Last year I met three different people at conventions who had written somewhere between 10 – 30,000 words of their first novel and stalled. Each of them enthused at me about the idea, each of them asked me how to write more.
At the Sci-Fi Weekender in March a man directed a question to the panel I was on which turned into a short fret about how he’d been writing the same short story for ten years and still hadn’t finished.
A little while ago I got a message through my website from someone who’d given up their job to work on a novel, researched for seven months, wrote eight pages, then took another job that came up.
I’ve seen tweets along these lines fly by and I’ve overheard conversations at conventions and geek-meets saying the same kinds of things.
It’s often accompanied by desperation, a hungry search for the solution that all these published writers must have found and just won’t share.
I used to feel that way. When I was desperate to write a book – hell, to write anything creative let alone a novel – I imagined that there was some kind of secret, some special thing they knew in their special club. Something I wanted so badly it hurt.
That’s what is said time and time again. Interviewer: “You’ve written ten novels. People like them. What’s the secret, Bob?” Author Bob: “Just write. Arse, in chair, write.”
I’ve read this and nodded in agreement. Yep. I’ve written six novels now and about ninety short stories. The only way to do that was sit down and write. Obviously.
No. Not obviously.
I think it’s easy to forget what else has to happen for that book to be written, something I don’t see a lot of writers talking about in the same breath as stating “Just Write”. When you’re struggling, when you’re trapped in procrastinating behaviours and feeling utterly wretched about the book not coming out onto the page, when you hate yourself for playing another level of a game instead of writing, when you stand inside a book shop and burn with the need to have the book in your head on those shelves instead, being told to sit down and write means nothing!
It’s like someone telling me to stop worrying when I’m trapped in an anxiety spiral. It’s utterly useless. I’m in another state, trapped in thought processes which make the prospect of stopping worrying ridiculously out of reach.
So, what else has to happen?
Those people I met, the man I got the message from, the countless people out there either unable to start or getting stuck a few thousand words in, are all (I believe) suffering from the same problem:
I think that’s what really stops someone from just sitting down and writing. I’m not saying you have to be without fear to write – hell, I’d never have written anything if that was the case! The key is to understand that fear and work out how to write despite it. That took me a long time. I remain anxiety ridden and gently terrified of everything, but at least I can write through it. Most days. Sometimes the demons are stronger than I am and writing is impossible. Then I have to go back to the basics, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.
Before I go any further, here is a disclaimer: I am not an expert. I can only talk about what I have experienced. I hope it helps you, but we’re all special snowflakes and you might have other issues and needs than I can address here.
Step the first: Acknowledging the fear
Fear is an insidious little bastard. It hides behind things, it tricks us into thinking things are important when they’re not, it makes us believe things about ourselves, our world and other people that are complete bobbins.
Fear can even let you feel – perhaps even be – productive, whilst all along stopping you from progressing. I’m thinking about the chap who researched for seven months and didn’t write the book. I could be completely wrong, but I suspect that researching felt good. It was necessary, no doubt, but all that time, with no job to get in the way and no substantial progress made on the novel? That makes me think fear got in the way.
I suspect fear is behind this because I do it myself. I get caught up in researching details (my catnip is researching locations) and if I don’t take care, that can eat a whole day without the scene being written.
You see, researching is feeding the bit of the brain that’s excited about the story. In our mental sandpit which is safe and full of toys, we can lovingly absorb all those shiny details and embellish that embryonic story idea without sullying it with the clumsy written word. That’s why the fear wants to keep us happily researching and building in our minds: to protect us from the horror of imperfection.
I’ll come back to that idea – for now, I want to say that if you’re repeatedly procrastinating, if you’re constantly giving up on books and starting new ones, if you’re researching for months on end and not actually writing the book, you need to acknowledge that you are afraid and that fear is keeping you trapped in that behaviour.
Step the second: Hunt down the roots of that fear
You could skip this bit out. I think I managed to make progress in the early days without necessarily understanding where all the fear was coming from. However, I do think it’s a good thing to try and figure out, if only to be better at the next stage.
