This is not a post on how to avoid the Rodent Liberation Front and its shock troops, the squirrels, though fans of my Shifter series probably would appreciate that as well.
This post was prompted by a question from one of my mentees who is very young in writing and who wanted to know what to do if he was plugging away on a story, and suddenly another story/set of characters/idea showed up and demanded his attention.
I thought this was an important question to answer because this is not an “if”, it’s a “I guarantee it will happen to you.” What’s more, I guarantee it will happen to you almost every time, at least if you are the sort of writer that gets ideas unbidden. (Some people aren’t. I remember at a con being on a panel with a young (very young) woman who said she’d write more, but she just didn’t have the ideas. (Yes, she was published and a pro.) I offered to send her some of my extras, and she was actually grateful, so it wasn’t a put on. (Un)fortunately I lost her address.)
Some of us, particularly those of us who are what my friend Kate calls “Gateway Writers” – i.e. full worlds/characters/ideas/plots/narration show up formed and ready to go – whose work comes from… their toes, their subconscious, another dimension, (pick one or, yes), and who have no idea at all what it’s going to be or what form it will take until it gets there, would never finish anything at all, if we didn’t make ourselves do it. In fact, we’d never work more than three days on anything at all.
This is quite normal for young (at art, not necessarily age) “Gateway Writers” who think of writing as a sort of divine gift (easy to do when the dang thing shows up fully formed and sort of imposes itself on you including the parts you think are stupid [Why in Heaven’s name is the prince’s name Potscrubber. That’s a stupid name. What do you mean that’s his name because that’s his name and if I change it, I can’t write the story? Okay then.]) They will spend ten years writing assiduously every day and at the end of it they find they have a million pages of five hundred disconnected chapters of sagas/novels/short stories/screen plays.
Now, the first thing you have to ask yourself, if you have this problem is if it’s a problem. (Something we could do with our government doing about things they propose to “fix.”) I mean, suppose you just won the lottery and you’re wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. If writing is your hobby and your consolation and you want to spend years just writing down the most interesting parts of whatever, is it a problem?
For most of us, the answer would be yes, even in that situation. Speaking for myself I want to take the “dream-image” and fix it in a form that is coherent and has a beginning, middle and end, so I can share it. Because writing is communication.
If it’s not a problem for you, depart from us in peace – you’re probably lucky. If it’s a problem, stick around. There are strategies to cope with this.
The first strategy is to be blunt with yourself. Whether you’re doing this for money (yes, I know, Heinlein maintained that to write other than for money is immoral, but I’m not that strict an Heinleinian. I’m more of the Church of Heinlein Reformed but Still Unrepentant.) or for glory, or for the love (we don’t really love writing. We just tell it that so we can get it out of our heads) or for the cash, guys/chicks, etc, writing is work. It just is.
I don’t really care if it’s art too. I tend to think of it more as a craft, because that allows me to tell myself I have more control over it (than I possibly do) and to study techniques which do show up later, even if subconscious.
I don’t care if you love, love, love, love writing. I don’t care if it gives you a tingle up your spine (or your leg.)
Tell yourself over and over again: Writing is work. Writing is a job.
To accomplish whatever goal you want to with your writing, you have to be able to finish pieces. To finish pieces you have to treat it as work.
I don’t care how much you love your work, have you ever called your boss and said “I’m not coming in today. I just don’t feel it. Normally I get this rush, but… not today.” Or have you ever gone in and said “Today I’m not working on the Johnson account. The Smith account is just more exciting to me today”? Of course not. A job is a job. No matter how much you love it, some days you won’t feel like doing it. No matter how much you love a given project, some days another project will seem more attractive. But you still have to finish the project. You still have to show up to work, or you won’t accomplish your goals of getting paid.
So, the first thing about writing is – it’s work. There are days you’re not going to “feel” it. If at all possible try to write every day. If at all possible, try to write every day at the same time.
If there is no possible way you can do that, then try to set a schedule for writing anyway. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make you feel a’tistic. Tell you what, I give you permission to wear pink smocks the rest of the time, and to sit around with your head in your hands, just aching with inchoate creativity, okay?) Say write on Wednesday evenings, or Saturday afternoons. I had many years when my writing was done every morning before six am (and I’m NOT a morning person. I learned to be) for about an hour at a time, and then on Saturdays when I’d finished cleaning the house.
The reason for this is that your brain is as much a creature of habit as anything else, and if you get it used to doing this every day at a time, it will be ready.
