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Sat 29
Oct
2005

The Block

Writing

I’d love to be a published author, but I never seem to finish any of my stories. I write about 20-60 pages and then just kinda let the story die, and it is not for lack of trying…I really would love to finish a story, but I feel my life gets in the way. Where do you get the energy, drive, and determination to write a full length novel?

I avoid handing out writing advice on this site, because it’s hard to do without sounding like the world’s biggest blowhard. But I get this question so often that I’m going to blow anyway. (Forgive me.)

Disclaimer: I don’t think there’s any advice that’s going to work for all writers. Everyone does this thing differently; you need to find what works for you. Don’t devoutly follow any rule about writing… except this one. And the one about always relocating a few copies of my book to the front displays any time you’re in a bookstore. Yeah. Just those two.

I guess the first thing to realize if you’re stuck a few chapters into a novel is that this happens a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re untalented or undisciplined or not cut out to be a writer. I started a novel in high school that I thought was brilliant in Chapter 1, okay by Chapter 4, and after that didn’t want to think about. It died a slow, lingering death on my hard drive, but because I knew it was there, waiting for me, I didn’t want to write at all. It was a couple more years before I resolved to leave it behind and start something new: that one clicked for me in a way the other never had, and I finished it.

So the important thing is not to let this one problem derail you from writing. Maybe you can fix this story and maybe you can’t; either way, you have to keep writing.

I think there are three reasons you can lose enthusiasm for a novel. Let’s start with the ugly one: it was a weak idea to begin with. Maybe your premise isn’t well-suited to a novel; maybe it’s better as a short story or screenplay. Maybe it needs another key idea or two to fill out the concept. Or maybe you just thought this was going to be better than it turned out. In any of these cases, it often won’t help to blindly forge ahead and hope everything gets better. So let the novel sit for a while. Start writing something else. It doesn’t matter what. You might end up coming back to this novel with new ideas and a ton of motivation, but if you don’t, let it be because you’ve moved on to something better.

The second possibility is that your story has good fundamentals but you took a wrong turn. This can happen any time, but is more unsettling at the start because you have less confidence. A trick I use when suddenly I go from powering along to a dead halt is to delete the last sentence. Even if I think there’s nothing wrong with it: backspace backspace backspace. For some reason, this almost always immediately presents me with an idea for a new way forward. Sometimes I have to delete a paragraph or two, or (very rarely) even a whole chapter. I don’t know why the physical act of cutting part of the story away helps—I should be smart enough to work this out by just thinking about it, shouldn’t I? But apparently I’m not, and it does.

(I don’t plan my novels out in advance. If you do, this technique is less likely to help you. I hate planning novels; I think they’re much more fun to write when they evolve on their own. I tried planning a novel once and it was dull, dull, dull. (No, it wasn’t one of my published ones. Shut up, you.))

The third possibility is you’re being too hard on yourself. For a lot of writers, getting critical too early—and “too early” here probably means “before you’ve finished the first draft”, or at least 30,000 words—is a quick and effective way to kill your motivation. I’m lucky on this score, because I am blessed with a kind of split author personality: I have the writer guy and the editor. The writer guy is totally deluded about his own ability: he thinks everything he writes is breathtakingly brilliant. Which is very handy, because when I think I’m working on God’s gift to the 21st Century, it’s easy to stay motivated. But unless I snap out of that at some point, all I have is a first draft, and that’s not nearly good enough. This is when my editor personality comes in. He thinks everything I write is the purest horse crap. He can’t believe that I would consider inflicting such a grotesque parody of literature on live human beings. So he makes me rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.

Getting those roles mixed up is a disaster. You don’t want a dose of cold, hard reality while you’re writing. No, no: delusion is your friend. Embrace the delusion. Save the critical analysis for later.

Okay. Enough blowing. Hope this helps someone.