I’m not talking about getting a therapist. I am talking about a bit of navel gazing. The book “The Artist’s Way” helped me an awful lot, but does require commitment to be effective.
Possible roots, off the top of my head, can vary from being ridiculed for any signs of creativity, receiving poor criticism of early work, perfectionism (I really will get to that one soon, I promise) and a dozen other types of damage acquired over the years. It all gets tangled up in self-esteem issues, lack of confidence, lack of self-belief and all kinds of other malarkey too, which really doesn’t help.
It may not seem important to dig about in our memory and remember our first ever English teacher crossing out a lovingly crafted story with red pen, but it can help later. Trust me.
Step the third: Negotiate with the fear
So you can do this in a number of ways. I am quite insane, so I talk to it, but if that’s not your style, that’s cool too.
The thing to remember is that, deep down, fear serves one purpose:
The Fear is always trying to protect you.
If you can work out what it’s trying to protect you from, the negotiations can be much more successful. If you’re afraid that people might read it and say horrible things about it, then you can challenge that by saying that some people will hate it, but that won’t kill you. And some people might like it.
If that doesn’t work, you can say, “Okay fear, right now I’m writing a first draft. I promise that no-one else in the world will read it, because it will suck so much, it’ll leave angry red marks. Okay? Now back off and stop making me think I need to check Facebook again.”
The reason childhood hurts can still have so much power over us is that we were children when we suffered them and so couldn’t apply adult understanding and perspective. We may still be terrified of the red pen experience, deep down. If we go back and think it through as an adult, that hurt can be reframed and lose its power.
Step the fourth: Keep reminding yourself that writing the book is not anything else
If you sit down to write the immediate result is not going to be:
People hating you
People noticing you
Validation for all of the years of being a bit weird
The solution to all of your financial problems
A sure way to get laid
So much success you have to hide from the paparazzi
A way to stick one in the eye of your English teacher/ mother/ sibling / [insert other person who has ever doubted your ability or ridiculed you]
The completion of a masterpiece
All it ever can be is:
Writing one word after another until there are sentences, then paragraphs, then maybe, eventually, a first draft.
I’m thinking again about the man who wrote in, who quit his job to write a book because he had an idea that seemed good. It might have been the best idea for a book in the world. That’s irrelevant. The thing is, as soon as he gave up his job to focus on it, that book had a whole heap of additional significance associated with it. His spouse probably wondered how it was going and I would hazard a guess that he felt pressure to show something coming of it. Writing that book was no longer putting stuff onto a page. It was something that ultimately had to justify a change in lifestyle, a reduction in income, evidence of hard work and maybe a whole tangled mess of a statement about success and all that other awful stuff that we humans get all screwed up about.
Step the fifth: Make peace with the fact that what you write will suck
That first draft will be shit. In fact, the first 250,000 words or so that you write with any kind of effort are likely to be shit. Sorry. That’s the way it is.
Knowing this helps to combat that perfectionism thing – yes, I have finally got to it.
Perfectionism is the Fear’s favourite coat. When we have *that* idea, the one that makes us desperate to write, it is perfect in our minds. Then there’s the awful moment when you try to make a narrative, when you try to write down a world that brings other people in to share it with you.
You have to let go of the idea that you can create something as perfect as that in your mind. You might get close, but in the process of really writing a book it will evolve and mutate and that’s okay.
Really, it’s all going to be okay.
Step the sixth: Acknowledge that this is hard, but ultimately you have to step up
When we hear authors say “Just write!” it sounds so easy. The weird thing is, it is. But only when you’ve got enough understanding of your own fears that you can get out of your own way. Be gentle with yourself when you ask what you are scared of, but be firm and truthful too. Cut yourself some slack and create imperfectly. But at the end of the day you do just have to stick two fingers up at the Fear and just write anyway. That’s what I do. I hope this helps you to do the same.