Be Not Afraid!
In my last post I discussed how difficult it can be to follow up on your first novel and identified the key inhibitor to progress as simple fear: either fear of being unable to complete the work, or fear of completing the work and it turning out to be diabolical claptrap that no one in her right mind would ever want to read. A reader contacted me to ask how to keep writing through thick and thin to get to the end of a novel.
I hope at the end of the previous post it became clear that while this is a real problem it’s a common one, and one which most of us, with a little common sense, dogged perseverance, and maintenance of a rational perspective, eventually overcome. If that wasn’t the case, there’d be no trilogies and no long-running series!
So in response to that reader’s question, this post tackles a related issue, which is the general problem of how to keep writing your novel to completion; whether it is your difficult second novel, your easy-in-the-flow third or fourth novel, or your very first. Assuming you are prepared to put in the necessary hours – and they are many – required to learn the nuts and bolts, the technicalities and rules of your craft; that you are already up to speed on that score, you will probably find sooner or later that you get stuck.
The Myth of Writer’s Block
Some people believe in “writers’ block.” I mean, as if it’s an actual thing, a real malady that can be diagnosed. Others think to say you have writers block is just an excuse for not having the nerve, the guts, the mental muscle, the grim determination required to soldier on when the writing day gets tough.
Neil Gaiman says he suffers from writers’ block. He is a true believer. Philip Pullman poo-poos the idea as the spineless simpering of the weakling writer. They are both superb and productive writers. I suspect what Gaiman refers to as writers’ block is the same experience Philip Pullman would call a difficult day. It probably comes down to perspective.
In the end what matters, what makes these writers both productive and excellent, is the way they deal with the experience. Whatever strategies they employ, and however different their descriptions of the difficulties they face while writing, the key factor in their success is that they keep calm and they carry on. They know how to keep writing.
I don’t believe writers’ block is “a thing,” and I tend to favor Pullman’s perspective over Gaiman’s just because to call a tough writing day “having writers’ block” shifts the focus in the wrong direction, making it less likely that you’ll soldier on rather than let yourself off the hook.
Finishing any creative task is mostly about persistence, perseverance, and discipline. The cliched saying that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration is a cliche for the simple reason that it’s true. If you’re in the writing game for an easy life, you’re in for a shock.
A Difficult Writing Day
So what makes a writing day difficult?
Well, a quick search of the Internet and an informal survey of writer friends, coupled with my own personal experience, suggests in the last analysis, dress it up as you will, it’s our old friend fear of failure who is to blame.
Anyone can write a word and then another word and then another word until they have a sentence; then add another sentence and another sentence until they have a paragraph; combine paragraphs together to make chapters; and so little by little complete a novel. The mechanics are not the issue. Fear is the root of all evil.
How to Keep Writing: 3 Top Tips
So here are three ideas which have helped me enormously in overcoming the fears associated with writing – fears which most frequently derail a new writer attempting to complete her novel. It’s worth noting these fears seem to be part of the package. It’s not that you’ll ever get rid of them. It’s just that with time you’ll develop strategies to overcome them with increasing efficiency.
I don’t know if ultimately every writer has to go through the same tortuous process to arrive at her own strategies as I have gone through to arrive at mine. That may be the case. However, it’s my sincere hope that even if these three strategies don’t help you directly, they might at least spark or inspire a line of thought or action which will ultimately lead you forward.
Without further ado, here they are:
Top Tip #1 Remember, Writing is an Iterative Process
Remember all good writing is the result of a series of multiple iterations. Writing is an iterative process. There’s no bright once-and-it’s-done solution. No one needs to see the first, second, third, fourth or fifth drafts of your work. I hardly need refer to the famous quotation (who was it… Hemingway?) stating that all first drafts are excrement. He also said all writing is rewriting. These maxims have become part of the canon of good advice for a reason.
In all fields of endeavor: in the arts, or the sciences, or the political arena; success is granted only to those who have a problem-solving approach to the task at hand. One of the key traits of the problem-solving mind is its willingness to fail and fail and fail over a series of repeated attempts, learning and adapting at every step until finally a solution is reached.
Remember this when struggling with your writing. Do not be too impatient to arrive at the solution to your problem, but persist in trying out that next possible way forward. Every failed attempt takes you closer to success.
Top Tip #2 Work Without Lust of Result
While I think the Thelemic Order of the Golden Dawn and all that other occult stuff is a load of baloney, there’s one piece of good advice in the initiation ritual for the “Adeptus Minor,” and that’s the injunction to “Work without lust of result.”
Of course, at the outset you need to determine what your desired outcome is to be. For a novelist that will be the genre requirements of your book, page count or word count, intended distribution etc. Or perhaps you have your eyes on a glittering literary prize. But while you’re working on the project it may be helpful to set aside all desire for the intended outcome.
For the simple reason that comparing the glittering prize of your desired outcome against the steaming turd-pile of the current draft is more likely to inspire depression than the determination to persevere. The vast distance yet to be traveled between the current situation and your future vision may be too daunting to think upon and result in creative paralysis.
You must start with a vision. But the vision alone is nothing but wish-puff at the outset. And it’ll remain wish-puff until you make a thorough, realistic assessment of the current situation and determine calmly what needs to be done next. And then all you have to do is keep your eyes on the next achievable step. Just take one step at a time. So long as that next step is simple and achievable (you just keep breaking down all your tasks until you get to small achievable steps) you only need take that one step at a time and you will eventually reach your outcome.
So forget the outcome and dive deep into the process.
Top Tip #3 Don’t be a Perfectionist
Do not idealize the perfectionist. Perfectionism is unnatural and dangerous. It’s a real threat to all forms of liveliness, vitality, and beauty. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has precisely put it, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
In the state of perfection everything is in perfect balance. But it’s a theoretical state which should it ever come to pass would result in the annihilation of all existence. The universe we inhabit only exists because there isn’t the same amount of matter as there is antimatter. If there were it would all cancel itself out and that would be the end of that. *Poof*
The universe only exists because it’s a bit broken. But it’s good enough.
Don’t try and write a perfect novel. The universe within which you are trying to write it is not perfect. You can only fail. So you should enjoy your work, and you should work hard, but you should not take it all too seriously. When your novel is good enough, stop writing. It’s good enough. Publish and move on.
After all, you’re going to write another one, aren’t you? And you can always make the next one a bit better.
A Last Word Afore Ye Go
And there you have it. My top tips for soldiering on in the grip of fear, on a tough writing day, maintaining a healthy perspective, and avoiding mental cramp. I hope that helps, or was at least interesting. Now I must get back to my own next novel, with which I have been struggling. But yesterday I had a major break-through, and it’s now back on track. Boy am I glad I didn’t give up – or take a month off to indulge in “writers’ block.”
If you have any hints or tips to share on how to keep writing, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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