Then work on whatever you have started. Just do it. Some of us – and depending on how long it’s been – have to read back on what’s behind. Others just pick up where they left off. But just open whatever you’ve started and work on it until it’s finished. Then go on to something else.
But what if the something is so loud in your head you can’t work on what’s started?
I’ve been known to allot myself time, outside of the normal writing hours (this is important) to do some work to shut up the loud thing. Sometimes it’s enough to write down the idea in a page (maybe that only works for me because I trained my ideas to obey the query/proposal/book schedule for years.) Just the assurance it won’t slip away is often enough to quiet it down. Another thing that works is writing the opening, telling it firmly you’ll come back in a week/two/a month, then going back to your project.
I won’t lie to you. Sometimes none of this works, and you have to write the thing. I’ve been known to write “off” pieces (usually short stories/novellas) in my “off” time and late into the night, just to have it leave me alone. But I keep the writing time holy and confine it to the project I must finish it, because I must finish it.
A longer project – and for me shorts/novellas are short-term projects, taking at most a couple of days – is like a marriage. If you abandon your marriage every time something hotter goes sauntering by, you’ll end up not having any marriage – and if you do that with projects, you’ll never be published/have readers. Tell that to the passengers in your head. Tell them if they want to live in other people’s heads they have to wait their turn like good little boys/girls/dragons/centaurs/aliens.
Like a long-term relationship, your started story might seem stale and boring, because you know its boundaries and its limits and its scope, while the new-new thing will be hot/exciting/cool, because it’s new and you don’t know where it will lead. But trust me, if you go off chasing the new new thing, it too will turn stale, and all you’ll have when you’re done is a string of a few pages of each thing. On the other hand, if you stick with the “old thing” you’ll discover depths unfathomable to the story-one-night-stander and find that it has rewards you couldn’t even have dreamed of. (Most long term relationships too.)
But, what if, to stretch the metaphor, this long term relationship is no good. What if you wrote just enough into the novel to loathe its guts and know everyone else will too.
Well, this is where the long term relationship metaphor breaks. Some relationships are just bad. Yeah, okay, some novels are too. The difference is that when you’re in the novel you don’t know. While when you’re in a LTR, you dang well know if it’s bad or good (even when you lie to yourself.)
Here’s the thing, halfway through every novel I’ve ever written I’ve thought it was the worst thing ever to kill innocent electrons over, and that it stunk on ice. It was trite, contrived, and every single one of my words was badly chosen, and why on Earth had I started this, anyway? EVERY single novel. (Sometimes twice per novel – one third, then two thirds of the way through.) Don’t believe me? Ask my betas/support group who threaten to beat me if I don’t just shut up and go on and stop bellyaching.
Just finish it! Finish it. Nine times out of ten, halfway through, it will come back to life and you’ll discover how to do/what something is doing there, and you’ll get all excited again. Call it a second honeymoon.) The other time in ten, you’ll finish it and set it aside, and move on to something else. About half the time, you’ll pick up that story week/month/year later, look at it and go “D*mn, that’s brilliant. Might be the best thing I’ve ever written. Why did I think it was bad?” The other half you’ll go “There’s something wrong I can’t put my finger on.” And then… sometimes years later, in the middle of doing something else (like brushing the cats) you’ll get a flash and go “Oh. All I have to do is make the girl an alien” and then you do a quick rewrite, and voila, you have a great novel. In the few cases this doesn’t happen, you still end up cannibalizing bits and pieces of the discarded novel, so it’s not wasted.
The reason you can’t judge a novel (or short) when you’re too close to it, is that the illusion we work with words is just that: an illusion. What you actually work with (and veteran writers know this) is emotions. What the readers want is to experience emotions outside their normal scope. The problem with emotions is that when you’re writing them, you’re IN them, and you’ve either dulled yourself to them, or you are experiencing them to strongly to be rational about the work.
So you should always finish it THEN evaluate it. (And send it to betas. You are never the best judge. Look at how many of your favorite authors’ favorite books are the ones that sold the least. Just because it satisfies the writer, it doesn’t mean it will have the longest reach.)
Now, stop reading this and go finish your stories. One by one (like Juan Valdez) or two by two (if you must and moonlight to finish that loud and shrill little novelette.) Just finish them. The rest will take care of itself.
If you never finish anything you’ll never know how bad you can be, but you’ll never know how good you can be either. Finish it. Give yourself a chance.