Advice to a Young Writer Part 2

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

  1. Start your story
  2. Finish your story
  3. Make your story better
  4. Repeat

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.

Homework

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.

The joys of NaNoWriMo prep.

I’m running out of time to have some sort of coherent outline for this year’s NaNo novel. The thing is mutating fast. It’s gone from being set in the present to being set in 1985 to being set in 2015, 1985 and 1785 all at once.

Characters are changing. Some of them are turning into complete arseholes. Some are developing unexpectedly tragic backstories. Some are growing spines I did not expect them to have.

The story is getting dark and developing an unexpected theme. Of course that could all disappear once I start writing the thing. It could all just dissolve into a soup of nostalgia and jokes about the terrible hairstyles of the 1980s. It could also end up getting painfully personal for me. I really did not enjoy being a teenager and that’s bound to come out.

I should also really be finishing the current draft of an entirely different novel while I still can but I’m not sure I can write an epic  3 stage fight scene and a denouement in the remaining 3 days of October.

The hardest part of writing.

Years and years ago I thought the hardest part of being a writer must be coming up with the ideas. The truly good ones seemed to be so few and far between and how could you ever think up a whole plot and find names for characters and places. Invention seemed like a superpower. I thought that once you had a really good idea the actual writing must flow quite easily.

Later I realised that the hardest part of being a writer must be writing that first draft. Overcoming that fear of the empty page. Daring to risk your ideas not coming out the way you imagined. I thought that once that first draft was over the editing and the polishing must be relatively easy. After all the work was mostly done.

Then I realised that editing both sucks and blows and that you can’t even start polishing until you’ve done all the re-writing. Oh God, the re-writing. Ideas are easy, writing the first draft is fun, editing is like being beaten to death with your own manuscript. But once the thing is done you just have to send it out. How hard could that be?

Turns out – really fucking hard. First you have to find agents/publishers that are willing to admit to an interest in whatever weird combination of genres you’re writing. Then you have to come up with a synopsis of the right length and an extract of however many pages they like in whatever format they prefer. Sometimes they want a CV. And they all need a covering/query letter. How the fuck do you write those? Why can’t I just say “Here’s my novel. I worked really hard. You’ll like it if you like the sort of thing that it is.”?

By now you maybe noticing a pattern. If I ever do attract an agent then it’s going to turn out to be just the start of my troubles. Because here’s the biggest secret about writing. The hardest part is always the part you are doing right now or are about to begin doing. The easy parts are always the part you’ve just finished or the part that’s so far off in the future that it might as well be on another planet.

How much is too much?

I have a massive problem when I’m writing, particularly when I’m writing a first draft. The problem is that I know there’s a line but I don’t know when I’ve crossed it and I can’t stop caring about that. I know I that the first draft is not the time to be worrying about where the line is. I know that the line is different for every story and that until the story is done it might not be possible to work out where the line is but I can’t help wondering.

It doesn’t help that I can’t entirely quantify what the line is marking. The closest I can get is to say that it’s the too much line. But too much of what? Too cute? Too clever? Too crazy? Too meta? Probably some combination of all of them. Perhaps just too much like how I actually think?

But the problem isn’t that there’s a line. It’s that I can’t see it while I’m writing and I can’t stop worrying that I’ve gone over it. When you’re deep in a draft and your entire cast of apparently mundane spies is in some magical pocket dimension crossing wits with Celtic heroes and ancient Gods it’s too late to worry if you’re over the line. You just have to finish the damn thing and then decide later if the final third of the novel needs a total re-write.

Or maybe my problem is that my writing exists entirely on the wrong side of the line? In which case fuck the line.

The wall

The honeymoon period is over.  For a while I was driven to write and the story was almost telling itself but no more. Now I have hit the wall. Sorry, that’s probably not dramatic enough.

THE WALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Slightly better.

