“Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people will throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, 1919
Note: “picture palaces” = elaborate movie theatres
Have you thought about giving up this writing thing?
Have you wondered if you should devote so much time to this endeavor? Whether you should risk your sanity for it?
Is it worth all the SACRIFICE when you get so little in return? So little validation. So many rejection letters.
No money. Nil.
Or perhaps your half-finished story has never seen the light of day. You’ve hidden it in a drawer or on a hard drive, too afraid to show anyone. Too afraid to finish.
Meanwhile, your writer friends publish their work, get noticed, climb the rankings on Amazon. A few have published with the Big Five, won Pulitzers, and made millions. These may or may not be your personal friends, but they write the books you read.
You suspect your writing is not on the same level as theirs. You feel like a dandelion amongst roses. Like Ira Glass explained, a gap exists between what you admire – your taste – and your ability.
Should You Quit?
Perhaps the better question is, Can you quit?
Discouragement sets in because writing is hard. Believe me, crocheting is much easier. Or knitting.
Can you give it up and keep your sanity? If the answer is yes, then you can take up a more rewarding hobby. Like knitting. (I’m not knocking knitting. I have two projects going right now.)
Or maybe you’ll choose to do the hard thing because you want to write. Or you need to write. And you hate knitting.
And maybe you’ll decide that success isn’t measured by rankings or money or even popularity. Maybe success means making a small difference in the world.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It
STAY THE COURSE. Don’t give up.
No one else can write with your unique perspective, with your experiences, your voice.
You might object, “Too many voices are clamoring to be heard already!”
But none of them are yours. You are the only one who can write your way. You are the only one with your voice.
If you study the craft, if you do the work, you WILL inspire someone else. If your story, poem, picture or post can help one, anonymous person, is it worth it?
Keep writing. Accumulate a body of work, and your influence will grow. You may not win a Pulitzer. You may never make a bestseller list. But you will reach the right people – your people – with your authentic words.
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.