This was originally written as a guest post for the readful things blog, and was published there in July 2013. I tweeted about it during the week and as the response was positive, it seemed worthy of a re-post. As with all my blog posts, it’s especially relevant to me at the moment – so consider it a pep-talk for you and I.
The path a writer takes is a rocky one, and the only true safety net is yourself. It doesn’t matter if others have travelled that same path before, if you’ve read their guides and how-tos, and all that advice. You might meet up with other writers, discuss your ideas, methods or even the writing itself, but it’s still you taking all the steps, and all the risks.
Here’s an awkward fact for you:
You’re going to mess up. A lot.
That’s not supposed to make you feel better, but it should give you some certainty. CERTAINTY OF FAILURE. Oh man, make it stop.
The reality of writing is that at some point, you are not going to like what you’ve written. You are not unique in this. Many writers bigger and better than you have had moments when they’ve felt they’ve been writing utter shit, and submitted their manuscripts to their editors while thinking “Yeah, this is the one. This is the submission when they realise I’m just a hack who got lucky.”
Your first instinct will be to stop.
You want to make sure that you get that right before you continue, since if that’s wrong, surely everything else will turn out wrong. That’s not the way to do it. There needs to be something more, besides getting it right, that you can hold on to, and it’s the belief in what you’re writing. There is always something that sets you apart, and you need to be content in just knowing that, because it’s not something you can force, and it’s not something that you can even identify.
There’s a degree of personality that comes through in everything you right, so long as you’re not trying to mimic another author or style. When you just write it out, usually not too differently from the way it first comes out of your imagination, then you’re expressing yourself in a way that slowly becomes new.
You could go through the process of writing out a plan for a novel, and give it to three different writers, and you would get back three different stories. Each would read different, feel different, and vary in more than just quality. The idea is not the execution. You could also hand three different ideas to the same writer, and it may not be the uniqueness of an idea that makes one result in a better story. Writing advice often talks about raising the stakes, but it may be that the story of a farmer about to end the life of his first cow could be a more gripping story than the rebel plot to destroy a city of orphans and puppies. The execution is not the idea, either.
Where does that leave the writer?
The perfect intersection of these two ideas is to have a great execution of the right idea, that twists the words enough into something that ignites the imagination of a reader. Again, don’t try to do it on purpose.
It either happens or it doesn’t, and as a very biased party with regards to your own writing, you won’t be able to identify it either. You won’t feel as though there is something special about what you’re doing when it’s something that comes naturally, and it’s here that confidence comes into it. You will hate your words, but you need to have faith that subconsciously, you know how you speak and express yourselves better than you do when you think about it. When you talk to others, your words just come out without spending minutes to get the right ones there, and you sound like you.
It’s the time involved that gets us. Writing takes time, whether you’re writing by hand or typing. Your brain moves quicker than your fingers can, and that little bit of time gives you a world of thought that you don’t need and shouldn’t want. Ever had trouble falling asleep? Had your mind race over a number of things until it’s focused on “Am I ever going to sleep tonight?” Has that ever HELPED? Unlikely. The quickest way out of that cycle is to occupy your mind by doing something else, either a spot of reading, some TV or a game. Something passive, that your brain can be merely a receptor for.
It doesn’t need to do anything, and when it comes to expressing yourself, it usually isn’t required either.
Yes, your brain gets in the way.
If it needs something to do, it can think about plot, and character, and setting. It doesn’t need to think about the words that make up the sentence, because that should just come to you. If it needs more, have it stand guard and make sure you’re not letting cliches and idioms infiltrate your writing (because you don’t need more same-think).
This is where confidence is needed, and it may not make sense at first. You need to be confident in the fact that you know how to speak. You need to be confident in knowing you have lived your life so far, that you know how to read, and that you know what you like. You need to be confident that if you put the words you write aside for a time, that they won’t get worse, and that even if they’re not great, you don’t need to fix them right now.
Doubt will kill your muse. The time you spend worrying about whether you’re saying the right things, or if your characters are real enough or varied enough, or about how they all speak, is all counter-intuitive. The doubts will suffocate your momentum, and eventually you won’t be able to get the words out. It will also ruin your enthusiasm for whatever story it is, and you might end up in a situation where you feel like you need to finish that story, but can’t bring yourself to work on it. In essence, a lack of confidence has paralysed your writing.
So, brains off.
You can bring them back for the editing, after it’s been a while, and you’ve read through your work, and you can more objectively judge what you’ve done. You don’t need to get rid of your brain entirely, but while you’re writing, it will want to contribute, no matter how irrelevant it is to the process.