When I’m writing as part of NaNoWriMo we call it the week two wall because that’s when most people hit it. I don’t think it’s a function of time or of word count. I think it’s a kind of mental fatigue and I think it’s a function of story. When you’re deep in creation you’re using something up and that something runs out long before the story does.

It’s easy to stop at this point – to blame the story or decide that you’re not really a writer. I suppose it’s possible to stop and then come back later when the whatever-it-is is replenished but that’s a risky strategy. The thing that works for me is to keep going. To fake creativity until the real thing comes back.

This is the part of writing that is most definitely not fun. This feels like slogging through thigh-deep mud with lead boots on. This is two hours of writing, doing a word count, and discovering that you’ve typed 230 words. This is the part that drives writers to drink and ruin.

This is where I am now. I’m trying to fix the B plot, I feel like I don’t know the characters well enough, I don’t know the shape of the story, I’m not sure what the landscape looks like, and the whole thing links back into the A plot in time for a massive fight that I am looking forward to writing. But I can’t skip ahead to that yet because I don’t know who will survive the B plot long enough to get to that scene.

I’m trying to look on the bright side. At least today I can stop writing long enough to cook supper.

Things I hate about writing: Timelines

Why must my characters be limited by the bounds of time and space? Why? Why can’t they just teleport from A to B? Why do I need to find time for my villain to do his/her villainy? Why can’t they just nip away while the hero is in the loo? Why can’t a task take as long as it needs to take in order for it to finish just as my hero arrives?

Of course this is pure hypocrisy. I’m the first to shake my fist at the sky and scream, “My immersion!” whenever I see people riding from Dover to Nottingham in two hours or when the killer is someone who’s never been out of sight or when Jack Bauer fights a continuous running battle for 24 hours without ever stopping to urinate.

In real life stuff takes as long as it takes. It’s easy to miss that when you’re writing.  When you’re telling a story things have to happen in a certain order or there’s no story. That means some things are happening simultaneously but you can’t write them simultaneously. You can only write one scene at a time.

In my current work in progress that means:

  • The person who steals the mobile morgue (and all the red herring characters) had better not be in full view of other characters during the short time between the body being put in the freezer and the morgue being stolen.
  • The amount of time for my protagonist to drive to the hospital, visit the wounded and come back to confront his boss must be believably less than the time it takes for the experts summoned before he left to arrive.
  • Therefore the hospital now has to be inside the M25.
  • Therefore the Tower of London is now a less powerful magical beacon than I thought.

A better organised writer would have written the Timeline at the start of the process. But how can you do that if you don’t know what the story is yet? I can only write the way that I can write an that means that now, with the story three quarters plotted, and half the scenes written, I have to stop and work out exactly how many hours between a spy waking up next to a headless body and an epic battle for the soul of an ancient goddess.

It wasn’t writer’s block.

I was right about my problem not being writer’s block but I was wrong about the way to deal with it. It turned out that the way out was through. The problem that I was having (and I can’t believe it took me so long to realise this) was that I was killing a character and I didn’t want to.

I don’t hold with killing a character just to motivate the others, or to prove that you can, or because you’re bored with them, or because George RR Martin does it so that must be what real writers do. But sometimes you do have to kill one of them so that the survival of the others has meaning.

I’ve been working on a scene that’s part of an extended chase. My guys are being pursued by monstrous foes as they hurl themselves headlong in the direction of the Antagonist. It’s a scene of high peril. If I don’t kill off at least one of them then it will rob the scene of that peril. Their ultimate success will have no meaning. It will seem cheapened. By killing one of them I tell the reader that I’m willing to kill any of them and that makes the risk real.

None of which changes the fact that it sucks for the poor guy or girl who has to die. They’ve done nothing to deserve it. If they were a weak or stupid they would have died far earlier in the chase. I’ve given them the best send off that I can. I’ve made them matter. I’ve made them interesting. Their death is going to hurt the readers just as it hurts the rest of the characters. They will be mourned and memorialized. This loss will mentally scar characters that aren’t even in this book.