlining palatable is to think of it as drawing—like an artist would sketch a figure before painting. (That’s not quite a mixed metaphor, is it?) It’s a part of the creative process. And an outline need not be detailed. A broad brush will do. One or two sentences per scene.
I’ll be honest. I usually write out a rough outline for my story, but then I change it as I go. I don’t believe I’ve ever stuck with an outline. Still, the outline helps me write faster because I’m not stalled by indecision, and I avoid tangential rabbit holes that make no sense for the story.
3. Free write.
This is the opposite of outlining–not so helpful for plotting, but very useful for overcoming blocks, laziness, and bumps in your story. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Write as fast as you can without stopping to edit. Write anything. Write nonsense. Be repetitive. Free writing obeys no rules. It breaks the inner editor’s suffocating grip and liberates you to write whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, or diction. You can do this in a document or try 750words.com. The site provides a free, private, blank page for daily writing. When you reach your word count for the day, it congratulates you. It even tracks your progress for the month.
Something about the blood pulsing through my body jumpstarts my brain. If I’m perplexed about how to continue with plot or dialogue, fifteen minutes of walking usually gives me a solution. And moving to music, especially soundtracks such as this one from Home Fires, revs up my imagination.
5. Take a nap.
This might seem counterproductive, but it saves time in the long run. My output slows to a trickle when I’m tired or drowsy. After a short snooze, I’m twice as productive.
A Word about Dictation
Though I have not successfully used dictation, other writers claim it has accelerated their writing process. Author Joanna Penn talks about it here. My own attempts have been frustrating. I tried to dictate into a Word document using my smartphone, but I have to press the little microphone tab every thirty seconds or so. Mostly I produced gobbledygook.
I may purchase a recording device and some transcription software. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear from you before I make that investment. Also, do you have any tricks for writing faster? Have you done the math? How many words per hour (wph) can you write?
When I turned fifty, I realized more than half my life was over, and I still hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of writing a book. I’d buried this desire deep under a pile of worthwhile obligations, self-doubt, and busyness—much of which amounted to mere people-pleasing. I put everything ahead of the dream.
But when I celebrated that milestone birthday, I felt a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life never having tried. So I made writing a priority.
If I really wanted to publish a book, I had to find the time to do it. It came down to numbers:
500 words x 160 hours = 80,000 word novel
If I can write 500 words an hour, I told myself, I’ll finish my first draft in 160 hours. Writing an hour each day, that’s 160 days.
Or maybe, I thought, I can dash off a thousand words an hour and finish twice as fast.
1000 words x 80 hours = 80,000 word novel
At this rate I would complete the rough draft in less than three months. I liked that plan.
After an enthusiastic and naïve launch, I nose-dived into reality: most days I didn’t have an hour of quiet leisure to write.
I had read all the advice to
write first thing in the morning,
guard your writing time,
find a quiet place.
But for me, these wise recommendations became excuses for not starting each day. The reasonable voice of Resistance* would tell me, “It’s noisy in the house. And you only have fifteen minutes before you have to cook supper. Might as well check Twitter instead.”
A few months ago, after I failed to write for several days and the frustration mounted, it hit me: finding enough time is less about changing my circumstances and more about changing my thinking. Finding enough time starts in my mind.
Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things: Snatching Bits of Time
My insistence on perfect conditions was keeping me from using what time I had. I’d made a few erroneous assumptions:
1) I need solitude.
Of course, it’s easier if I’m alone and the room is quiet and no one is interrupting. Yes, it’s less efficient to write while surrounded by distractions, but maximum efficiency is a luxury. Perfectionist thinking told me I couldn’t be creative unless I had seclusion. This is false.
2) I need a large block of time.
Nope. I can do things in spurts. Ten minutes here. Five minutes there. An hour-long session would be the bee’s knees, but I’m amazed by how much I can accomplish piecemeal. Again, I had to drop the all-or-nothing thinking.
3) I need a designated place and hour, i.e. my easy chair in the morning with the cat by my side.
Now I snatch moments in various places. I write on the go. I have Microsoft Word on my phone, and if I’m sitting in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office, I compose a few sentences or jot down a few notes.
If, like me, you can’t follow the recommended practices of other authors, don’t despair. Find what works for you. If you can take activities off your schedule, do it. If you can delegate tasks, do it. If, instead of cooking, you can order Chinese takeout, make that call. Then, after you’ve cut the deadwood from your to-do list and your calendar, find a way to write with your life as it is, not as you wish it could be.
I’m curious to know if other people struggle with this. Leave me a comment if you have other thoughts or suggestions.
In the next post I’ll talk about Speed.
*Author Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the evil monster Resistance in his books on writing. You can find him here.
I’ve never been called a stellar housekeeper. No doubt this is due to my high tolerance for disorder and dirt.
But I have my limits.
When I can scrawl my name in the dust on the hall table, I know it’s time to pull out the Pledge. But as I’m dusting, I’m thinking, I wish I were writing!
On these days, when I’m frustrated with the necessity of housework and other chores, I console myself by multitasking with a podcast about writing. I feel super productive (and less grumpy) as I simultaneously clean the house and learn how to clean up a manuscript. And washing yesterday’s dishes is infinitely more entertaining while I’m listening to Brandon Sanderson discuss limited third person point of view.
Here are my favorite writing podcasts in no particular order:
Hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. This is the first writing podcast I ever heard, and even in my literary ignorance, I knew I’d stumbled upon a treasure. The site has archived twelve seasons of episodes covering a slew of writing topics. And lucky for us, they continue to post a new program every Sunday.
Joanna Penn is the authority on self-publishing and becoming an author entrepreneur. Many of her podcasts focus on the business side of things, but a fair number also tackle creative and writing topics. I could listen to Joanna’s lovely British accent all day, and sometimes I do.
I found this one only a few months ago, but from the first episode, it became a favorite. Sarah Painter, aka, the Worried Writer, interviews authors about their writing processes and concerns. Her advice about overcoming fear-based procrastination and her encouraging, gentle Scottish voice have helped this anxious scribbler many times. New programs post on the first day of each month.
These guys win first prize for Zany British Humor, or rather, humour. The Two Marks–Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux–interview big-name authors about the writing process and publishing. Highly informative and entertaining. They will make you smile.
I’d love to hear about other good writing podcasts. If you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments.