This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.
This is part 2. Part one is here. There will be more parts. Each one will include homework.
The commandments of Writing
- Start your story
- Finish your story
- Make your story better
Writers can have trouble with each one of these and the trouble is nearly always caused by some combination of these:
- The illusion of perfection
- Shiney new ideas
- Fear of failure
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of success
- Prioritizing other things
Some aspiring writers are full of wonderful ideas. They imagine beautiful plots and glorious character arcs and their characters have names and backstories and sassy dialogue but they never write any of it down. In their heads the story is perfect but they’re scared of spoiling the idea by pinning it down on paper.
Some writers start the story but then stall almost immediately. The more they write the more they hate the story. It’s not the way they imagined it. It’s not perfect
Destroy the illusion of perfection. Perfect is the enemy of good. And a story can’t be good until it’s finished. Go farther than that. Kill the idea of good or bad writing. Give yourself permission to suck. Start with a rough first draft or an outline. They don’t have to be good they just have to be written. You’re just finding the shape of the story. An outline is like an artist’s sketch. A rough first draft is like the Alpha build of a computer game. Once you have the shape of the story you can fill in the colour and the light and the shade.
During NaNoWriMo we have to deal with a phenomenon known as the week two wall. To write 50,000 words in 30 days it’s recommended to keep up a pace of at least 1667 words a day. Every year we see people keep up that pace with ease. They surprise themselves. They’re actually having fun. And then some time in the middle of week two it stops being fun. If they don’t keep pushing through the wall the writing stops completely. Some people give up at this point, some slow down but keep going. Some people decide that the problem is that the story is no good.They start a new one and then hit the wall two weeks later.
The wall happens because the thrill of the shiny new idea wears off. After more than a week of thinking about the same story it starts to seem boring. The writer loses faith in the idea. And then other ideas start to distract them. Newer ideas, shinier ideas, ideas that haven’t had a chance to get boring yet. Ideas that are still perfect.
The best way to deal with the lure of the new idea is to make a few notes about the new idea and then back to working on the current thing. By making notes you are making a promise to yourself that you’re not abandoning this new idea. You’re just putting it to one side for now.
Fear of failure can get in the way at every stage of writing. It makes some aspiring writers terrified of the blank page. Some get near the end but then can’t finish for fear of messing the story up. Some others can finish a first draft but then don’t dare to face it so they never edit.
Hold on to the idea that there is no failure in trying a thing and then that thing not working out like you hoped. That’s not failure that’s learning. If you write the story and the story sucks then you’ve learned one way not to tell that story. Your effort wasn’t wasted. It was practice. It was research.
Fear of rejection plagues writers when the work nears completion. If you finish a story then you have to show it to people and what if they don’t like it? For some writers the fear of rejection changes how they write. They pull their punches. The don’t write the story that is in their heart because they think people will judge them for it. Some writers don’t fear the rejection of their writing but the rejection of their identity as a writer. Sometimes people will hide that they even write. Historically some women writers concealed their writing. They pretended that they were sewing, or writing letters and they published under male pen-names.
Fear of success is usually a late stage writing problem. It makes writers avoid putting the final polish on their words. It’s why sometimes a writer will hesitate to call a work finished. It’s why some writers hold onto finished manuscripts and never show them to people. You might wonder why success would be scary. Didn’t I just say that writers fear failure and rejection? Why would success be scary too? Because when you succeed at something you sort of have to keep doing it. And now there’s an expectation of success. Success is a kind of responsibility.
Prioritizing other things is also known as “I don’t have time to write.” Almost everyone has time to write. It might not seem like that because your time is fully booked. That’s because it’s not natural for a human being to do nothing at all for more than a few minutes. We get uncomfortable if we are not occupied in some way. That’s why we all hate waiting so much. That’s why we have a word for boredom.
Right now all of your time is occupied in some way. It might be social media, or computer games, or dancing around your bedroom listening to loud music, or watching the same episode of your favourite show for the fourth time but it’s how you are choosing to use your time. Maybe that’s more important to you than writing. And that’s ok. People need to spend their time in the way that makes them happiest. But maybe writing would make you happier. Only you know. It’s up to you to decide if writing is a high enough priority to sacrifice the time that you are currently using for something else.
Your task is to name the problem. Which of the Commandments of Writing are you having trouble with? Is it just one? Is it all of them? Is it some more than others? What do you think is causing the trouble? Is it one of the causes that I pointed out? Is it several? Is it something else entirely?
Your previous homework was to research how your favourite writers deal with the problem of finishing things. Go back and look at that again and see if your favourite writers are dealing with the same problems as you. Remember that every writer is different so what works for them might not work for you. But it is a place to start. And if it doesn’t work then there are many other writers with many other solutions.