Today’s post is intended for any writers who occasionally encounter… well, let’s call them obstacles. I’m talking about the sort of thing that grinds your writing to a halt.
Whether it writer’s block, the conspicuous absence of the muse, or just the feeling that every single word you write stinks worse than Satan’s dirty gym socks, I think it’s safe to say that most of us encounter such obstacles from time to time.
NOTE: If you are the sort of writer who can effortlessly crank out several thousand words of pristine prose each and every day, all before bathing and feeding your angelic children and dropping them off at school, cleaning your house, and then going off to your day job saving the rainforest and curing cancer, well then, you may just want to move along now. Nothing to see here. But please know that I hate you.
Anyhoo, back to the rest of us mere mortals – and those pesky obstacles. They can come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be mere speedbumps, while others are more like brick walls. Some may feel like literary quicksand, while others loom above you like Mount Everest. Some might feel like tiny mosquito bites on your literary psyche, while others… well, you get the idea.
Regardless of the size of your obstacle (and whatever simile you might use to describe it), I think it’s first helpful to identify what the obstacle is. Know your enemy, and all that. So I’m going to outline some of the more frequent culprits, with the hope of shedding some light on what exactly is standing in your way. But I’m going to do more than that. I’m going to show you an approach that just might help you overcome those mosquito-biting, brick-walling, quicksandy (hey, it might be a word) speedbumps from hell.
The usual suspects
Any number of factors might slow down or stop your writing progress. Let’s examine a few of the most common ones, and see if any of them look familiar to you.
- I have absolutely no idea what happens next in my story.
- I’m not sure I’m the right person to be writing this book.
- Nothing I write is as good as what I picture in my mind.
- I know the story I want to tell, but just can’t figure out how to get it started.
- This next scene is really, REALLY important, and I don’t want to get it wrong.
- I’m worried that these pants make my ass look fat.
Okay, let’s ignore that last one. I have personally proven that having a fat ass in no way impedes one’s writing. But let’s look at the other problems. Specifically, what one thing do ALL of these problems have in common?
That may seem an oversimplified analysis, but think about it. Each one of these demonstrates a level of uncertainty or insecurity that is stopping you in your tracks. Fear of what? You name it. Fear of failure, of getting it wrong, of not being good enough, of not having a viable story to tell.
And this sort of fear is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve faced all of these fears, and they continue to crop up, just when I think I’ve got the problem licked. (For example, I’m almost positive these pants do make my ass look fat.) At the risk of going all Oprah on you, I’ll say this: I’ve walked in your shoes, and I feel your pain. Yet somehow I’ve managed to overcome it, been able to get a couple of books written, and – gasp – even sold one of those books.
How? By facing that fear head-on. Not because I’m so rugged and brave. But because I recognize that the consequences of the things we fear are not actually life-threatening. I mean, you’re not diving naked off a cliff into a shark-infested lagoon. You’re not walking into a cage match against a chainsaw-wielding opponent armed only with a Q-tip. No, you’re sitting in front of a computer or a pad of paper, and all you’ve got to do is press some keys or move a pen around. Hey, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Well… it might suck,” you say.
“So what?” I retort. (Gotta love the word retort, probably spoken with the greatest gravitas ever by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie Pulp Fiction. But I digress…)
Here’s a news flash: Writing something that sucks isn’t fatal. And when you’re in an early draft of your manuscript, it isn’t even career-threatening. I’ll go you one better. Writing something that sucks is better than writing nothing at all.
Why? Because it maintains and builds your momentum. More important, it gives you something to work with. I mean, it’s easier to fix something than to create something, right?
Carving the elephant
There’s a famous quote, variations of which are attributed to many different sculptors. It goes something like this:
How do you carve a statue of an elephant? Start with a block of marble, and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
To me that’s what writing is like. You carve away the bad stuff to get to the good. But first you need that block of literary marble to work with. And that requires you to do one thing:
Dare to suck.
By this I mean, go ahead and write something. Even if it pushes the Suck-O-Meter into the red zone.
Don’t know what happens next? Skip to a part where you do know what happens. Don’t think you’re the right person for the job? Prove (or disprove) it, by taking a shot, and remembering that YOU came up with this idea, not somebody else. Don’t like what you see on the page? That’s okay – you can either fix it later, or delete it (remember, they’re just words – you can always write more of ’em). Don’t know how the story begins? Same advice – write something. If it’s not the right place to start, you’ll figure that out. But now you’ll at least have something to react to.
Bottom line: write something, and be willing for it to suck.
Easy to say, hard to do
I’ll admit, this is way easier said than done. I try to write very tight first drafts, with a lot of attention to language and rhythm. It’s very hard for me to move on when I know I haven’t gotten something quite right. But I also know how easy it is for me to lose my momentum, so I’ve fallen into the habit of inserting comments in my manuscript, usually in some obnoxious, hard-to-miss color.
That way, the next time I’m reading through my work-in-progress, I’ll see helpful reminders like MAKE THIS HALF AS LONG AND TWICE AS FUNNY, or gentle encouragement like LEARN HOW TO DESCRIBE THE @#$%^& SETTING, YOU &*$%#! In the meantime, I can plow ahead with my elephant-carving, knowing that those comments will be waiting for me, reminding me that I’m far from done with this thing. But at least I’m getting somewhere. And that’s a good thing.
Go ahead, take the dare.
Believe me, I’m no stranger to the kind of obstacles I’ve described. Writer’s block is an old friend of mine, so I’ve had occasion to use the dare to suck approach repeatedly. And guess what? Every time I’ve tried it, it worked.
So that’s what I recommend to you. Dare to suck. Flail away, knowing full well that you’ll probably get it wrong. But also knowing that getting it wrong will provide you with material to sculpt into something right.
I hope this is helpful. Now, good luck carving that elephant!
How about you? Do any of you occasionally go deer-in-the-headlights when it’s time to write? Have you dared to suck? Or do you have any other tricks for plowing through the fear?
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.